Fatola Israel’s emotive portrait drawings demonstrate how the medium’s softness lends itself well to the study of social issues. In his hyper-real style, the award-winning pencil artist who studied in Nigeria, explores humankind’s struggle within society. Captivity captures an intimate close up of a man behind bars, while “Mojisola” documents an entirely different emotion: hope.
The work of acclaimed artist Nelson Makamo, winner of the 2018 Rise Art Prize, highlights individuality and celebrates society in his native South Africa. The large-scale charcoal drawing, In My Skin sees a young boy standing as if exposed, charged with a self-consciousness recognisable amongst pre-teens. Beauty captures his subject less directly, zooming in to the sitter from the side, his features composed from spontaneous marks and scrawled words.
Lee Ellis uses his portrait drawings to create a darker sense of intimacy, using his figures’ warped features to hint at an inner landscapes of psychological torture. The scratched surface of Cheese Before Bed 11 creates a sense of emotional angst. Ellis’ distinctive figures are repeated throughout the rest of his nightmarish Cheese Before Bed series.
The history of portrait drawing is intertwined with that of portraiture. However, unlike portrait paintings which have evolved according to the style of the day, portrait drawings have remained a timeless way to intimately explore an individual.
There has long been a fascination with portrait drawings of well-known figures, reflecting a desire to strip them back to their core. Augustus John sketched T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) in both London and Paris. At the time Lawrence sat for John, between 1919 and 1923, the archaeologist and military officer was a household name and John’s drawings of him sold for good money. Commenting on this fact, Lawrence wrote to John: “What do artists' models of the best sort fetch per hour (or perhaps per job) . . . it seems to me that I have a future . . .”
Unlike John’s paintings of Lawrence which can be considered fairly formal, the quick portrait drawings show a different side to the sitter. A two-minute sketch drawn at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, shows a more vulnerable Lawrence than the public were perhaps used to - a figure engulfed by his robes, hunched and small.
The intimacy of portrait drawings can reveal a side to a person’s personality that is often edited out from official portraits. In Paul Emsley’s final painting of the Duchess of Cambridge, she appears demure and regal. But in Emsley’s portrait drawings, her gaze is fierce and challenging. Studies of modern politicians, such as Diane Abbott by Stuart Pearson Wright and Ken Livingstone by Andrew Tift, show a softer side to these public figures.
Since 1990, there has been a revival of interest in portrait drawings among contemporary artists, who are drawn to the art form for its intimacy. Matthew Carr’s 2008 portrait drawing of novelist Sebastian Faulks, for example, hints at a sort of existential crisis in the sitter, as we see a floating head in pencil, marooned on the empty page.
Self-portrait drawings offer artists an impulsive method of self-examination. Stanley Spencer’s 1913 self-portrait drawing is sketched onto paper that had previously been used, hinting either at spontaneity or an attempt to weave studio materials into his self-portrait. The piece is thought to be in preparation for his self-portrait painting completed the following year and the drawing shares the same intense stare he later depicted in oil.
However not all portrait drawings exist only as studies in preparation for grander works in painting or sculpture. Frank Auerbach churned over his drawings of Estella (Stella) West, who posed for him between 1950 and the 1970s. Head of E.O.W. took almost 70 sittings and as a result of the artist’s constant drawing and erasing, the paper is torn and patched.