How I learnt portraiture – Inspiration Point

Inspiration point

I’ve known for a long time that I don’t see the world quite the same way as most people. I’ve been known to be weird, odd, out of step, Aquarian, or just plain strange. I’m good at getting the wrong end of the stick in a conversation, and in group learning, my answers are always off centre of the norm. But it is my way of viewing the world that makes me the artist I am. So here I am going to blatantly share some of my points of inspiration, some of those personal moments that just spark for me and make me want to create. And perhaps I can share that spark, too.


I’m a Star Trek fan. Trekkie, Trekker, odd-ball and nerd, I’m a fan of the original 1966 television show, Star Trek. I have a book collection, a comic collection, all the films and television episodes on DVD with several documentaries kept on good ol’ VHS. I have a model of two different Enterprises on my desk, along with a borg cube that has fallen off the computer and is currently gathering dust behind my hard drive. I even have a little pewter Captain Kirk talking into a little pewter communicator (he sits right next to my cast metal Kitt and his figurine Michael Knight, but that is a whole other story :D).

I’m a fully qualified Star Trek fan.

What does that have to do with anything on this blog? Well, I have to go back in time a little to explain.


In 1991 I was eighteen (yay, do the math, now you know how ancient I am :D), living at home (not a fun place), unemployed (I ran out of school), and I had plenty of time on my hands. I was also heavily into Star Trek (I had a uniform!!! Actually I still have it somewhere, just can’t fit into it anymore :D) and a member of my local Star Trek club (yeah, back before the internet revolutionised fandom).

I was also an artist without a cause. I’d spent the previous two years trudging through matriculation art classes, which I barely passed, so I was looking for something fresh to do. I had attempted to draw faces a long time before that (when I was eleven I drew a portrait of Michael Jackson for a school friend), they had never looked right, but I really wanted to work out how to do it.

Star Trek has a lot of faces in it.

For starters, I sat down and drew Doctor Leonard McCoy (for comparison pictures of the characters have a gander at ).

Warning: below standard artwork ahead.

Dr McCoy in pencil

I think there was very little difference between this drawing when I was eighteen and the one I drew when I was eleven. It took me a while to work out what I was doing wrong. I knew some of the theory of face structure, everything was basically where it was supposed to be, so why wasn’t it working?

Because I was drawing lines not shapes.

There is a difference between drawing the outline of an object and drawing the object. To draw an object you must draw the effect of light on the object. That is how we see. We don’t see the object, we only see how the light reacts and that is what we need to draw to gain realism.

In simpler terms, I needed to learn to draw the shadows. So I did.

Beverly Crusher in pencil

Better, but obviously I still needed to practise and fix a few other things like proportions and structure.

I did practise for a little while. I can’t remember what other pencil drawings I did, and I haven’t found any others in my sketchbooks. Likely any remotely good ones were given away. I gave away most of my art until recently.

As the end of 1991 approached I was able to grab an opportunity. My local Star Trek club had a monthly newsletter, the Tau Ceti, and I put up my hand to illustrate the front covers for a year. I had found a way to learn and create something of use at the same time. It also tied me into a contract of sorts that forced me to create art on a regular basis.

There was another hurdle, however. This was before I had a computer, before access to a scanner. The only tool available was a photocopier, so I needed to draw in pen to get a good result. I had never drawn a portrait in pen before. scary stuff considering just how fiddly a portrait usually was for me. A single slip out of place could turn a likeness into very bad art.

I ended up pencilling and then penning over the top. I chose stippling because of its ability to maximise detail and its flexibility. November 1991 saw my first attempt.

Tau Ceti January 1992 cover


In January 1992 I made a second attempt.

Detail of February 1992 Tau Ceti cover

The original works are A3 (297 x 420 mm) and too big to fit on my scanner, so this is a detail. One of the advantages of photocopier technology back then was that they were good, but not that good. If you look closely at the above scan, you can see where I’ve liberally used white correction fluid to fix mistakes. Captain Picard, the bald guy at the top left corner, wasn’t even drawn on the same sheet of paper as the rest of the crew. I drew him first, cut him out and stuck him onto the main design, mainly because I didn’t trust myself to not make a mistake. If you look closely at Deanna Troi, the woman at the bottom of the picture, she looks like she is wearing a facial mask – because she is, one of correction fluid. Women are harder to draw than men, as their features are softer and require less definition, which, in turn, puts so much more pressure on the marks you do make on the paper. Correction fluid did not show up on the photocopied pieces, so it was a great way to stumble through my learning period.

I did stipple work for the covers until April, at which point I declared myself dot crazy (stipple is very time intensive – my sister, who shared a bedroom with me at the time, can still remember the dot, dot, dot sound I used to make late at night when she was trying to sleep). For the May cover I made my first attempt at line work in pen.

Detail of May 1992 Tau Ceti cover

It should be noted here that I had two major influences in the types of artwork I attempted while doing this. For linework, I idolised some of the comic cover illustrators. An example can be found here, but I’m afraid I can’t remember the artist’s name. Hmm, looking at the above and the comic cover now, they are quite similar in design, though I don’t recall aiming to do that. But I did learn from observing what those professional artists had done. I knew I would never quite be at their level, but they were a great source of inspiration.

The rest of the covers of the Tau Ceti were drawn with similar linework. I did improve as I went along. Here is an example of Spock from the November cover.

Detail of November 1992 Tau Ceti cover

I grew much more confident and if I skip ahead to 2001 where after a long break away from this kind of drawing, I dabbled in a little Jim Kirk, my style has fully developed.

Jim Kirk

Meanwhile, back in 1992, about two thirds of the way through the year, I started to get bored with black and white and wanted to try something in colour. This was where I was heavily influenced by my other artistic idol of the time, Keith Birdsong. He was the artist who did the covers of the Star Trek novels. An example fo his work can be found here, he doesn’t appear to have a website.

I started with colour pencil, and again with McCoy, if I remember correctly, but that image was given to a friend who was an avid McCoy fan. The second colour pencil picture I drew was of William Riker.

William RikerI was quite happy with that, and still am, despite its structural faults.

I dabbled in pencil for a little while longer. There was an Uhura double portrait for a friend who liked her, but I can’t recall much else.

Colour pencil challenge met, I then had a go at painting. I painted my only two ever oil paintings. I knew nothing about the medium and still don’t know much, but I slapped the paint onto some canvas board and managed at least one half decent painting. This was a present for that same friend who was a McCoy fan, she also liked Riker (and so did I :D).

William Riker oil painting

Again, it has its faults, but I was painting in oils and I felt like a ‘real’ artist 😀

This was my second oil painting, the first was McCoy again, and not very good. I haven’t touched oils since.

And I haven’t done much Star Trek art since either. I’m still a fan, but not as crazily as before. It was certainly useful to have around at the time.

The above artworks, plus the other covers and a drawing exam got me into a highly contested Graphic Design college at the end of 1992. There were over 1000 applicants and only 48 places and my nerdy Trek artwork got me in.

I’ve done little portraiture since. I find it to be hardwork to get a good likeness and I still need more practise. Back in 2005, when I first bought my pastel pencils I needed a topic to try out their capabilities, so I drew a friend.

Portrait of a friend

Still full of technical issues, but then a far cry from my original attempt at the top of this page. Actually pastel pencils were a dream to draw with on this kind of subject. I managed more dimension with this medium than any of the others before it. Hmm, maybe I should go back to them and explore them further.

Anyway, the reason for all this rambling is that I did a sketch of my daughter the other day for Sunday Sketches and it has encouraged me to turn a focus on my portraiture again. All of the above are rather posed pictures. I’ve never been very good at creating emotion on the page. KJ’s picture is the freest I have ever drawn and I’d like to explore some more expressive portraiture.

I obviously still have some technical issues to deal with, but if I can turn the first picture above into the last picture above, then perhaps there is hope for me yet.

(learn, baby, learn)


5 responses to “How I learnt portraiture – Inspiration Point”

  1. This made sense! I’m at the point where I know in theory about feature placement, etc. but it doesn’t come out right. What you said about drawing lines as opposed to shapes being part of the problem sent an “oh!” running through my head. Definitely planning to experiment with that concept. And your art – amazing. Just amazing.

  2. This is an awesome post. I am both inspired and intrigued by your evolution. You really have a talent at drawing and seeing yourself from outside yourself it seems. So cool.

  3. keith birdsong Avatar
    keith birdsong

    Hey…thank you. Someone posted this on my facebook page. Your work has evolved immensely from the first samplings.

    Keith Birdsong

    1. Oh, the wonders of the internet. Thank you so much for taking the time to have a look at my art.

      I admit to spending quite some time staring at those Star Trek covers of yours. You are still the epitome of portraiture for me, still love your work.

      I have continued with my portraiture and am right now in the middle of a painting of my two daughters which can be found on my Facebook page – Liz Powley as I continue to climb the learning curve.

      Thanks for being so inspirational!

      Best wishes,

    2. Oh, and do you have a website? I couldn’t find one when I wrote this, but that was some time ago. If you do, I’m quite happy to correct this to have it pointing at you. I didn’t really like linking to some random photo that I didn’t know whether you had authorised or not.

      Best wishes,