On Drawing Portraits from Life

Recently, I have been drawing some charcoal portraits for my project Words and taking it up again – after a break – I noticed various stages/aspects of drawing unique to the encounter that I was not able to pinpoint earlier. Most of all, I clearly realised why drawing people from life was so very special and why it meant so much (for me).

Over a period of a year or so, I have done around twenty portraits for the project – some of the people I knew well, some of them I met only for the occasion of drawing. The scenario is always the same; they sit and look straight at me, I tell them the questions if they didn’t prepare for them as yet, and the drawing begins. The whole process takes about one to two hours depending on circumstances, mainly on my ability to concentrate. 


Right from the start, I try to kind of “map” one’s face, a shape of their head and a hair – paying attention to an overall form sitting in front of me. I do it quickly without any pressure, just drawing for fun; moving slowly from the outline of the head to the actual face, touching briefly the eyes, position of a mouth, a nose – which is always so strangely looking – a collection of shadows. I consciously try not to look too much into details, not to get too confused (e.g.) by an irregular curve of their lips, light triangle under their left eyebrows or a huge “empty” landscape of their cheeks. 

At this stage there is very often – almost regularly – a moment when glimpsing at the person I am drawing I think to myself: Oh God, if he/she saw the image now, they would burst laughing! There is no actual resemblance, proportions are all wrong, everything is misplaced, sketchy image is far from the person in flesh and blood looking at me. 

I do not say it out loud but this thought gets me nervous, all the lightheartedness goes away and I really start to pay a concentrated attention, getting closer to the person and trying to see what is there. 

From that moment on I feel the air a bit heavier than before, there is a distance between me and the other person which slowly dissolves in the process, my original shyness goes away and I do not hesitate to look very closely at selected parts of their face. 

And then, there is that very special moment which always leaves me touched. As they are sitting there with no room to hide, calm and already accustomed to the process, I look at their eyes and our eyes connect; but I am not looking at them, I feel like looking beyond the colour of their pupils. At that very moment I really feel that I see them as they are, which is way more complex than a pure simplification into words. And I forget the drawing, forget the charcoal on a paper, the hand is moving almost by itself, the space between us shorten, those previous layers of “something” melt down and disappear; together we are there as we really are. 

Those moments do not last for long and they do not happen with everyone; they appear and then they might be replaced by more analytical thoughts trying to solve out concrete problems of the image. But when they do happen, they have my special attention and the whole drawing experience is lift up to another level, more serious one. 

After finishing the portrait, no matter how close we were with the other person in the beginning of the session, we are closer now. It seems that the quiet time we spent together got transformed into a secret bond. Something like: Hey you, you remember? 

So what makes drawing portraits from life so special? 

For me, it is definitely the time the person and I spent together, the fact that he/she is looking straight at me unable to “run away” with their eyes, so we are all the time present at the same space; a lack of activity required from them, no tasks to perform, no need to “perform” anything, just to be there and be open; and that sometimes I get fortunate to really see them. 

Lastly, eloquent words of Georgia O’Keeffe that came to my mind while writing this post: “Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”



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