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Oh, Those Curls!

That was my thought when a potential customer contacted me to see if I would be interested in drawing a portrait commission of her granddaughter, Ella. Of the two photos she sent me, one captured my attention immediately. (The other photo was just too small to be able to adequately see the detail I would need for an accurate portrait.) Ella had this beautiful mass of wet curls that I knew would be a challenge, yet I was excited to take it on.

The photo also had fantastic lighting. The sun was coming from the side casting extremely interesting shadows across her neck & chest. Even without those great shadow shapes, side lighting is a good choice for a portrait drawing as the transition from light to shadow across the face helps to enhance the three-dimensional form of the head & features.

I began by enlarging the photo to get it as close as possible to fit the finished dimensions requested by the client. For working in black & white, I may also convert the photo to black & white to assist with accurate rendering of the values. It is important to note that the camera 'sees' all the values in a particular scene and chooses the best 'average' exposure. This is not necessarily what the viewer sees or what makes for the best portrait, so this photo is a basic guide, and as the artist, I adjust values during the drawing process, as necessary.

The first stage of the portrait drawing
Note the line pattern of the hair

I may convert the photo to a line drawing on the computer to help me to see basic shapes within the image. This is what I transfer to the drawing surface. For a pencil drawing, I prefer to work on Bristol board with a light tooth (texture). I typically begin by adding some value to areas that will be relatively dark. I also like to begin to establish the eyes of my subject. I find, for me, that once the subject is “looking” at me, I form a relationship with him/her that keeps me focused and engaged.

Slowly, I begin to build the values. I prefer to build the overall drawing as opposed to working on one specific area. Values are relative to the values that surround them, so as one area becomes darker, adjustments are made to the other values. Building the three-dimensional form of the subject is vital so I start to establish that relationship relatively early in the drawing process. I do this to create the curve of her cheek, the roundness of her nose & neck, and then on to those luscious curls!

This is where that early line drawing becomes so helpful. It is quite easy to become lost in the many shapes that define the curls. I look for some dominant shapes that communicate “curl”. Unlike when as children we attempted to draw individual hairs, here I look for shapes within the hair, not individual strands. I seek out masses of dark or light that fit together like puzzle pieces. You will notice in the image to the right that I have 2 photos of the subject on my drawing board. The lower one has been lightened considerably to allow me to see into the dark areas of Ella’s hair for subtle shapes so that large dark areas of her hair do not become too solid in the drawing. Although the subject had very dark hair, it was important to pay close attention to the highlights as well. The contrast of light and dark within the curls were critical to conveying the sunlight as well as the volume of her curls. I continued to evaluate values throughout the process, even buying softer pencils to achieve stronger darks. It became a balancing act to create the illusion of her very dark hair, without going so dark that I lost the essence of ‘hair’.

Finally, I needed to be careful with the shadows from her hair being cast on her face and neck. In the photo they appeared quite dominant. It was important to include them to create the sense of strong sunlight, but not let them become too strong that they detracted from her face.

Portrait drawing in graphite pencil of little girl with curls
"Ella", graphite pencil, 14 x 11, private commission

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