How to draw faces: an experiment in learning.

I’ve been thinking about learning something new, but wondering how long it’s going to take. Some things, like learning to use a new bit of software, are pretty quick, or at least, pretty quick to become reasonably competent at, but other things, like learning a language, are much harder and take much longer.

I want to learn to draw faces. I’m not a bad painter, and can sketch a passable house or landscape, but i have never been able to draw faces. I’ve only tried about twice, and they were dreadful, so i’ve been wondering how long it would take me to learn to draw faces.

I was in Leicester Square recently, where there were a collection of easels set up, each one staffed by an artist, who would draw your portrait in twenty minutes. The portraits on display, pencil sketches, were frankly brilliant. Not necessarily ‘creative’ in terms of style, but clearly expert in representing the person sat in front of them. I’m sure how long it would take you to get that good, but i’d imagine that if you spent all day doing it, every day, you’d achieve a level of competence pretty quickly.

Well, i’m not going to spend all day every day, but i am going to spend ten minutes a day. For sixty days. Then we’ll see how i do. You can follow my progress on a site i’ve set up here:

I’m carrying out a piece of research at the moment, looking at Learning Habits, and once this is complete, i’ll write the results up here – our first piece of community based research, but for the moment i have just done a preliminary study. This has identified six ways that people try to learn things. They ‘have a go’, they read a book, they talk to friends, they talk to experts, they look online and they go on a course. I’m going to have a go at all of these things, over the next sixty days, and write a diary of how i get on.

I’ve got a notebook, with sixty pages, one for each day, and will record my thoughts, learning methods and results each day.

I have to tell you that Day 1 isn’t a pretty affair. I’m hoping that things will improve by day 60, although it’s perfectly possible that i’m simply incompetent, and that, in itself, will be a perfectly valid lesson (although not particularly exciting for the audience, i realise).

Conceptually, it’s easy to understand how we learn. We recognise a distinct skill set that is needed, we learn the ‘techniques’ that are used, the ways to ‘cheat’, the different approaches that people take and, ultimately, we develop firstly an emulated style and then, finally, our own style.

Sometimes people skip the first steps and launch straight into their own styles. Alfred Wallace (1855-1942) was a deep sea fisherman and later marine scrap trader in St Ives, Cornwall. He never picked up a paintbrush in his life. But after his wife died in 1922, he started to paint. To ‘keep himself company’.

He had no idea of perspective or scale, so he simple ignored them and drew in his own style. He never learnt how to draw, then consciously rejected it, he simply never learnt it. He wasn’t a rebel. The phrase applied to his art is ‘naive’ art. He taught himself to paint, never consulting anyone, so he never learnt to do it ‘properly’ and never consciously developed a style (

Of course, if i copy Wallace’s style, then i’m learning to draw like him. No different from learning to draw like Turner or the Pre Rafaelites. Luckily, i’m not looking to define a new genre of face painting, i’m simply hoping to master the basics. I’d like to become competent, so the bar is set considerably lower for me.

The first steps of learning to draw faces is a simple geometric understanding of ‘how things fit together’. From there, who knows! Maybe learning to use shadow and shade to define features. That’s what i’ve got to learn.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
This entry was posted in Drawing, Inspiration, Learning, Motivation and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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