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Likenesses: How Silent James Draws Portraits

July 25, 2017

"I'm at a conference in front of thousands of people and I need to draw the person presenting quickly, can I do it?"


I've live illustrated for over 150 meetings in the past, for some of the world's most innovative thought leaders. Before that, I performed in immersive theater as a live sketch artist - delighting people left, right, and center. One of the things that makes my work unique is the way I draw people. When I started out, I was very fearful and anxious about drawing someone, especially if I knew nothing about them. These were the thoughts that raced through my mind:


"Can I deliver something so personal, based on someone I've seen for only a few seconds?"

"Will I have enough time to make it look like them?"

"What if they get offended?"

"Why me???"


I'm a fan of most styles of art - from classical paintings of the Renaissance, to German expressionist works, to burned out caricatures. I appreciate the time it takes to create these images, and I enjoy creating watercolors and more rendered studio pieces. As Silent James - Live Illustrator, I draw people in real-time on a daily basis. Sometimes, I have only a few seconds, as I'm also listening and creating an illustrated memory of their story during conferences, meetings, and receptions.


How did I overcome these (legitimate) fears?


First, I said the word out loud, "PORTRAIT".


It sounds like "POOR TRAIT". Ironically, this is the complete opposite of what should have been going through my head while I was attempting to draw a face. I believe there is a small, negative connotation my brain makes when I think of this word. It started me off on the wrong foot and had to go. I decided to think of it as a "Likeness" instead.

"LIKENESS" more accurately describes the "why". To capture a likeness is not simply to present a copy, but rather to go beyond and show what your subject is like. It also represents what they like about themselves and shows who they really are.


Likeness also sounds a lot nicer than portrait, doesn't it? Say it aloud, you'll see what I mean. These things might seem trivial, but you'd be surprised how simple changes can alter your mental state in positive ways.


All right! I was feeling a bit better, and ready to take my first exciting step into drawing this thought leader!

I used to start by drawing an oval (or egg as my anatomy teacher used to call them) for the head, measure out distance and angles, then carefully render the features of my subject. For my job, there just isn't time as I'm engaging audiences at live events, or if I have a fast deadline for a studio project. Foundation knowledge is important (see my article Eggeheads), but time is always a factor for me, so I needed another method.


I started paying less attention to the "features"

The main features of the face are the eyes, nose, and mouth. I decided NOT to focus on getting the main features perfect, and I say this as someone with 2 different color eyes! Above is some generic features I use, so I don't need to put much thought into drawing these. I can communicate an expression more directly and clearly by just using a line, circle or triangle. There is also a lot of scientific evidence around how we are conditioned to see faces in objects and buildings etc. This further led me in the direction I was going away from the main features, because a person will recognize it's a face so easily anyway.


Now that I had that out of the way, I could hone in on the important details.


I challenged myself to focus on the "NON Features"

The non features are: hair style (or lack thereof), facial hair, and if they wear glasses/hats/accessories. Clothing is also a huge non feature, but for the purpose of this article I'm focusing on faces.


These are the details that will make my likeness successful. Why do you think that is?


The "NON Features" are what people have the most control over; their inner self magnified


The main features of the face are (generally) not in our control, they don't set us apart as much. A person decides what style of glasses to wear, how they style their hair do, how they wear their set of moustaches etc. These decisions say a lot about a person. Even if they choose not to care about how they look (think Williamsburger?), that too is a decision that speaks to them as an individual.


I want to mention video games. Most video game systems have a feature where you create a personal (example: Nintendo Mii) character of yourself. Notice how important the non features are next time you're creating one! There's a huge variety of quaffs, glasses, and scruff to choose from! Personally, I find hairstyles to be the most important part of capturing a likeness, and if someone's bald - that's great too!


Sometimes, it's not important for me to draw the person presenting. Their story could be about someone else, or if it's an internal strategy session - then it might be about the team, not the individual. Context is important, so if it's not appropriate then I leave it out. Generally speaking though, I usually draw a likeness every event I'm at.


I find that audiences and speakers identify instantly with the people I draw. This is all part of their engagement and memory of this experience.  


Likeness, which started out as a method to draw faces quickly, has happily evolved into my personal style. Now, even if time isn't a factor, this is the way I draw faces and I find it makes both my clients and me very happy. Win win!


Do you want me to draw your (or a friend's) likeness? New profile pic? Are you having a conference, meeting, reception? Do you have a studio project in mind? Contact me today and let's create an illustrated memory together!


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