Draw Accurately: Why can’t I draw my kids’ faces?

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Last night was the first in an 8-week drawing course I’m giving in Clarinbridge, Co. Galway.

I didn’t learn to draw in art college. Okay, I did spend an intensive year there at the age of 17, and the drawing tuition was excellent – from some of the tutors. Sadly, there were those that had some kind of weird belief that making a beautiful drawing was an outdated and outmoded practice, with no point. They called it “making pretty pictures” and dismissed my efforts and those of other drawers – to seventeen year olds! – as “s***”. One of them even made me cry once. I lost my confidence and decided I hadn’t a chance of having any sort of career in art, or in anything.

I went into science. Away from the world of suspicious art tutors, in musty halls of learning, the lure of the dreaded pretty pictures was everywhere. In zoology, I kept a poor young teaching assistant waiting as I drew a fox skull one Friday afternoon; in botany I drew the blue, exquisitely delicate brush-like tips of the penicillium fungus under a microscope; in geology I made sketches of folded rocks and mountains in the field, reminiscent of 19th-century natural philosophers. I drew wild flowers, lying flat on the ground to draw them growing, I drew thin sections of rocks, hunched over the microscope, marvelling at the kaleidoscope of colour they made in polarised light, and, finally, when I reached PhD level, I drew countless drawings of microscopic drops of ancient fluids trapped in minerals.

Fast forward ten years or fifteen years.

Drawing is once more central to my life.
So much so that I draw every day. I find drawing as good as a stiff drink when it comes to relaxing and chilling out; but it’s cheaper, it doesn’t wreck my liver and my looks and it doesn’t leave me with a headache the next day.

There are still some odd folk employed by art schools in Ireland to tell students not to make beautiful art, but they aren’t the boss of me.

I think that few things are as beautiful as simply-expressed drawings of the world in which we find ourselves. If you want to make a drawing which is beautiful, it helps to draw accurately.

Lesson 1: LEARNING TO SEE

This cannot be emphasised strongly enough. If you really see your subject, you’re halfway there. All you have to do after that is copy the shapes you see correctly.
Yeah, I know that’s easier said than done.
But it’s the underlying principle of everything I do. I’m always settling down to draw, then stopping after a few minutes and reminding myself to look again, to stop messing about.

Take drawing my kids’ faces, for example. A face is a very subtle mixture of shapes and colours. The fact that I KNOW what a nose looks like, what eyes look like, makes me draw without looking in an honest way, and trying to see clearly. If I could override what my brain thinks it knows, and draw what’s really there, I’d be able to do it with consistent success, instead of so sporadically that I become very emotional when I capture one of the little cuties faithfully.

So for last night’s class, I wanted the students to draw something that they were not already familiar with, something their brains didn’t already think they knew how to draw.

I asked them to bring something transparent, like a glass tumbler, or something metallic, with a good reflective surface, like a kitchen utensil. If you do this at home just be careful that the glass isn’t too elaborate: the student who brought the wine glass was probably more successful, because she only had the reflections to draw; the student who brought the stunning cut-crystal glass had a bigger challenge of seeing correctly, as there were carefully cut flutes and grooves everywhere, each bisecting a shape, and causing refraction. I would go with the plain wine glass unless you’re in the mood for a challenge.

I used textured, tinted paper in a sandy colour.

I gave them each a white gel pen, a 0.3mm permanent fine liner and a little pad of tinted paper. They each brought a HB pencil, a decent rubber and a sharpener.

Here are some of the tricks that help us to SEE our subject, just as we approached it last night:

Lesson One: LEARNING TO SEE

1. Squint. Look for the basic shapes with eyes half-closed. This makes all the detail disappear and the main shapes leap into plain sight. My little girl was playing with her Wii Draw or whatever it’s called, and I heard the guy say, “Squint. All artists use this trick.” I tried it and it works a dream. You needn’t spread it that Róisín gets her teaching tips off the Wii Draw, though.

2. Make a map in a light pencil (HB): mark positions of edges of subject (roughly). You’re going to do away with this line so don’t lean too heavily.

3. Make mental measurements all the time: does that bit take up half of the length of that other bit? Or maybe two thirds? All the lines are positioned relatively to all the others. Regard every new line as another element in a grid you are constructing: with each new line, the drawing gets easier.

4. Loose hand movements to make swirly or scribbly shapes. Make circles. Nice, loose circles and swooping lines.

5. Pick out the truest line. This will be the one you emphasise with a pen or a firmer pencil line.

6. Look for interesting reflections. Refracted light is a divil to draw but it looks great if you get the shape of it right. We know the drawing looks great without knowing why when we look at some snazzily-drawn refraction.

7. Ask yourself what colour the various elements are. Really ask, and be honest.

8. Break the shape into a flat plane in your mind: you’re an alien, and you don’t even know of the existence of 3D, never mind metal, glass or reflections. This is the single most profound sentence in this whole list. If you can convince yourself of that, you’re well on the way to seeing correctly.

9. When you have a basic shape, pick out the best line with a fine-tip pen.

10. Rough out the reflections in pencil.

11. Draw the reflections in white: use gouache or white gel pen.

12. Use the pencil to shade in the grey or dark bits.

12. Practice increasing or decreasing the intensity of the greys.

For now…that’s enough to be getting on with.

But just in case you encounter any difficulties, here’s a trouble-shooting list, based on some of the issues that cropped up last night.

My subject looks distorted when I hold it up!

That’s a function of working on a flat surface, and not looking directly at your subject. It’s very annoying. The way to get around it is to either position your paper directly underneath / opposite your gaze, or use a sloped surface like a table easel.

The colour is too strong!

Build up layers of watercolour slowly, using light washes to begin with. Paint the background too, and it won’t stand out so much.

My reflections keep changing!

Is someone opposite you moving? That’ll change the reflections. Are YOU moving? Same.

My subject doesn’t look right!

Look hard. Have you carefully examined your ellipses (the top and bottom of your glass, jug or whatever it is you’re drawing)?

Have you made little micro-measurements with your eye as you scan the subject? Remember to divide things into fractions of other things (“one-third the length of that thing beside it” etc.)

I just can’t do this!

Stop drawing it then. Maybe it’s too complicated, as did happen to someone last night. Just do something a bit simpler, or take a break, have a cup of tea, read for a bit, whatever. If you’re not having fun, stop.
And when you’re ready to pick up your pencil again, relax, try and SEE a bit better and…once more into the fray!

And you never know, I might convince myself I’m an alien and draw my kids’ faces properly one of these fine days.

Róisín Curé


Art Materials I Use and Can Recommend

My favourite watercolours are made by Schmincke. I use a very small set when I am on the move, or this set of 24, which is available to buy here from Utrecht Art Supplies:-


Set of 24

Set of 24

I also use an Escoda Versatil brush (available from Dick Blick) :-


Escoda Versatil Brushes

Escoda Versatil Brushes

There are three pens I always use. The first is the Platinum Carbon pen, which can be used with cartridges or a converter. A converter is useful when you are choosing your own ink. The Platinum has never let me down: they tell you to use it every couple of days to avoid clogging, but I have left it longer than that and I have never had a problem in many years of use. It is also very reasonably priced and is available to buy from Amazon :-

The second pen I am never without is the Kuretake Brush Pen. I always use waterproof Platinum Carbon ink cartridges in my brush pen. This is available to buy here from Dick Blick :-


Kuretake Brush Pen

Kuretake Brush Pen

The third pen I really enjoy using is more expensive, but I chose it for its flexible steel nib, which gives a lovely variable line thickness. It’s the Namiki Falcon and is available here from Amazon :-

I find that grey ink gives a softer line than black – it’s more like a pencil line – and I always make sure at least one of my fountain pens contains grey ink. I use Lexington Gray by Noodler’s, which is waterproof when dry, also from Amazon :-

I use various types of watercolour paper, but one I come back to a lot is by Langton, available here from Dick Blick :-


Daler-Rowney Langton Prestige Watercolor Blocks

Daler-Rowney Langton Prestige Watercolor Blocks

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1 Comment

  1. Nikki Roberts

    October 18, 2013 at 9:32 pm

    Roisin,

    I was all snuggled up in bed ready for an early night when I got your FB message – so I opened the website and read your page. Now I just want to get out of bed again and go and draw!! You are such a natural teacher – this is your life path that’s for sure!! You will get punters for the Easter (see I’ve brought it forward now!!) Art Camp with no problem!! Keep up the great work – Nikki x

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