Why do my portraits always look so rigid and angular?

I did these artworks four years ago. Since then I have learned a lot of technical information but I have not done any actual drawing.

I was pleased enough with the first but ultimately very disappointed with the second.

In both drawings, I feel like I don’t get the shading right. This is especially true of the second picture. Is the shading too choppy? Why do I always have problems with cheek bones? Mine never look smooth they always look angular and rigid.

Is it simply the case that I must be more subtle with the gradations in skin tone? As exemplified by the AniArt gradation exercises, that back when I did these works I knew nothing about?

In the second picture, I used Kimberley’s 9XXB to create the black background. I then decided to blend it with an eraser that is used for erasing black pencil.

I did this because I wanted a gloss finish, and because without blending in this way, there always seems to be white paper gaps between the black pencil marks.

This was very unconventional, so I wondered if anyone else had done it, or if it is somehow a faux pas. Personally I like it, though it does create some glares when you look at the picture in certain directions.

I’m no expert but i can sure give you my take on it for what it’s worth. your blended 9XXB looks great to me, good idea, if it works do it. I have problems getting smooth tone without visible strokes in it too, it’s all down to patience and slowly building up layers - so just depends on your time constraints and how important the result is.

i’d say the most noticeable issue is that you have far too many independent light values, for instance in the second picture you have a white band above her lips, then the same value white on her cheek, neck, fur collar, nose, eyebrow, forehead, etc and so it looks overwhelmingly bright and over exposed. for example the lower left of the picture (her turned away right cheek) would generally be darker than everything above it as it is heading away from the light and partially overshadowed.

if you picked say the cheek or forehead as your lightest light, drop everything else that is currently white to a midtone grey and pick out just a highlight or two in the hair/collar (to the right of the image) with a needed eraser you’ll have a far more natural appearance.

I wouldn’t say your shading looked angular, it looks decent and rounded to me - but there are noticeable blocks of defined tone rather than smooth transitions so it has a patchiness, but this is mainly down to the overly white boundaries of the various shadow shapes. Note that these will skew the apparent values even more - put a grey next to a white and it will look visibly darker than really it is in any other context.

I would definitely say your structure and overall drawing looks great, and you could well be working from a tricky reference photo too which doesn’t have a lot of shadow (to produce a nice helpful notan from) so don’t be too discouraged. These are still real good.

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Thanks Martin that’s really helpful.

I think you’re completely correct to have pointed out the multiple bright white highlights. I think the problem I have was that when I did it, I was only looking at regions of the portrait locally, rather than globally.

So in any local region, I would find the lightest part and make it ultra-light; and I would find the darkest part and make it ultra-dark. And then I would do this for all regions with no consideration for how these regions fit together globally.

Here, I will post the reference photo, to show you that it wasn’t the culprit.


In retrospect I wonder what the hell I was doing! What you are saying is so obvious to me now. What the hell was I thinking?

Though then again, now that I think about it more, maybe the reason there is a white highlight on her near cheek – where there is none in the reference photo – was because I was failing to produce a cheek in my picture and so tried to make one stand out by emphasising light and darks.

Needless to say that is not the correct remedy, but I think I now understand why I have this propensity to over darken and over lighten. Presumably the root of the problem is that I can’t do subtle transitions.

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That photo does have a very compressed range of value in the face, there’s no real chiaroscuro notan going on, so it would definitely be tricky to get the subtlety of correct values all in the right places.

There you are - the overall value scheme is critical. You will probably find your transitions are easier to make when you know how correct/dark/light specific areas are within the context of the whole picture. Seeing the reference photo - your structure and facial expression looks very good, so at least you know for sure that rendering/shading is where to focus your practice for the moment.

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Thanks very much for the help. I think you’re right actually, as good as the reference photo is, there isn’t a lot of blatantly obvious chiaroscuro going on in the face.

Informally, I would say that, whenever I work from a reference photo where there is a lovely bright white spot in the centre of the nose, I’m pleased with the result. Whereas if such a spot is missing, I’m usually displeased with the result.

Actually a second feature is that the woman is not looking directly at camera. So she is adopting a ‘less canonical configuration’. That would also make the task of ‘rendering something realistic’ a bit more complicated (I think).