Making Faces

Arrrgh! Seven young women are frustrating me! Late teenage, they’re uncannily similar to one another (mischievously clever, pretty, perky, and confident), yet insisting on exuding very distinct personalities.

“What’s wrong with these girls?” I ask myself, as seven different smiles mock me from my page of sketching attempts.

You’ve guessed it – it’s supposed to be only one girl. She’s the heroine of a folk tale that I’m reworking as a children’s storybook. But my one girl has seven distinct personalities, and threatens to reveal even more schizophrenia as my sketching attempts continue. Obviously a case requiring professional help!

Let me backtrack a moment. I’ve enjoyed occasional dabbling in arts and crafts during my life. A summer painting course taken in the foggy reaches of the previous century (about 40 years ago) doesn’t really count for too much any more, but it did leave an indelible impression on my subconscious.

During my recent cancer recovery, an “expressive arts” workshop offered at our local Hopespring Cancer Support Centre, showed me the therapeutic value of sketching and painting, joyfully unhampered by standards of artistic quality.

Then, last summer, a friend persuaded me to join her in taking a week-long mixed-media water-based painting workshop with artist Kai-Liis McInnes at the Wellington County Museum and Archives. I was anxious my poor drawing skills would embarrass me; my friend was anxious there would be too much unstructured experimentation. We were both blown away by how Kai-Liis imparted the joy of free creativity bolstered by practical techniques for making art.

Which brings me back to my girls. Following this course, just for fun, I painted a couple of gouache landscapes in which the story takes place. Pretty nice, everyone said. Hmm, could I actually illustrate an entire story? I was warned, however, that I would have to draw people too… Undeterred, I sketched out my heroine working at a spinning wheel. Quite lovely, never mind her similarity to an Archaic Greek maiden with her puckish upturned smile.

The real trouble kicked in with the next scene. This time, her slightly rounder face and eyebrows exuded a kind of quiet loving spirit more suitable to an older sister. Five more attempts. I marvelled and groaned at how subtle markings on the page completely changed the personality: a slightly more upturned nose; a tad higher or lower cheekbones; miniscule differences in more almond-shaped or rounded eyes; lips turned upward or drawn straight across…

My eraser and patience worn down, I finally acknowledged I needed help and looked in the most convenient place, the internet. What a revelation: a plethora of talented people offer helpful tips and inspiration. Back to the drawing board, literally, I started with the wiki How to Draw Human Faces, and How to Draw a Face.

Now, how to reproduce the chosen face, page by page, to complete my story? In Tips for New Illustrators on the website of artist Iza Trapani, among essential tips for storyboard and more, I found my golden nugget: draw on tracing paper, then using a light box, trace the picture onto watercolour paper.  Ha! A new use for my light box left over from 35mm-slide sorting days.

So, is it easier to depict a person using words, or drawings? Both take lots of work and persistence. My admiration for writers and illustrators of children’s books has skyrocketed. One of these days, I just might be brave enough to show you my progress…

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