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I have been trying to draw/paint human faces from photos (in Painter). To my big surprise the result closely follows the photo but because of the different medium and/or the oily/watery/greasy "material" I get results that just do not capture the essence of the person. The photo does capture what I want to express. And somehow the result is not a painting of the person, it is an image of the person. I do not know if you understand this...

So my questions are (these are three separate questions, please handle them completely unrelated):

  • if you were to draw (pencil/ink) a face with the smallest amount of lines/points, what would you draw? I mean, where does it become the representation of the person from just being a sketch? (There are some tiny features which, if you miss drawing it properly, you do not draw the person).
  • If you were to paint (oil/Conte/etc.), without sketching or drawing thin lines, what would be the minimum amount of features/shades/areas you would draw? (Imagine blobs of color without too much refining of the shape...)
  • If you were to paint, what would be the minimum amount of colors/shades that would be sufficient to paint a picture that closely resembles the person? (I know, you can use one or two colors, but those will give you such a contrast that I find hard to believe that the painting closely match the model).

And I have a bonus question:

  • If you painted a painting from a photo, where would you diverge from the reference photo and why?

Thank you all for any help.

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    Just to check: are you talking about portraits that feel realistic (i.e. not figurative cartoons or caricatures)? Because it's possible to make recognisable but not realistic images with one colour and just the eyes, mouth, hair and face shape. (also browse minimalist portraits for some of the styles people have tried) – user56reinstatemonica8 Apr 22 '14 at 13:42
  • A question: are all the techniques you are referring to, digital? When you say pencil/ink or oil/conte, you mean the digital tools, not the physical ones? – benteh Apr 22 '14 at 15:44
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    Is the sort of thing you're aiming for like this pencil portrait by Ileana Hunter (very realistic, almost photo-like in some ways, completely recognisable, but also very bare and minimalist) – user56reinstatemonica8 Apr 22 '14 at 16:59
  • Life/Figure drawing is a huge topic that can branch into many, many types of aesthetics and techniques and the answers to your specific questions would be heavily dependent on said aesthetics and techniques being used. (And painting vs. pencil isn't enough of a description. There's dozens of ways to use both tools to achieve different aesthetics via different techniques) – DA01 Apr 22 '14 at 17:15
  • @user568458: yes, I mean realistic portraits. Thank you for the link, this is not what I meant, but a very good resource nevertheless! :-) – TFuto Apr 22 '14 at 18:46
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There is a lot of confusion in the questions, mostly because you are asking about how to deviate from what you see to the fullest extent possible with the highest fidelity possible.

What key features are needed? It varies by person. It is not controversial to say that every individual is the sum-total of all their features. Neither is it controversial to suggest that each person would be described differently by a group of people only allowed to mention 3 things. So there really isn't a good guideline regarding which features are important.

What shapes can you paint? It depends on the lighting. If you have a lot of ambient reflection and diffuse light, there really are very few options, because the lighting is very uniform. The lay of the land is shown through tone variance. Note that most novices forget that there is a background context: tones which set the stage for the figure.

For choosing lines, there are very few lines in nature. Usually what people describe as lines are horizon lines: the very outermost edge of a sphereoid past which it then receeds and is blocked from view. There are many such things in a face, and they are at many different scales.

How few colors? 1 (technically 2, white and not white). Google "en grisaille".

The biggest problem with photography is that is a 2 dimensional medium whereas most artist have 3 dimensional vision. The 3d element really comes into play when trying to decide on the horizon lines mentioned above.

Additionally, there is a time-scan element, infinite focus, and a variable aperture across the field. These are all things which cameras cannot do. They are all subtle but they all contribute to the look.

And then there are perceptive (brain) alterations after vision which affects our decision-making process when drawing. The trivial example of this is the problem where people take a photo of the moon which appears to fill the sky, but in the photo it is a tiny spot. (This can be remedied a little by a different lens).

Many snapshots are not well-composed and have lots of horrible flash lighting which is easily ignored, but will "color" you drawing if you copy it.

Even well-composed photos can reveal themselves because the artists meticulously copies lighting which is typically ignored or adjusted for by our perception.

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