The 100 Day Project: Portrait Drawing Practice
100 Days of Drawing Practice
There's a neat creative challenge over on Instagram called 'The 100 Day Project'. The premise is simple: Do something every single day for a hundred days. Of course, I went with drawing - because drawing every single day for clients, projects and the like just isn't the same as conscious, focused practice over an extended period of time.
Consistency is great for getting better at any skill, and just by doing art-related tasks every single day you can slowly improve.
I can't remember a day over the last couple of years on which I didn't draw.
Sometimes there'd be elaborate commission pieces. For a long stretch of time (several years) I'd draw comic pages every single day. I went to art school with a focus on technical drawing and illustration. I love sketching. I doodle in my journal. Even when using Photoshop for digital work, there's a graphic tablet pen in my hand.
10'000 hours of practice
I often get comments along the lines of 'how nice to have such a talent' or 'I could never draw like this' and I would disagree whole-heartedly! Drawing and painting are thought of as a skill you're born with and that can't be learned if you don't have the 'talent', which can be incredibly discouraging if you develop an interest in arts (or have time for arts!) only at a later point in life. A lot of artists look talented because they've pursued drawing and painting as a hobby since they were young and the practice does add up.
Even the greatest artist of all time had to spend hours and years practicing, and while some people might be better at observation, have a very vivid imagination or are more attuned to their creativity than others, I'd still argue that this happens as and because they spend a lot of time being creative, observing nature, imagining new motives, and drawing.
Case in point?
- After a week - or even a couple of days - of only drawing digital line arts, my watercolor sketches are a mess.
- After drawing flowers, human faces are a complete mystery to me and look crooked.
- After just doodling random sketches while traveling, I seem to have forgotten how to draw balanced lines for real illustrations.
- Or the opposite: After a day of drawing, everything goes smoothly. My mind and body become immersed in what I'm doing. After an entire week of drawing comics, being focused on storylines and storyboards, characters and settings, it's all the easier to come up with even more ideas, better plotlines, and the drawings look a lot more dynamic and alive, facial expressions more fitting... because my brain has been occupied with all of those for so long, and continues to mull over problems even while I'm washing dishes or trying to fall asleep.
The more time you spend focused on creativity (or any task, really), the easier it will be to stay focused, to have new ideas, better ideas and to develop skills.
If I spend the entire day working in one medium (like doing pencil drawings or inking comic pages, or just painting) I'll be much better by the time evening comes. After a certain time, it is as if my hands and my eyes had their 'warm up' and everything goes so much smoother.
It's known that athletes need to warm up their muscles, go through the same exercises again and again, to just keep up a skill level.
Musicians do scales and tune their instruments (and ears).
When speaking a foreign language you haven't used in awhile, you'll need time to get back into it.
Drawing is exactly the same. Don't be discouraged if the first 30 minutes of doodling don't produce a masterpiece - my first drawings of the day are always a bit stiff and I'll have to correct proportions or perspective a lot more than later on that same day.
Two Ways of Getting Better at Drawing (or anything):
So there are two ways of improving as an artist, or in any field:
- Learn, practice and master new skills
- Consistently practice and use old skills
Once upon a time, I learned 'how to draw portraits'. I read books with that very title. I looked at proportions. I practiced drawing portraits both with and without reference pictures.
Then I went on to draw manga comics, and my knowledge of drawing people without references, from different perspectives and - especially - with different facial expressions, got deeper.
My art style developed in two quite opposite directions:
- Abstracted, simplified (but very detailed) comic drawings: expressive, dynamic and easy to draw for me without any references, mostly black and white ink drawings.
- Realism (as part of my Science Illustration art school background), very detailed, with reference material, color studies.
After finishing my last comic book project two years ago and shifting to freelance illustration, these two polar art styles have slowly mixed again. I love drawing colorful, slightly abstract, whimsical and detailed illustrations.
But I'd mostly 'forgotten' about drawing portraits and people in general. My freelance work consisted of landscapes, of detailed flatlay illustrations, of floral patterns, children's picture books with animal protagonists, coloring books... with about 0.01% human beings. While on all other fronts my two art styles have mixed and mingled, my portrait drawing skills are still strictly separated into 'manga' and 'realism from reference'.
Which is what you can see me struggle with for the next 100 days. Yay!
I'm mostly just drawing whatever I fancy on any given day, but I do tend to create little series of two to four images. It's similar to the 'do something all day long and you'll be better at it and more immersed' - trying different approaches to one theme or style teaches me more than just quickly dabble in it and then move on.
My first 'series' were simple watercolor portraits dancing between manga style and semi-realism (I should probably call it 'prettyism'). While I didn't use references for the faces themselves, I did consult different images of, for example, noses. Or lips. Different ways of drawing eyes.
I'm actually quite happy with the practice I got from these! The last one here (a fanart for Strange The Dreamer by Laini Taylor) doesn't only look better than my first attempts, but also seems to convey more atmosphere and emotion.
And what you can't see: It was so much easier to paint the later ones! I struggled less and less, had to erase fewer attempts and felt more confident in what I wanted the result to look like. I became quicker, too, which is why the later ones look more elaborate - I just got more drawing done in less time.
After drawing fan art based on a book, I had the urge to draw more characters I loved... so I switched medium and picked up my colored pencils!
A long time ago in art school, we practiced drawing on gray or black backgrounds for very delicate, realistic shading studies. My attempt here was much quicker and rougher, but all the more fun!
Naomi Nagata is a character from my beloved 'The Expanse' book series, and I used a picture of Dominique Tipper who plays the character in the TV adaption as reference for this study.
Then, I cheated.
Really. I had this half-finished Kylo Ren drawing lying on my desk for months now and this was the perfect excuse to correct some facial feature fails (FFF ™) and finish the drawing.
Also, I was so hyped for Star Wars thanks to the new trailer and really needed some space-fantasy-escapism.
Aaaand down the rabbit-hole of fan art I went with some more quick sketches. That Kylo Ren drawing had me notice that I hadn't yet drawn a single male portrait, so I tried to sketch the Rogue One cast.
One problem here: I'd drawn Jyn Erso first, but forgot to put a paper or textile under my hand while painting... if you've ever tried painting on watercolor paper that has been rubbed over and over again by your own hand, you know what kind of struggle that creates. The paper didn't absorb my watercolors and especially Diego Luna suffered for it. I gave up - but I'll try again soon!
Practice Drawing With Different Media
Another series came about thanks to a commission. I'll be drawing an illustration of a lady in Hanbok, so I used my #the100dayproject daily sketches to practice different styles, facial expressions and collect reference material.
The first was a quick attempt at a 'traditional' Korean painting style. This is definitely a style that would benefit from me creating a series of maybe five illustrations to get the brush strokes and patterns right... I've got 75 days more to fill, so there we go.
This is a pencil study for the facial expression the lady in the final illustration will have. Serene and peaceful.
You can clearly see how I switch back to my manga art style as soon as I use line drawings instead of color/shapes. It's just what comes naturally to me at this time... I'll have to practice shading with pencil to achieve expressive faces in the future.
On that note: These pencil drawings with some minimal shading that I then painted over with watercolors were lots of fun! This technique is definitely what comes easiest to me! It's quick, leaves me room to correct and erase the drawing in the beginning but then forces me to improvise with the colors.
Also, if you practice drawing portraits: Try drawing the eyes both open and closed. I tend to focus too much on the eyes when they're open, so closing them and allowing the rest of the face to take the spotlight helps me shift my attention.
These last four drawings were drawn in-between the other ones.
I'm working on a series of historical fashion illustrations to be used as coloring pages, too. The line drawings for these are again a mix of manga with some other style influences. I tried to keep the faces simple to leave room for creative coloring!
I already started coloring two of them. It's strange to color in pen outlines after having used watercolors liberally on top of rough pencil sketches.
Coloring in a line drawing can be great practice, though! It allows you to focus on just the color combinations, shading, saturation and lighting, instead of having to think about proportions and perspective at the same time.