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5 Mistakes Art Teachers Make When Teaching Portraits

Are your students’ portraits just so-so? Here are 5 common mistakes to avoid when teaching portraiture to help you get wow-worthy work from your students.

how to draw portraits

Mistake #1 Bad Student Model Setup

Nothing will kill a student drawing session faster than a bad model setup. If your model is moving and swaying, students become very discouraged very easily. Luckily, there are some easy tips and tricks for helping your model hold a pose well, even if it is their first time ever modeling.

Manageable Pose

First-time models will swear up and down they can hold a pose with arms over their heads, or weight all on one leg, or any number of other poses that are bad ideas. It is your job to dissuade them.

For holdable poses, put your student models in a chair. With arms. With pillows or folded cloth on the arms, and a pillow behind the back. Tape these cushions in place so they don’t move. Have your model keep both feet on the floor (no crossed legs or ankles!), or even place feet slightly elevated on a stool for comfort.

Point of Focus

To keep the head from looking around the room, you need to provide your student model with a single point of focus. Ask them to pick out a small object in the room to look at, or place a piece of tape on the wall for them to focus on. Make sure that the point of focus does not require them to turn their head more than 15-20 degrees from center in either direction. Exaggerated head turns may feel easy to begin with, but will strain the neck of inexperienced models.

Mark the Pose

Once your model is positioned in a comfortable chair that is well-padded, mark the pose. You can do this by placing electrical tape where the arm meets the chair, the feet meet the floor, etc. These tape marks should be easy for the model to see so they can place their limbs correctly after breaks. Marking the pose allows the model to sit as close as possible in the original position when there are breaks between poses.

*Note* Often poses settle during the first 20 minutes of their duration. It’s best to mark the pose at the END of this first 20 minutes, once it has settled. Which brings us to our final important tip about posing student models…

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Time the Pose

Inexperienced models should not pose for more than 20 minutes. This is both for safety (new models often do not have the experience to know whether or not one of their extremities is falling asleep) and for the most movement-free modeling for your drawing students.

Of course there is always movement when drawing a living, breathing creature. However regular breaks are ideal for helping your models sit still.

A good rule of thumb is to have a model take a 5 minute break for every 20 minutes of posing. If you have block scheduling with 90-minute periods or longer, allow for at least one longer break half way through the sitting.

By following these suggestions, you will be setting your model (and your drawing students) up for a successful portrait drawing session, and avoid one of the biggest mistakes art teachers make when they start their portraiture unit.

Mistake #2 Dependent on Photographs

Another common mistake I see art teachers make is depending on photographs for their students to copy. Even if the photographs are originals, using photography prevents students from developing the basic portraiture skills they need to build their drawing confidence.

Cameras do a lot of the work for students, without them even realizing it. A photograph has already translated massive amounts of visual information from the three-dimensional world into two dimensions. This makes working from photos extra digestible for students, but simultaneously deprives them of the opportunity to choose which information to include in their portraits for themselves.

There is a huge difference between drawing from life and drawing from photographs. This is such an important (and controversial!) topic that I’ve devoted an entire post to the question, “Why not just use a camera?”.

If you have never had your students work from a live model before, I encourage you to give it a try. It has different challenges and different learning outcomes. When students are able to achieve solid results without a camera, it bolsters their belief in their abilities.

If you are concerned about teaching how to draw portraits from life because you personally prefer photographs, fear not. We have lots of great lesson plans available to help you teach portrait drawing from a living model to your students.

Mistake #3 Too Many Light Sources

This is a big one. It’s so satisfying to see beautiful, shaded and modeled portrait heads done by students. But if you are going to have students shade their portraits, it is important for ease of student learning that only one light source is hitting the model.

When there is only one light source on the model, shadow shapes are the most obvious, and the ability to identify values becomes easier. It helps students rack up easy wins by correctly identifying and drawing accurate shadow shapes.

Contrarily, many light sources often create the illusion of flattened forms and makes it much more difficult for students to identify shadows. Confusion for students nearly always leads to greyed-out portraits and frustration for all.

How to Control the Light in an Art Classroom

Lighting is a constant source of struggle for single artists, let alone a group of 30 novice artists. Art teachers have to be able to manage light for an entire classroom of students, which is no easy feat.

Additionally, classrooms are often designed with multiple, competing and unwieldy light sources that can be challenging for art teachers to control. This often means coming up with creative ways to control the lighting.

Some art teachers manage multiple light sources in their classrooms by blocking out all of their windows except for one. Others set up a spotlight in their room to focus on the model, and turn off most of the other lights, leaving one far-away light on to act as ambient light to help students see their papers.

Every classroom is unique with its own lighting challenges, and it will likely take a few different attempts at controlling light before you narrow in on the strategy that works best for you. But it is absolutely worth applying a few light-controlling strategies to help make sure only one light source hits your model, as lighting makes a huge difference in the quality of work you can get from students.

Mistake #4 No Drawing Boards

Drawing boards are so important. In fact, they are so important I wrote this entire article on why drawing boards are essential art classroom materials.

When students have their drawing flat on a table, it creates distortion. The bottom part of their drawing is closer to them and therefore appears larger, and the top is farther away and therefore appears smaller. Visually, this tricks students into making the top part of their drawing much too big and the bottom part of their drawing much too small.

Drawing boards reduce the distortion be allowing the drawing to be worked on more upright. Even if you do not have easels in your classroom, drawing boards are easy to implement. Simply have students rest the bottom of the boards on their laps and lean again a table.

Drawing boards do not have to be heavy and expensive either. You can learn more about best drawing boards for the art classroom here.

Mistake #5 No Clear Drawing Method

In order to teach portraiture successfully, you need to have an easy-to-understand method that breaks down complex drawing skills for your students.

So often I see art teachers set up a model and tell students “Ok, draw!” This is unlikely to yield the results students want for themselves.

Remember, it is your job as an art educator to teach art. This means providing knowledge and insight to help students achieve their objective. If you are teaching realistic portraiture, you need to have a method that helps students achieve this aim.

There are many, many methods for teaching portraiture. The important thing is to stick to ONE METHOD to teach at a time. You can always teach additional approaches at another time, but avoid confusion in the classroom by focusing on just one series of steps students can take to achieve their portrait goals. You can get a free portrait teaching guide here.

By avoiding these 5 common portraiture lesson mistakes, you can up the level of your students’ work, garner more attention for your amazing art program, and bolster the confidence of your students.

What mistakes do you think art teachers should avoid when teaching portraiture?  Let me know in the comments below.

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