Considering the Nose: Seven Top Portrait Artists Contemplate that Face You Got

Considering the Nose: Seven Top Portrait Artists Contemplate that Face You Got BRODNERSIGNER3.jpgBy Steve Brodner

I took part in an experiment at Johns Hopkins University last spring where I lay in an MRI while drawing on a small pad. The researchers were trying to unlock the secrets of what happens in your brain when you draw a portrait.  I have spent a lifetime drawing people, occasionally wondering about that same thing. Of course you don't have to know. It's like riding a bike. You just do it a lot and then you get better. But it is still very mysterious and I think I would be hard pressed to tell an interviewer exactly how or why I do it. So I decided to torture my friends with these questions instead. Edward Sorel, John Cuneo, Anita Kunz, Jason Seiler, Joe Ciardiello, Victor Juhasz and Burt Silverman were not only equal to the task but came up with far superior answers to my questions, which proves that people would know that artists are intellectuals if only they talked to them. Each one had fascinating things to say, which makes me look like a hell of an interviewer. My tough job was to make up these questions and then smile as this evolved into a wonderfully illuminating exchange by some of my favorite artists working today.

(Above: Illustration by Edward Sorel)

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What is your first conscious or unconscious act in sizing up a face as you begin a project?

Ed Sorel photo.jpgEdward Sorel: Since we work from photos rather than from the person, the first question is, "Does this photo look like the person?" If it doesn't, you either need another photo or, if you like the expression, get other pictures from other angles--profiles are helpful. Then you exaggerate the feature that is at variance with the ancient Greek ideal of the face.

Burt Bio .jpgBurt Silverman: 
I simply think about setting up a light and dark structure to best make the face a sculptural image and then to let the process of constructing it go forward. Inescapably that begins to inform the art of what I feel about that face or person...It's a coincidental process, each reinforcing the other.

JoeC.jpgJoe Ciardiello: Once I subdue the anxiety of whether I can pull this off, I immediately go to the web and search for as many decent quality pics of that person I can find (how did we ever survive before Google images?). Then it's a matter of studying the face and features...how close together are the eyes, what's the shape of the head, the size of the nose, etc....all with the hope that a somewhat interesting drawing can be made. Then comes much procrastination before actually putting pen to paper.


Cuneo.jpgIllustration by John Cuneo

John Cuneo:
More and more, I put my faith in that first impression of a face. The quick, initial assessment of features seems like the most honest one. I'm not chasing buried clues or squinting for psychological insight here, I'm looking at the nose. Often an assignment will involve drawing somebody with whom I'm unfamiliar. I'm making a blind date, with my fingers crossed, hoping that when I first encounter that person, my date has a lazy eye and a mustache.

Cuneo photo.jpgI'm looking for anomalies, a quirk, a lack of symmetry. Some kind of hook that will get me past the scary first stage where the little voice in my head whispers discouraging things about likenesses not being my strong suit. Handsome men and beautiful woman are more difficult, as are children, with their peach fuzzy indistinction. Famous people's faces are part of our universal visual consciousness. We feel we already know what they look like, so any rendering of them is a kind of implicit challenge to measure up to that popular impression. And then there's the knowledge of how other illustrators have handled the subject. For a line guy like myself, it's hard not to think about artists I admire and how they've decoded the same face, often using the exact same reference photos. How does one even dare to draw Nixon after David Levine?  Or Ross Perot after Richard Thompson, or anybody at all after the Blitts, Ciardiellos, Sorels and Juhaszs  have taken their shot?

These are mental hurdles, and I mention them because you asked about process and conscious and unconscious acts. Part of my process involves pushing thoughts of insecurity or influence or whatever into a quiet corner, and hopefully allowing instinct a little breathing room.

In recent years I've taken to making a very quick drawing of the face in the short time it's first highlighted on my computer screen while being printed out. It's a minute or two at most. It can start with a shape, from which I'll work in, or a mouth or nose, working out. This is a little discipline that I like to think forces me to access features quickly and without second guessing. This initial pencil sketch, which I almost try to trick myself into making, is usually the bones from which an eventual likeness evolves.

About half my assignments involve drawings of real people, and it's a slightly different hat to put on than the one I wear when doing comic character work. With likenesses, there is a more definitive right and wrong--it either looks the person or it doesn't, right? Consequently the process can be a little more anxiety fraught, while also having a more defined criteria for success.

Seiler photo.jpgJason Seiler: 
The first thing that I do is gather as many references as possible. I also try to find YouTube videos if they are available because I like to see how my subjects move. It's important to learn about their posture. This is especially helpful if the person is someone that I am not all that familiar with. I try to capture my first feeling or impression but ultimately I want to capture the essence of my subject. I also have to take into account what the art director or editor wants.  That can sometimes be a problem, if I have a different feeling than they do. The first thing I do after gathering my references is to warm up by doing a few thumbnail sketches and keeping things really loose and instinctive. I will sort the good from the bad and then develop them a little further before taking it to a final. I focus a lot on the eyes and mouth; this is where I believe most of their character comes from.

kunz.jpgAnita Kunz: Well, it's hard to say because a lot of image making is instinctive. But I think that what goes through my mind is how the subject's face is unique and different from the average. When I do a portrait I print out lots of different photos of the person and paste them around my desk. I really try to analyze the features of the person instead of just copying a photograph (and since so many photographers are litigious about copyright it's just smart to utilize many photos). I really try and understand the facial structure, and if I am able to identify something truly unique, I tend to exaggerate that feature. I think Francis Bacon said that he distorted his portraits precisely to get to the essence of the subject, and to ultimately make the portrait look even MORE like the person.

Victor.jpgVictor Juhasz: Nothing is more frightening than a boring face--or a perfect, handsome, beautiful, face. It's a very conscious act on my part to look for the feature that is out of joint, or distinctive.  In fact what I find beautiful or engaging about someone is probably what they would least consider appealing but I find characterful. Having finished 90 portraits recently for a TEDMed event, and not have one of the subjects inquire about purchasing the original, sort of makes my point. It must be mentioned that they were not really caricatures--more like stylized portraiture--and they were supposed to be positive.

Now, for public figures, in particular political/ business/ media types: If the person is one of the "bad" guys, then I think what I look at first are the eyes and mouth. They are revealers. Body language is also a kind of tell. It complements the facial features. One of the blessings of Google, as opposed to how we searched for reference photos in the pre-web days, is that you have in a near instant a wide variety of photos of your subject, from different angles, making different expressions. With patience, you can often find the telling shot, or shots, that satisfies what you are hoping to portray and use it as your jump off point.

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Siilverman painting.jpgPainting by Burt Silverman

In an era of promiscuous still and moving photography what properties do you feel the rendered portrait retains as peculiar and valuable?

Burt Silverman: An interesting response to your question was given in the art historian Robert McGrath's introduction to my first monograph, Sight and Insight. In describing the dilemma of photo versus paint, he said -- and I'm just paraphrasing -- that the nature of the difficulty is to determine what is more 'truthful" -- the camera or the artist's perception? I concede that the camera doesn't lie, but it doesn't tell the truth either. What makes marks on a canvas more enduring than the conviction (with photorealism) that we are almost seeing the thing itself? For me, those marks allow the viewer's contemplative vision to work. It allows art to breathe, to adapt to changes in perception over time.... It allows those Rembrandts to live for almost 500 years.

People have said that in my paintings the subjects felt more real than a photograph; that somehow they "know" these people. I have no idea how it happens. It's like a scene in Salinger's novel Catcher in the Rye, when Holden Caulfield asks his brother how he has such accuracy in throwing at a lamppost and his brother answers "I never aim."

Joe Ciardiello: At its best, a hand drawn or painted portrait can often reveal something a photo does not. Even though we begin with that photo reference, hopefully we can achieve an emotional likeness or truth, an expressive quality that transcends the photo. For myself, when things are really working, I'm less concerned about the "likeness" and more about a feeling of the subject. It's difficult to articulate, because much of this happens unconsciously.

John Cuneo: At it's most sublime, a line drawing can contain elements of character and point of view that provide a window of insight to its subject. Maybe it's the immediacy of the process that allows access to that happy possibility.

malkovich_cover.jpgIllustration by Jason Seiler

Jason Seiler: Well, for me personally, I am not a fan of hyper-realistic portraits that basically look the same as a photograph. Those are very boring to me. When I do my caricature work, I enjoy rendering as realistic and photo-like as I can but that is because I think it is more interesting to see something so realistic but at the same time exaggerated and pushed to different places.  When it comes to me painting realistic portraits, I purposefully paint looser, in a more painterly way.  I do this because it makes no sense to me to paint a portrait in realistic proportions, but paint it as realistic as a photo. I have done those before in the past and it confuses people.  They often can't tell if it is a photo or a painting or what it is? I want my portraits to look like works of art. That is what they are, but I feel first and foremost what people should get out of it is, "Wow, that is a painting." That is what I want to hear. I am very impressed with a lot of hyper-realistic paintings and painters that are out there. They have tremendous skill and patience but I also feel that it's a waste of time trying to be a human copy machine. I feel a lot of those works lose life and become stagnant. Of course all of this is subjective; this is only my view on the subject.

Anita Kunz: Sometimes the portrait can say just as much about the artist as the person depicted. I know that I am aware of the audience, and make deliberate choices regarding how much I'll distort, etc., and what I want to say about the person. For me it's all about conscious image making.

Victor Juhasz: First of all, they are more fun to look at. The homogeneity (and I use the term as a pejorative) of present day celebrity-obsessed culture has filled the mag stands with endless rows of generically attractive faces generically posed and photographed and staring at us, usually expressing some generic sense of happiness. The faces, and figures, are photoshopped to death and any hint of imperfection or character is removed from the photo. It's all very narcissistic and feeds a subconscious narcissism in the viewer/reader who for whatever reason identifies with the subject of the photo.  A lot of present day caricaturing seems to follow a similar purpose. They are often very well done, sometimes even brilliantly rendered, but they express little to nothing about the subject and say more about the technique. Having said that, they almost always are a lot more interesting to look at than the relentlessly boring homogeneity of contemporary magazine covers. What I would hope to achieve when drawing someone is to find and display the character, bring some insight, get a reaction from the viewer, maybe intrigue them to spend a few seconds more mulling over the commentary that is part of the image.  

Edward Sorel: Caricaturists can render their opinion of a person by drawing them as we think of them. It's like making up things they didn't say and putting quotation marks around them.

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Assange Joe C.jpgIllustration by Joe Ciardiello

Hirschfeld once described a battle which he was losing with a face. One celebrity was drifting into the face of another in his head. It took many hours of work but he finally was able to fix the problem...and then photocopy the result. Have you ever run into a rut of this kind, where an essence was just unwilling to shake onto the page? Is there a common cause solution for you to such dead-ends?

Joe Ciardiello: Oh definitely, there have been many occasions where I felt I nailed the likeness in a preliminary sketch, only to tighten up and lose it in the final drawing. I've also had that similar Hirschfeld experience where I think I've got it, but then the drawing begins to look like someone else and now I can't get it out of my head. The only solution is to start over.

John Cuneo: Losing face. Yes. Sean Connery morphs into Pierce Bronson who mysteriously drifts into Roger Moore territory. The world doesn't exist in line, and capturing a face by such primitive means  is an ephemeral pursuit. Likenesses are fugitive things and they will slip through your fingers. I look forward to hearing any solutions or advice on this matter.

Jason Seiler: To be honest I don't really struggle with this. There are times when someone may be a little more challenging but I find that quick studies and thumbnails really do the trick.  Sometimes you have to step back and look from a distance. Place pictures of other people next to your subject and their unique qualities will emerge.  

Pope.jpgIllustration by Anita Kunz

Anita Kunz: Once I was doing a Time cover and it was a portrait of Pope John Paul II. The deadline for producing a cover for Time was always brutal. I basically had one day and one night to complete the painting and at 3 am I remember that I started thinking that my painting was looking an awful lot like Bob Barker. I just couldn't shake the feeling and tried for hours to fix it. I think I told the art director the next day. They never published it, and to this day I think it may have been because I said I thought it looked like Bob Barker. I should just have kept my mouth shut!

 Victor Juhasz: That rut seems to be a given in the work we do. It's remarkable how sometimes we nail our subject on the first take--BAM!--and on other occasions it's such a Sisyphian task. Like I mentioned before, it can happen a lot with attractive or white bread faces. The slight shift in line and emphasis and the subject becomes someone else. Attempt to correct it and he/she morphs into yet another person. It's the kind of experience that shakes my self-confidence and assumption that I ever knew what I was doing in the first place.

Sometimes walking away from the piece after exhausting all considered options, taking a nap, maybe reading or exercising, and returning to the drawing table, is the solution. I find that in order for that to really work, everything I've done beforehand has to be thrown away. No further attempts to correct the old problem, to redraw on bond paper over old failures. I start from scratch like I never did anything prior. Of course, the fact is that I have done a hundred fails and they are in my subconscious but 90% of the time, by starting completely fresh without the distraction of those failures around me I can mentally edit what went wrong and arrive at a successful portrait. On other occasions I confess to looking at what someone else did of the same person; try to figure out that way what it is I am missing or overlooking. I do it not to replicate someone else's success but more to jar myself out of whatever it is that has me locked into repeating the same mistakes. Finally, referring to a point I made earlier, it may just be returning to the research and finding the right photo with the right angle that provides the key.

Edward Sorel: When in trouble I have no shame in looking at what another caricaturist did to a famous celebrity, and use what they have discovered. When there is no one to plagiarize from, you just get as close as you can. Sometimes you fail. Sometimes you hit it. Sometimes you convince yourself you hit it when you haven't.

Burt Silverman: Not quite the same experience of losing a resemblance to another face, but I did have a fit recently of losing a resemblance because certain specific features were focused on, and I lost the whole "gestalt,"  i.e. what makes the "landscape" of the face reveal the real elements of that persons "look." Quite frankly, this happened  far less--if at all--in my illustration work when I was a good deal younger. I think acuity begins to fade a little after 80--like "losing a step" in sports. Also painting portraits in the fine art world elicits more demanding approval from the client. The only answer I have is probably simple: disengage--leave the problem and come back to it later, much later, usually a day or more.

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Brodner Day 4.jpgSometimes people are deeply unsettled by a face. Lately there was the case of this guy, a criminal named Jeremy Meeks, who was arrested in California on weapons charges, who became the heartthrob of millions when his mugshot went viral online. This comes after Rolling Stone published a cover photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Bomber, also causing great popular angst. Many attacked the magazine for making him a "rock star." These men's natural faces sent messages that were at odds with who they were. To me this is fascinating and touches on a truth we deal with: how can you reveal something in a face that is MORE than the collection of features we see? Can you speak to how you view this topic? Could you describe verbally what ideas would come into your mind about an imaginary assignment to render these people...or an OJ Simpson (or Ronald Reagan!) in a way that doesn't allow for the unintended consequences of photography to get in the way of your story?

Jason Seiler: I see where you are going with this but I feel that it is a matter of gathering as much reference as possible and studying them. I can draw them however I like...so it is also a matter of what the art director or editor are looking for. I'd prefer to draw them in a way that is less flattering to them, showing their true nature and I don't think that would be all that difficult at all just from these references here. It would be a matter of understanding human anatomy and structure, as well as expression.

Anita Kunz: I think that we want those who do monstrous things to look like monsters. The idea that people who behave in horrific ways might even be handsome is counterintuitive to our innate sense of fairness.

I think that we as artists have a lot of tools at our disposal. We can utilize colors, design, distortion, etc. to exaggerate the face to make our point about the person. I know that if I had to do a portrait of a vicious person I'd use unpleasant colors and uncomfortable distortions. That's the nature of editorial portraiture.

But misunderstandings do happen. People view art through the lenses of their own experiences. Once I did a Rolling Stone cover of Michael Jackson. I depicted him as a Disney character, but people in the UK thought I was depicting him as a gollywog, which would have been an extremely racist thing for me to do.  Another time I depicted Albert Einstein in a devilish Halloween mask for The New York Times for an article about his apparent misogyny, and I was accused of anti-Semitism.

Unfortunately there are often unintended consequences of making work that's so public. But I think that speaks more to the power of art.

Juhasz illo1.jpgIllustration by Victor Juhasz

Victor Juhasz: Well, that's where the artist's eye matters. I knew nothing about this Meeks character until you brought him up. So I Googled him and looked at a bunch of photos. In his case, the focus would be on the eyes and using artistic license to say something about the subject's interior.  In a situation like this, reading up on the subject will help to bring poetry to the portrait whereas the photos provide the prose.  

I understand why Rolling Stone went with that cover image of the Boston Bomber--another take on the banality of evil via an incredibly bland photo of the kid that felt like a bad teen magazine shot. I also understand why it blew up in their faces judging by the hostility of response. People responded to the facts in the photo and not the irony of intent. That's because photos portray facts, drawings portrays the possibilities.  (Ironically, the RS issue was a major success from a sales standpoint and all the publicity surrounding the cover.) I thought of that cover in relation to the OJ Simpson Time magazine cover and how they darkened his skin and caught hell for it. In both circumstances it seemed to me the observational talents of a skilled illustrator could have brought something to the image that the photo alone, even a manipulated photo, couldn't.  People concentrate on the facts of a photo. When they look at an illustration, they are confronted with the subtleties the artist picks up on as well as the editorial commentary he/she brings to the caricature/portrait.  

Edward Sorel: There isn't any face that can't be manipulated by an artist to conform to the artist's opinion of him. That is the value of caricature, and why caricaturists still manage to get work in an age when photography has taken over magazines. German artists were able to make Hitler seem heroic, and a cover artist for the National Review gratuitously made a teenage Chelsea Clinton look grotesquely ugly. I have never created an impression of a person that was contrary to my personal view of him or her. Time magazine wanted me once to do a cover with poor put-upon Nixon being hounded by the press. I really don't stray very far from a straight likeness, I never could do extreme caricature like Covarubbius or Gerald Scarfe or Brodner.

Joe Ciardiello: That's a tough one. I'd refer back to my second answer about aiming for an "emotional likeness" as opposed to an obvious caricature or funny scenario. In the case of Meeks and Tsarnaev, you have two good-looking guys (always harder to draw) that have done terrible things. Rather than glorify them, the goal would be to get a sense of who they are through a certain attitude in their look, or with color or black or shadow to create a mood. Fortunately I didn't have this assignment.

John Cuneo: Without going into any self deprecating calisthenics, allow me to establish a definition of terms. First off, my stuff is not really "caricature." I'm not chasing the same wild alchemy of distortion and arrangement of features and shapes and reinventing a likeness. That's for the  Auerbach-Levi's or the Brodners  or Phillip Burkes  to tackle. I'm reading sheet music; those people are improvising. The best I'm hoping for is what I call a humorous likeness.

It's an awkward phrase and maybe a tedious parsing, but when I'm assigned a  job with actual people to draw, the faces are not stand-alone portraits,  but  part of a larger idea and arrangement. They should be recognizable (and hopefully a little funnier than the photo reference) but they do not contain the elements of magical reinvention that I, at least, associate with true caricature.


Visit Steve Brodner's website for illustrations, news, great links, resources, and more.


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  • David Apatoff

    What a terrific garden of perspectives from a varied, talented collection of artists. There's a lot of rich experience in these answers. Thanks for pulling this extraordinary group together.

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