If you want to create a really special, personalized gift for someone very important to you, here is an idea that I started to do a few years ago and have perfected over time. I call them WordPortraits™ and they are portraits of people using mostly words that describe the person to make up the color tones within the sketch. Here is my step-by-step process so you can create one of your own.
Step 1: Get a good, clear photo of your subject
I like to gather a few good, candid photos that are large enough so that you can make out the details of their head. You should only be concerned with the head and shoulders so a full-length photo will not be very helpful. By having several photos from which to choose, you will be able to get a sense of their style of clothing, hair and most recognizable expression (since most people are pretty critical of their face when looking at photos of themselves).
Step 2: Generate a list of words
Generating a list of words that describe the person will probably take the longest and may require the help of someone close to this person (family members, spouse, parents, etc.) I always like to include anything that will be memorable and insightful of this person’s life. Things like favorite dates, memories, birthdays, anniversaries, achievements, nicknames, places they have visited, and names of family members to name a few. The idea is that when this person reads every inch of the portrait, they smile at the familiar and are blown away that you remembered a seemingly insignificant moment that you shared.
Step 3: Trace out the photo
Now that you have selected the best photo which looks the most like your subject, make sure it is large enough for you to trace important details such as the shape or their lips, the color of their eyes, and the flow of their hair. You do not need to trace out every strand of hair but the shape of hair sections will be useful when you go to add in type later. In the example shown, (Fig. 3) you will notice that I have sketch lines which indicate the direction that the hair is combed and that the lines are far enough apart that I can fill in words as needed.
Step 4: Create a rough sketch with words
Whenever I attempt a portrait sketch for the first time, I like to create a rough sketch to practice how some of the more challenging words will fit into certain sections. I usually create this rough with one black pen. No need to pencil in first because this whole first step is just a rough and you will be able to find out very quickly which words work well for certain challenging spaces.
People often ask me how I know which words to put where and my only response is to look at the space that needs to be filled and scan the list to find a word(s) that will fit the best. For tight spaces, I like short words like “bold,” “calm,” and “loved” which show up in lots of portraits. Since I am hand writing these words, I can condense, stretch, enlarge, fatten and even shrink words as I see fit in order for them to fit where I need them to fit. This really is a giant puzzle of words that all need to fit together like a mosaic. If the list is particularly long, I might take a colored pen and check of each word that I have used in the sketch so that I don’t miss anything. As long as you use each word once, there is nothing wrong with repeating words again elsewhere in the sketch.
Step 5: Make your final sketch
Now that you are ready to make your final sketch, pull out a clean sheet of heavy drawing paper. My preference has been to center your sketch on an 18” x 24” Canson 140-pound, cold press watercolor paper. Transfer your original line sketch to this paper with a light blue Saral® brand transfer paper or with the carbon transfer method*. I like to make my sketches at least 11” x 14” centered on this larger paper to offer flexibility in matting and framing a bit later.
The simplest portrait can be done as a black & white pen and ink sketch. I used to do my first portraits as only black & white until I discovered that the soft tones and shadows around the face were too heavy-handed in just black ink, so I started to incorporate grey tones with the grey Sharpie Extra Fine Point. As time went on, I had decided that I kept wanting to add more color (such as eyes and hair color) until I eventually made these portraits in full color. By having a full set of Sharpie Extra Fine Point and the broader Sharpie Fine Point color markers, I could perform most any color combination and contrasts that I needed. Again, the final sketch is very similar to the rough sketch of puzzling in words to fit the desired spaces only this time the color element has been added in. For highlights in the hair, select which two or three markers you will use so that you can switch back and forth to simulate the highlight effect.
*If you are not familiar with the carbon transfer method, you simply take your line drawing and turn it over, scribble all over the backside with a #2 soft lead pencil, then turn the line drawing over face up and completely retrace the lines with a ballpoint pen. When you are finished, gently lift one corner to ensure that a light grey pencil line drawing has been copied to your final drawing paper.