Last year I traced some black-and-white portraits for an assignment in Korean class. It went surprisingly well, and with both internal and external encouragement I turned it into a year-long challenge: The Traced Portrait Project. For the last twelve months I’ve been making weekly* traced portraits of performers and friends and posting them to Flickr.
* More or less. Some weeks were missed/skipped, others had multiple portraits or several faces in one image. Flickr says I’ve done slightly fewer than 52 “photos” since the project formally started.
So, did I improve tremendously in a year? Nope! Some of my first few portraits are still my personal favorites. However, I did learn some things along the way:
- Black and white means everything is high contrast; the most obvious sign of this is that people’s lips look huge if you outline them. Very early on I started to make the lip outlines smaller than the actual lips in the original photos.
- In that vein, teeth can look downright scary if you actually trace them out. I avoided doing teeth at all for a few weeks, then tried it once…and found it pulled all the attention in the drawing to the teeth themselves. I eventually figured out that just hinting at the shapes of the teeth in the gumline almost always worked really well. (You might also notice that I also can’t decide whether to make mouths black or white. There’s not one choice that’s good for all portraits.)
- On the other hand, detail can be used deliberately to call out special features, like earrings, or beard stubble.
- Hair is fun, and it’s a large part of making the portrait actually look like a person, since I generally draw the jawline, most of the face, and then the hair. People don’t seem to mind that all my long hair is basically the same.
- I ended up with three different styles of eyes: completely solid, white pupils, and white irises. I think white irises actually works best, but only with very thin irises. Still, I was cycling through all three up through the end.
- The most important thing I learned was that the jawline can make or break a portrait. Individual features can make it look good or bad, but if the jawline is off it doesn’t even feel like the person any more. I think that’s why I’m not as happy with Angey’s (the middle one below) as some of the others.
- And because the jawline is so important, shots at an angle are actually much more interesting. I’m thinking I should have sought those out a lot more than I did.
- And one more secret: thinner lines look better. Partly because there’s more room for detail, but also because they represent contours in a real face, which are not sharp divisions. So, tracing larger images is better!
Hey, I just got you to look at a whole bunch of portraits I drew!
More seriously, I don’t consider myself such a strong visual artist. So going through this project for a whole year, and producing decent work from it, is something I’m proud of. (There are still more on Flickr.)
I’ll probably keep making these every now and then, for friends or performers or family I’m glad to see. Feel free to request one as well! (That includes people who’ve gotten one before. Every one comes out different.)
I’m going to close with my favorite, one of the few where I wanted to extend it beyond the face. This comes from the musical I was in last year, and I was looking forward to doing this one for weeks before I actually got to it. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the play, and I think I actually managed to capture it.
Oh, what’s that? You want to know what that symbol is? It’s a variant of one I’ve been using since elementary school to sign my work; it’s my initials, J and R.