Portraying different ages
As a portrait artist you have to assess correctly the age of the face in front of you that it can be shown without causing the sitter to feel that you have made them look older or younger. Making people look younger is not normal a problem because most of us have an image of ourselves as younger then we are in reality. The hardest individuals to draw, oddly enough, are the very young. First and foremost, they can’t pose for you. Secondly, baby faces have very little in the way of distinctive features and therefore are very difficult to make interesting. As I hope you will see from the following series of drawings, the older we become the richer are the opportunities for the artist. (Unless stated otherwise, a B grade pencil was used for all the pencil drawings in these series.)
4 weeks: Drawing a young baby is a very salutary exercise, because the features at this age are not too distinctive. The most sensible way of tackling a portrait of this sort is to wait until the baby is fast asleep and then concentrate on placing the eyes, nose, mouth and ears accurately relative to the whole head.
6 months: At this age the face is becoming a bit more distinctive, because of a widening repertoire of expressions and the addition of hair. Pen and ink is not ideal for drawing a child this young, but as this was a spontaneous portrait I used what was to hand.
In Gainsborough’s marvellous portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland the arrangement does not attempt to disguise the fact that the young wife is much taller than her princely military husband. The full-length figures stop the picture being intimate. There is a definite ‘swagger’ effect, as the pair seem to be stepping out in public to show themselves off.
This sort of drawing needs a feathery, rather impressionistic touch with the pencil, using loose lines but observing the shapes as accurately as possible so that the lines don’t become too arbitrary. A considered effort to draw in the soft, feathery lines works better than making swift, dashing strokes.
The tall elongated triangle of the duchess makes a strong, vertical base shape for the rounder ellipse of her husband.
3 years: It is not easy to get young children to sit still for long, which is why drawings of them are often small. Luckily this model managed not to wriggle for about five minutes at a time, giving me just long enough to capture his clear, bright, lively expression. His eyes and mouth moved a lot, so I also took a photograph to help me in the finished pencil drawing. The technique is careful and as exact as possible. The expression is easy enough if you get the proportions of eyes, nose and mouth correct within the shape of the head; the proportions at this age is unlike that of the adult head, the chin being much smaller in proportion to the rest of the skull.
4 years: Two tones of conte’ pencil were put in carefully with as light a touch as possible to produce this example on toned paper. The hair is smooth and relatively easy to draw. The main interest is in the face, with the eyes particularly arresting, and the soft blurred look of the snub nose and soft mouth. The tone over the side of the face and around the nose and mouth had to be put in fairly lightly to prevent the surface looking harsh or angular. The absence of sharp edges in the features meant that the pencil had to be gently stroked onto the paper.
5 years: Ink is a difficult medium for a face as unformed as this and so the style had to be fairly loose and fluid. I used sweeping lines to prevent them looking too dry and technical. Ink does not allow a lot of subtle variations but its very simplicity can give a drawing great strength.
6 years: In this small sketch with a ballpoint pen I was interested in capturing the shape of the head and the dimensional effect of the large area of shadow and the bright areas catching the light. The features are drawn simply in line to show through the overall texture of shadow. At this age the features are becoming better defined, allowing the use of a stronger line.
13 years: In this example in ink the toned paper gives a slightly heavy look to the face which, although still soft and relatively unmarked by experience, has a slightly stronger bone structure and a look expressive of the mood swings that beset adolescents.
15 years : The face has the clarity and charm of youth but in the expression there is a hint of deeper knowledge. Drawing a portrait of this age group is not easy for the artist and is largely a question of what you leave out rather than what you put in. Often you can end up making your subject look older than young adults who are several years their senior. The beauty of the form demands clarity in the drawing. Further than this you have to try to express in some way the expectant feelings that girls of this age experience.
16 years: At this age the features are complete in form and full of life, strongly marked but still fresh and untouched by real anxieties. A light touch is required. Here the features are clearly drawn and there was an opportunity for making much of the hairstyle.
20 years: There is plenty of form to draw at this age and the greater maturity in style and carriage provides opportunities for interest. The beard growth and sculpted bones showing through help to define the age nicely. A 28 grade pencil was used in addition to a B grade.
25 years: The personality is now developed and tends to come through in any drawing in any style. As before the features and head shape have to be kept clear and definite, but you will have to pay careful attention to detail to convey distinctive nuances of expression and attitude.
33 years: In the thirties, experience of the world begins to tell on the face. The artist needs to identify the main characteristics of the subject and then bring into it all the subtle psychological variations that are shown in expression, habitual lines on the face and ambiguity in the projection of personality.
50 years: At the half century mark the artist is presented with a range of experience to emphasize or play down. You can opt for craggy weathered surfaces, volatile expressions of emotion, the more benign influences registered on the face or a more generalized form that reduces the wear and tear to a texture of soft marks. Whatever you decide, it will not be difficult to see how to put down the structure. At this age there is plenty to draw. The media used were B and 28 grade pencils.
70 years: The features show very definite marks by this age. Lines are firmly engraved on the face and dilapidation of the surface textures and hair is very evident. However, if the person’s experience has been in the main of a pleasant nature the face will have wisdom, benignity and, often, good humor. All is revealed and is not difficult to draw.
80 years: This particular subject is very well preserved and sprightly, but with all the lines and wrinkles associated with old age. Her expression shows what she is like; it is almost as impossible to dissimulate at this age as it is at the very youngest. The artist is presented with a map of a whole career, which can be fascinating to draw. Careful drawing is required to get across the texture of the features and the expression. The media used were B and 28 grade pencils and a stub.
In the following pages we look at some examples of the changing ages of humanity as seen through the eyes of some of the great artists. In earlier periods people may have aged more quickly because life was physically much harder, and so someone depicted in their middle years will look far older than they would now. However, if you study these remarkable portraits purely for the way the subtle signs of youth or age are shown on the human face, you will find them immensely instructive. Some will look almost elementary in their simplicity. Closer examination will reveal the tremendous skill it takes to reduce complex subtle effects to such a degree.
Every mark you make on a drawing gives some information; even if it is just that you are unsure of what you’ve seen. In every observations is paramount. Never forget this: the best results always derive from observation and attention at detail, as the work of the artists proves.
Velazquez’s portrait of the five-years-old infant of Spain captures the innocence of early childhood. The sweetness of her expression contrasts with the dark background and her stiff formal dress, accentuating her innocence. Soft black pencil (B) and graphite stick (2B) were used for this copy. With the exception of the edges of the eyes and the dress, the lines were kept sparse and light. The broad edge of the graphite produced the dusky background tones.
Jean Cocteau’s brilliant line drawing of Jean Desbordes, who was about 17 at the time, captures the softness of youth together with a certain gangly self-consciousness in the downcast head and glance. The slightly wayward hair and loosely tied necktie adds to the air of youthful carelessness. The key to the drawing is the absence of tone and the thin, continuous wavy lines. My copy was drawn with a 01 Japanese pigment ink pen.
This copy of a portrait of Gabrielle d’Estrees by a follower of Francois Clouet was executed by carefully stroking on lines of soft B and 2B pencil. In some areas chalk was carefully put in. Sharp lines have been applied only around the eyes, nostrils and mouth. Clouet reveals her as a wary and self-composed beyond her 18 years, and yet we are not convinced this is more than a pose.
Lucian Freud’s drawing of a young man in his early twenties emphasize large hands and long features, giving an angular awkwardness to an otherwise composed and calm portrait. In this copy the pencil lines are incisive with minimal shading. The herringbone pattern on the jacket was done with a blunter point to achieve softer lines.
Henry Fuseli drew this self portrait when he was in his thirties. It shows the anxieties and self-doubt of someone mature enough to be aware of his own shortcomings. B and 2B soft pencils were used for this copy to capture the dark and light shadows as well as the sharply defined lines depicting the eyes, nose and mouth.
We happen to know that the sitter in this portrait by Jan Van Eyck, the Cardinal of Sante Croce, Florence, was 56 years old. The lines of the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and outline of the face are precise and give clear signs of the ageing process. The technique is generally smooth and light with some cross-hatching in the tonal areas. Although Van Eyck portrays his subject as still powerful, there is also a sense of resignation.
Rembrandt drew himself throughout his life, from early adulthood until just before his death, and has left us an amazing record of his ageing countenance. In this copy of a self-portrait done when he was about 60 years old, a smudgy technique with a soft 2B pencil was used in Imitation of the chalk in the original.