Portrait practice, the non-Western face

June 16, 2013

I saw a post on Facebook recently by a sketcher in Bangkok explaining to his sketching colleagues how to draw the skull. Nothing new there, except that he finished with an Asian-looking skull/face, not a Western one. This was surprising because of course we are all socially conditioned to depict in our art what we see around us. It really threw me back on my to own social conditioning: everywhere I look, at least in the art world, I see the Western face – examples of Western portraiture, public sculpture, art textbooks, life drawing models. Admittedly, some textbooks mention portrait painting in terms of African-American coloring. Ian Sidaway in his handbook on portrait painting mentions Asian facial coloring in passing. I’m sadly lacking in the non-Western portraiture department: where are my Asians, not to mention Australian aborigines, Middle-Easterners, African Americans?

So with this in mind, I’m consciously (and conscientiously) endeavouring to widen my repertoire by including non-Western faces in my daily portrait practice. I say “daily”, because it’s not always every day, and sometimes the daily portrait merges with figure drawing practice. I have two Strathmore toned paper 9×12″ spiral sketchbooks on the go at the moment, so in the wake of the recent Strathmore 2013 online workshop by Stephen Cefalo, I’m alternating between toned gray and toned tan paper.

I’m not at all happy with these most recent attempts, but I’m pretty sure I’ll get better over time.

Man from India Man from India 2 japanese tan

I’ve picked out some reference photos with very strong lighting to point up the white whites and the dark darks. So far, they are all top-lit which is something I’ve not tried before. Such stark contrasts are not normally found in ‘traditional’ portrait sketches, drawings or paintings. I’m doing them quickly, anticipating sometime in the future when I’ll be in a portraiture class or at a life drawing session; this means the marks are pretty scratchy in general.

I’m still struggling with the fact that I can’t re-state as much as I’d like in this soft graphite pencil/white charcoal pencil medium. When I overwork things, I get a curious blue. Otherwise, I’m not blending the pencil marks at all, e.g. with my finger.

asian portrait asian portrait 2

Left: Still struggling. I resist turning the reference photo upside down to see where I went wrong with proportions and measurement till the day after I’ve done the sketch. The long nose worries me here: what my Japanese colleagues would call a ‘typical long-nose Westerner’. Beginning to think I need to make the transition between my strong visual social conditioning to the non-Western by sketching pakeha Maori and Eurasian faces. These days, if I get to look at a face for long enough, e.g. a tv interview, I’ll consciously consider the triangle between pupils and nostrils, an ongoing problem for me.

Right: Sketched with the reference photo upside down, with further re-statement/darkening with the photo the right way up, with graphite pencils on very smooth cartridge paper. Even with this technique, his face is still too long and “Western”-looking. So my next step is to examine contour.

Yosuke Kubozoka

A moody Yosuke Kabuzoka, from the Japanese film, Go (2001) about Japanese racism. This was done on A4, mostly with a hard graphite pencil on silky smooth paper, which is very satisfying. After laying down a foundation, I progressed to “cheating” by re-stating things using the reference photo upside down. I’m still training my eye to look for and progress from one geometrical shape to another, so it’s still ‘legitimate’ in my view.

roslyn oades pencil

Strathmore Toned Tan, 9×12″

Strongly-lit reference photos seem to be coming my way. The strong whites and darks end up somewhat illustrationist in tone, but that’s okay. Image of actor/community worker/boxing trainer/labourer and didge player, Billy McPherson, who features in the Roslyn Oades’ film, I’m your man. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel and that light is you.” (Billy McPherson) which pretty much sums up a week of Russian heterosexual propaganda, the murder of Clement Meric in Paris and a depressing fortnight of race/gender politics here at home.

I survive the onslaught of heterosexual propaganda these days by retreating to a world of image-making, with J.S. Bach cantatas as my support group. Significant this week as been Cantata no.5, not just the viola solo representing the river ever rushing forward, but also Verstumme, Hollenheer! which seems an entirely apt response to the American surveillance state, the Far Right in France, let alone the shockjocks, heads of football clubs and Liberal-Country Party coalition in general here at home.


One Response to “Portrait practice, the non-Western face”

  1. Your commentary both instructive and…opinionated. *like* Your sketches inspiring to…me going to art shop today for white charcoal/lead pencils and toned grey/tan sketch books. I’ve a drawing in the table I’ve done twice and am now at the screaming point. Think I’ll let it lay for a wee bit and try for #3…later. Lots of “stuff” going on in our worlds, hey? I’ve gotten so tired of American commentary/music on the radio I’ve resorted to listening to Hispanic radio broadcasts to hone my Spanish pronunciation. I think I’m so very clever, she said grinning. Cheers! Raye

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