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Mike Theuer - Watercolor & Pencil Portraits from Your Photos

How I draw light movement

kitty closeup drawing by portrait artist mike theuer wind and sun drawing by portrait artist mike theuer


These drawings look quite alive. But their liveliness is not from detail since the detail between them is very different. Instead their liveliness comes most from the fact they are lighted alike. In each the light moves across the subjects so both highlight and shadow grow darker farther from the light source. And importantly this light-movement is almost imperceptible, something I achieved using three techniques.

The drawings

These drawings are ones I made from photos supplied by customers. (I am a professional portrait artist.) I used a blackwing pencil on Canson pure-white paper with a kneaded eraser. I also blended only the kitty's eyes and nose using my finger. The kitty is 16x20 inches while the couple is 8x10.


"Light-movement" makes sense when first you understand my second rule on light. (Besides being a portrait artist, I am also an art instructor at PSU!) You can read all three rules I follow on light in my lesson on 'shading.' My second rule is 2) values grow darker farther from the light source.

"Light-movement" is my term to describe the way all values—highlight and shadow—gradually darken farther from a light source and in this way appear to move across a drawing. Take the kitty drawing for example, which is lighted from the kitty's left side (our right). Even though both eyes are in direct light, the highlights in his right eye farther from the light source are darker than the highlights in his left eye. And in the couple drawing which is lit from above, the shadow under the man's collar is darker than that under the woman's collar. These differences are almost as if we were looking at the subjects through a graded filter which for the couple would look something like this . . .

couple filter

Making light-movement imperceptible

In order to make my subjects come alive, I made this light-movement nearly imperceptible. First I determined the degree of light-movement and it's direction. Then for the couple drawing, I literally pictured the filter shown here in my mind's eye. As I drew, I paused often to look at the couple with an eye toward this imaginary filter. And when I paused I always looked at the couple with fresh eyes.

"Fresh eyes" means to see your drawing anew. The traditional method of seeing with fresh eyes is to walk away from a drawing and look again after an hour or more. Then when you see the drawing again, anew, the problems stick out and are easier to fix. In my case the problems were places where the light-movement appeared to look too abrupt. But I didn't use the traditional fresh-eyes method to see the light-movement problems. Instead, I used three techniques which are quicker.

1)  Squinted! Squinting blocked the detail and let me see the bigger areas.

2)  Drew upside down. Since each drawing and reference photo was taped to a board, sometimes I spun the board around. While upside down, I saw the values more and the details less.

3)  Held my drawings to a mirror. Holding each drawing to a mirror when I was almost done, made each look completely different so the most subtle problems jumped out.

These fast fresh-eye techniques made it easy to make the light-movement in my kitty and my couple almost imperceptible. (They also helped me finish each drawing in around an hour!) As a result, each drawing came to life. Apply my techniques to light-movement in your own drawing and your drawing will come more to life.

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