On Drawing Portraits

When I was a freshman in college, I decided to get a table at the annual craft fair to make some money. Except I didn’t have any scarfs knitted, candles poured, or cards painted, so I had to come up with something quick. I decided to do live portraits, in ink. 

It was terrifying because there was a real chance I’d make someone pay eight dollars for a terrible rendition of their face. And because Bard College is kind of an awkward place where eye contact with strangers is usually avoided. So I worried people wouldn’t seek out being stared at for ten whole minutes.

But I drew over 20 portraits that day. Every time someone sat down, I focused less on drawing them, and more on seeing them. I realized that the input I needed was not just the shape of their jaw and the texture of their hair, but the feeling I got from being near them. As long as I focused on that, my hand knew what to do.

I felt like I got to know some people without having to talk very much. They were willing to sit and as I let my eyes absorb their personality and their presence. And they seemed genuinely happy with the lines that wound up on the paper that way.

One of the people I met that day was a staffer at the college, who asked me if I would draw portraits at her mother’s birthday party. Two weeks later, she came to get me in her pick-up truck. Holding my bag of drawing paper and japanese pens, I looked out the window as we left the manicured lawns of my liberal arts bubble, got onto the highway and eventually stopped in what I now know is a trailer park.

It turns out I was the attraction of the party. Surrounded by plastic folding chairs, disposable plates and supermarket cake, I drew nearly every guest. I captured missing teeth and greasy pony tails as well as pudgy eight year olds and wrinkled upper lips, and it’s still one of the best memories I have from that time. I didn’t even talk to them much, didn’t catch most of their names, but by drawing them, I connected. 

I really got to see them and they seemed so happy to be seen.


Here’s a portrait of my mom, who doesn’t do any drawing but sees people like no other.