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About the difficulty of portraits

posted Sep 15, 2015, 12:59 AM by Juan Jose Garcia-Ripoll   [ updated Sep 15, 2015, 1:01 AM ]
It has always puzzled me the difficulty of drawing faces. This difficulty lays on two fronts:
  • It lays on the draftsman. The person drawing is affected by serious psicological constraints by which the brain tends to give more relevance to certain aspects of the face (eyes, mouth, ears, etc) and this added relevance translates into a disproportionate size in our perceptions.
  • It lays also on the person "reading" the drawing. This person does not have any information about who is the subject of the drawing and thus must complete what the artist has placed on the paper. This lack of context is completed by the brain, who searches for the extra information on the places it finds the most relevant: eyes, mouth, proportions, etc.
The situation is worsened when you choose a medium that does not have the same expressive power as a photograph. Ink and line drawing has a lesser choice of tones, which translates in a smaller range of shadows. We could compensate this by drawing stronger lines, contours and delimiting shapes, but then the problem is that this would clash against the spectator's perceptions, who expects female portraits to be softer, and which appreciates lines as more aggressive than patches of colors and shadow.

I write all this because I have been surprised by certain "failures" in the last week. These failures are, with some hindsight, well understood. First of all, those portraits were drawn from photographs, which implies some distortions that are accepted in pictures, but become stranger in drawings. Those are distortions due to the lenses, proximity of subject, etc, and the brain accepts them in pictures because they are compensated by the extra information available in other aspects, such as color, shadows, context, etc.

Second, people's faces are more similar than we get to believe. I showed the two portraits below to some people. They recognized the person in the second case, not in the first one. If you compare the pictures, which were drawn in A5, you will notice that the differences were nevver larger than a couple of milimiters in shape: center of the pupilis, right cheek, height of lips. Another important aspect is tone: the darkness of the hair makes a dramatic change and can change the context of our interpretation dramatically. Finally, the removal of lines on the nose, cheek shadows, crow's legs, etc, seems to make it more agreeable with our expectations.

After this, it is no surprise to me that women can so dramatically alter their appearance with a minimal application of makeup