Portrait Drawing Challenge Takeaways

Amy Beach, one of the first well-known female composers from the U.S.

My January portrait challenge taught me a number of things. The most important?

I don’t ever want a job drawing just composers. Especially ones with wigs. Take a hike, Mozart.

(Here are round 1 and round 2 of my month-long challenge.)

More insightful revelations also surfaced.

For one, our brains lie to us all.the.time. They tell us that the eye line for faces is higher than reality. That eyes are ovals, that ears are squished up tight to the face for profile drawings.

For instance, these tabletops are the same size. My left brain still doesn’t believe me. Measure them if you don’t believe me!

My skill development plateaued around week 2-3. I wish it simply coincided with being siiick of drawing old dead guys, but I think it was because I was just doing drawings vs deliberate practice and exercises to improve my beginner skills.

I’m slowly working on overcoming left brain bias via Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, but I simply didn’t dedicate enough time to the exercises. There are still so many basics I need to focus on to continue improving:

  1. Perceiving negative space
  2. Positioning of facial features
  3. Sighting (aka measuring relative sizes of things and transferring it to a drawing)
  4. Light logic (aka shading, but I sound cooler using art expressions)

Deliberate Practice Works Better

My friend Jono sent me a blog post on a portrait drawing challenge from the author of Ultralearning. That dude spent a month drawing FIVE HOURS (!!) a day, much of it deliberate practice.

Moving forward, I’m planning do follow his example and do the following:

  1. Study drawing techniques and practice them.
  2. Do multiple quick sketches to improve placement of facial features.
  3. Overlay drawings on the original image to compare them.
  4. Not draw only composers. Maybe I’ll do a mountain biker series?

To be fair, I drew Taylor Swift and a self-portrait. The latter will be a good reference point for future development, even if it annoys me that my eyes are too narrow, my jaw too square, and so on. Baby steps…

All in all, this was a useful, enjoyable challenge that yielded solid improvement with only 30-45 minutes a night of effort. A benefit is that I’d listen to each artist’s work while I drew, so I exposed myself to new work.

But for now, it’s back to T. Rex fail drawings for awhile. Onward!

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This final round of portraits included: 

  1. Fabrizio Paterlini – modern Italian composer.
  2. John Lennon – maybe you’re heard of him?
  3. Taylor Swift – Chelsea rocked her music all last week, so why not draw Taylor?
  4. Phillip Glass – modern minimalist composer
  5. One of my favorite musicians: self-portrait of me!
  6. Upside-down drawing of Stravinksy – an exercise to decouple the left and right brain
  7. Joseph Kosma – composer of the jazz standard Autumn Leaves
  8. Dirk Maassen – modern German composer. I’m listening to this excellent album by him right now.
  9. Mozart – yup.
  10. Amy Beach – one of the first famous female composers from the United States.
  11. BEETHOVEN, BABY! He’s looking rather serious, but his long lashes soften the stern aspect.

And as a reminder, here’s where I started earlier this month…

Ludovico Einaudi portrait
Portrait #1: Ludovico Einaudi…eyes wayyyy too high and so on!

Let’s make this easy: here’s the 2nd batch, followed by the first! Satisfying to look back and see progress.

Second round:

First round:

Tom Jobim portrait

January Portrait Challenge, Week 2

Alexis Ffrench

My January portrait challenge continues! I know it was tough to wait an entire week to see who I’d draw next, but your wait ends now! Portrait party time. (Check out the first round here.)

I still haven’t made the time to actually study how to draw portraits. I’m just diving in. However, I’m finding that my eye for proportion is developing from just 30 minutes a night.

My focus this week was shading and blending. If I say so myself, there’s some improvement happening.

Still so many things I notice I’m messing up, but 1) I don’t want to spend hours a day on this and 2) I want as many repetitions as possible, not perfection.

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In order, these portrait subjects are:

  1. Ernesto Nazareth – Brazilian composer from 19th century and a fine handlebar mustache wearer.
  2. Alexis Ffrench – contemporary British composer and pianist.
  3. Tom Jobim – Brazilian bossa nova composer (can you tell I have a Brazilian piano teacher?)
  4. Florian Christl – contemporary German composer and pianist. Love his song Vivaldi Variation!
  5. Clara Schumann – brilliant 19th century pianist and composer.
  6. Víkingur Ólafsson – contemporary Icelandic pianist with SKILLZ. His interpretations of songs are fabulous (check Bach’s Prelude in G Major out.)
  7. Claude Debussy – Impressionist French composer with a strong mustache game, but weird shaped head.


Yann Tiersen portrait

January Portrait Challenge, Days 1-11

I suck at portrait drawing for two main reasons: 1) it’s par with rocket science difficulty-wise and 2) I’ve put exactly three hours of practice into it in my entire life.

Enough! January is my month to go from “is that a person?” to “hey, only the ears and chin are weird!” (Here’s week 2.)

How? I’m taking 30 minutes a day to draw a portrait. To make it easy to think of subjects, I’m drawing composers whose piano songs I’m learning, as well as performers I admire. (Like Otis Spann, a Chicago blues pianist.)

My goal is to improve my shading skills and generally work on perspective. I’m looking past my absolutely mediocre skills with optimism thanks to a Skillshare video I watched that said, “you don’t discover your talent to draw. You develop it.”

Chelsea, always helpful, pointed out that drawing a bunch of dead white guys from past centuries is straight-up odd. Nice to have feedback to keep me from getting too strange, I suppose.

DISREGARDED. I shall soldier on in all my weirdness!

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BTW, I know my first one isn’t a portrait…I decided to go full formal drawing after the 1st. This isn’t an art school dissertation, alright?! Sheesh.

This first round of portraits includes:

  1. Louis Armstrong – I’m learning What a Wonderful World
  2. Ludovico Einaudi – the esteemed/maligned modernist Italian composer. (Learned a bunch of his songs.)
  3. Otis Spann – badass Chicago blues pianist
  4. Franz Liszt – the brilliant 20th century virtuoso and composer (I’m working on his Consolations.)
  5. Martha Argerich – incredibly talented Argentinian pianist.
  6. Lang Lang – the flamboyant Chinese pianist.
  7. John Legend – American singer and songwriter.
  8. Chris Martin – lead singer for Coldplay.
  9. Erik Satie – the very quirky Impressionist/modern French composer.
  10. Yann Tiersen – French composer of the Amelie soundtrack, which has a few songs I’m learning.
  11. Chopin (no first name needed!) – I’m learning a bunch of his preludes and other pieces.

January Artist Portraits, Day 1-11