It’s a new year and we’re bursting with enthusiasm to learn something new and add value and interest to our lives. Drawing, especially drawing portraits, is the perfect pursuit to focus the mind and train the body. During the winter you can do all your drawing inside in the warmth (then take it outside in the summer), it costs very little and you’ll be amazed how quickly it starts making you money (whether you intend it to or not).

BUT…it can be hard setting out to learn a new skill with any confidence without first getting a glimpse of how good you could be. The beauty of this exercise is that it clearly demonstrates how well you’ll be able to draw once you’ve learnt what to look for, or as some artists would put it, “how to see”. What you’re going to do here is to trace a drawing but, instead of tracing another drawing, you’re going to trace your drawing from life. This may seem like cheating but you’re in good company – Hans Holbein, official portrait painter in the court of Henry VIII and one of the best drawers portraits in the history of the world, used to use this technique before transferring his drawings onto paper or canvas.

You’ll need a piece of glass (or a window or mirror) and a wax pencil or felt tip. Stabilo ‘Aquarellable’ pencils are a joy to use on glass and the cheapest supplier of them I’ve found is here. The drawing you make will easily wipe off with a dry cloth. Doing this exercise regularly will improve your ability to achieve a likeness dramatically so, although you can use a window or a mirror to start with, it’s really worth while to get a piece of glass from a glazier. I suggest a piece about 10 inches by about 14 inches, 4mm thick (enough to avoid too much risk of breaking), and with ground edges so they’re not sharp. Any friendly glazier will supply you with this for just some small change.

When I do this exercise I attach my piece of glass to the top of the drawing board on my easel with bulldog clips, making sure as much of the glass as possible is off to the side of the board, with nothing behind it. You then need to position your subject so that you have a clear view of him/her/it through the glass. Then, keeping your head still and in the same position, you simply close one eye and trace what you see onto the surface of the glass. You need to close one eye as each eye sees things in a different place on the glass. A good way of making sure your head stays in the same position is to mark the position of your feet on the floor if standing, or to sit firmly back in your seat if sitting. Either way you need to establish a point of reference that you can easily find again.

This is clearly a very straight-forward process but there is one crucial thing you must do to get a really exciting drawing. YOU HAVE TO TAKE YOUR TIME. Because the wax pencil won’t allow you to get distracted by too much detail this isn’t a drawing you’re going to spend hours on but you should aim to spend half-an-hour to an hour. One of the hardest things to get used to when starting to draw is the process of slowing down. Once you’ve got used to it you’ll find that this is one of the greatest rewards of drawing but at first it does require a conscious effort. The trick is this: spend more time looking at the bit you’re drawing than you spend drawing it and NEVER make anything up. There’s really no excuse for making a mark thinking “that’ll do” when doing this exercise since you’re literally tracing the image. It’s simply a question of forgetting the clock and becoming absorbed in the process of describing the shapes in front of you.

You’ll find the wax pencils make a beautiful quality of line and lend themselves to a line drawing, rather than blocking in large areas of shadow, but if you keep your pencil sharp you can define areas of shadow with some quite fine hatching.

One of the reasons this is such a useful exercise is that, while it’s important to consider every single line you make, you’re not tempted to become inhibited in your approach for fear of ruining a good drawing. It’s on glass and you’re going to wipe it off. If you wanted to make a record of it you could always photograph it against white paper (there’s probably even a way of transferring the wax pencil onto paper using solvents or something) but the idea isn’t to end up with a drawing you can keep. The purpose of the exercise is to be really excited to discover how easily you can produce a beautiful drawing with perfect proportions, perfect perspective and foreshortening and, in the case of portraits, a perfect likeness. It demonstrates to you that YOU CAN DRAW. The physical mechanics of putting pencil on paper is not an issue. All you need to be an accomplished artist is a system that allows you to mentally measure what you’re looking at accurately so that you know where to make the marks on the page. An incredibly effective system for doing this is the Eight Spoke Drawing Method described in the Portrait-Pro course, ‘How to Draw a Portrait’. You can download the first two chapters of the ebook for free here.

Another really effective exercise you can do with your piece of glass is to rest it on the outstretched fingers of one hand and draw around it with the other, as in the photograph below. This is a beautifully simple way to produce a very realistic drawing with dramatic and convincing foreshortening.

Happy New Year! Make the most of 2013. This year you could be giving people portraits for Christmas!

All the best,

Hugh Appleton

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