350 Ways of Drawing Faces

Can you imagine figuring out how to draw a face—the same face—350 times or more, and making each portrait drawing different and as compositionally sound and interesting as if you had made only one? Quite a task, yet Italian designer, sculptor, and painter Piero Fornasetti did just that.

Fornasetti in front of a wall filled with his plates.
Fornasetti in front of a wall filled with his plates.

Fornasetti took as his muse the Italian opera singer Lina Cavalieri, and he created a plate series with over 350 variations of the soprano's face. Looking through several images from the series, you see certain commonalities in the body of work, such as the exclusive use of black and white and the frontal presentation of Cavalieri's face. But the lasting impression the plates made on me was how significant small changes can be when drawing faces. Fornasetti's work shows that simple changes within a consistent framework (in his case, the portrait drawing of one woman) can lead to an amazing number of works that did not require him to go to square one each time he began again.  

So when drawing portraits, I always try to remember that small changes count as much as big ones do. You can keep the figure's position and expression relatively the same and change something outward or add an accessory, and the entire piece takes on a new life. Each work stands alone, but there is also a common tie that connects all the pieces in a much larger context.

Fornasetti's template of Cavalieri's face gave birth to hundreds of variations.
Fornasetti's template of Cavalieri's face gave birth to hundreds of variations.

This understanding can be applied to all the thematic explorations that we do as well. Sometimes, I feel like I have to come up with a new, bombastic idea for every artwork, but that can leave you mentally exhausted and exasperated, and what's more, it isn't even true. My experience talking to artists about their practices, researching great artists of the past, and pursuing my own work has shown me that you arrive at a strong theme by tweaking it, not in one fell swoop. Taking an idea in different directions and teasing out its essence until you find what you really want to say is the way to go. For Fornasetti, one face was inspiration enough to make a considerable number of portrait drawings. Even if we are half as inspired or relentless, we'd have an impressive number of drawings or paintings to show for it. Not bad at all!

If you are seeking the inspiration you need or the unique fine-art resources that will goad your creativity in new directions, explore the North Light Shop. There is a store-wide sale going on right now, with plenty of books, magazines, DVDs, and video downloads to send you off in whatever artistic direction you choose. Enjoy!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

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