I’m currently working on a portrait drawing of my niece Frances. Actually, she’s not my niece. She’s my wife’s cousin’s daughter, which I think makes her my first-cousin-once-removed… But I’m not sure.
In any case, I decided to draw her for a few reasons: because I thought it would be a nice thing to do for Frances and her parents, because I already had a great photo reference of her, and most importantly, because she’s one of my favorite people. For all these reasons, I was looking forward to digging-in to this drawing.
But my excitement waned quickly once I realized how difficult drawing children can be. I have some experience drawing portraits – I lost track a long time ago of how many people’s faces I’ve drawn over the years but it’s a lot, and I don’t recall having this much trouble since I was a student. It was frustrating because I know Frances, which – if anything – should make drawing her likeness easier… Shouldn’t it?
Perhaps not. Sometimes knowing your subject can make achieving a likeness feel harder because you’re going to a tougher critic – even small errors will be more noticeable to you when you’re very familiar with the face you’re drawing. But that wasn’t the problem here. The problem here is that Frances is so young.
Drawing Children is a Different Ballgame.
Before now, I’ve never really tried drawing children. In fact, I’ve never tried drawing anyone younger than 20 or or so (or whatever age it is when people start to work as art models). All my drawing from life has been done either in a school environment with professional models, or in my own studio drawing friends – none of whom are younger than 20. In this picture Frances is 5, which turns out to make a huge difference.
Why does age matter?
“So what?” I can hear you asking. “A face is a face. Who cares how old it is?” This is what I thought, too, going into this portrait drawing but it turns out that age matters. Why? Because many of the landmarks I tend to look for on older people simply aren’t as visible when drawing children. In this picture, Frances still has a lot of baby fat, which is like thick cloud cover over her mandible, maxilla, zygomatic bones, the facial muscles like masseter, and the modioli at the corners of the mouth. In their place is a soft, doughy expanse across her cheeks, where surface forms are merged together to the point of near invisibility.
And yet, they’re still there. Failure to account for them on some level will yield an overly simplified, plasticky, manikin-like look to the drawing that just never looks quite right, even when drawing children. What structure is there must be described. But if I over-deveop these sub-forms of the face – even a little bit – I’ll make Frances look aged and haggard, like a creepy troll-child who’s spent too much time in the sun.
This is the subtle balancing act that’s required when drawing children – sufficient description of forms cloaked in baby-fat, without over doing it and adding years of wear-and-tear onto the face of a 5-year-old. I think I’ve adjusted and I’m now enjoying this portrait drawing, but it was tricky there for a while. Unexpected challenges like this are part of why, after years of doing this, I’m still motivated to make drawings.