What’s in a Nose?

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say that successful portraiture is successful when the portrait artist, foremost, captures a likeness. Yes, I ardently believe that there has to be something more to the story—a sense of the subject’s spirit or personality, or something interesting about the composition—but if you can’t recognize the person in the portrait painting…that’s an issue!

Portrait de Therese by Balthus, oil painting, 1939.
Portrait de Therese by Balthus, oil painting, 1939.

Portrait artists start with the building blocks of the face and gain the skill to depict those features, and then add their own artistic flavor. One anatomical feature of the face that has always intimidated me is the nose. How to do it justice?! Here are a few tips I’ve learned on how to depict the nose with a little more nose-how. I mean know-how! (Pure cheese, that one!)

Soft parts and a few strong lines. We all know that the nose has no bone to it, just hardened cartilage and fatty tissue. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t strong lines to be found in this feature. The creases where the nostril meets the cheek; perhaps the dip where the nostrils meet at the tip of the nose; and the bridge of the nose can all be defined with stronger shadow or firmer lines. The nostrils themselves and the tip of the nose are where you’ll typically go softer.

Think round. When drawing the underlying structure of the nose, artists often use straight lines and angles, and that makes absolute sense to me. But in subsequent stages of a portrait painting don’t forget the ball on the tip of the nose. Big or small, broad or narrow, this sphere shape needs to be made distinct with highlights and shadow, and should not be left to the straight lines and edges one starts with.

Portrait of a Man by Titian, oil painting, 1510-12.
Portrait of a Man by Titian,
oil painting, 1510-12.

A cliff that casts a shadow. I know no one wants to think of their nose as a cliff side, but the underside of the nose is usually cast in shadow, just like a jutting cliff casts a shadow on itself. Put that shadow in. It will immediately give a sense of mass to the nose.

Getting to the point where you can confidently depict a person—eyes, ears, mouth, and especially nose!—means dedication and, sure, a bit of trial and error. We recommend starting your portraiture foray with a resource that will help you avoid many missteps and get right to the heart of skillful portraits. Learn alongside Ann Kullberg with her portrait DVD series on basic portrait techniques and skin tones and enjoy the process of creating depictions of the faces around you.

P.S. Visit ArtistsNetwork.tv to take advantage of a 30% discount on or before 4/30/2015 by using coupon code ATVNEW30 on a monthly or yearly subscription! (Individual subscriptions not included.)

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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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