Tuesday, December 6, 2016

New Portrait Book from Nathan Fowkes

Many of us have been following Nathan Fowkes on the internet, both for his landscape gouache studies and his portrait studies.

Yesterday I received a copy of his new book "How to Draw Portraits in Charcoal," and it's every bit as beautifully produced as I hoped it would be.

I had the honor of writing the foreword to the book, and here's what I wrote:

This book presents a welcome opportunity to study Nathan's dazzling charcoal portraits in beautiful detail.

Nathan’s portraits overflow with virtuosity. Sweeping, energetic strokes dance across the page, as if animated by a master conjurer. The lighting is so brilliant that it seems to shine brighter than the paper. Shadows are soft and mysterious, concealing more than they reveal.

The student or fellow artist looking for the precise recipe will rejoice, for Nathan generously lists all the tools he uses and all the procedures he follows. There are plenty of step-by-step sequences showing how the drawings develop, and those process images are beautifully shot and printed.



If the book stopped there, it would still be a valuable contribution to a shelf of portrait drawing books. But it goes far beyond style and surface. Nathan delves deeply into the thought and planning that lies behind his drawings.


Beneath the painterly strokes lies a firm armature of line drawing, using an adaptation of the method taught by Frank Reilly (1906-1967), an instructor at the Art Students League. Having that diagrammatic foundation gives the drawings the structure that holds them together. The basic plan is: 1) a simple construction drawing, 2) simple masses of value to describe big forms, and 3) design hard and soft edges.

Nathan explains his principles of construction, lighting, planes, and edges. His insights are like gold: “I’m much more able to render complexity when I look for the simplest shapes first.” A recurring theme is that drawing is not a literal representation, but rather an interpretation of what we see.

Although he is specific about his methods and principles, he is not dogmatic about them. He invites the reader to question. He doesn’t want students to copy his outward style. Instead he encourages his reader to try out his way of drawing, and if they wish, to apply it to their own work.


Nathan shows compassion for his subjects. They are not nameless models, but rather human beings. He is not just documenting someone’s physiognomy, but rather creating probing studies of character. He tells the story of one of his models, Clark, who had a successful career as an actor until several tragic setbacks changed the course of his life. Nathan’s drawings of Clark express both the dignity and resilience of the man.

This book will become a cherished classic of portrait drawing, and I can only hope that we’ll see more books in the future that take a similar look at Nathan’s observational painting and imaginative work.
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How to Draw Portraits in Charcoal
Nathan Fowkes website
Nathan's gouache landscapes on Instagram

3 comments:

David Apatoff said...

Wow, thanks for the alert, James! I had no idea this was in the pipeline, but I'll definitely get a copy.

Like you, I've long been an admirer of Nathan's color work. In my view, he's one of the most gifted landscape illustrators around, and his subtle use of color never ceases to astonish. I didn't know what I'd find with these relatively dark charcoal portraits but I can tell from your post that the two relate in important ways-- for example, Nathan's technique of distilling both landscapes and faces to their essence before selectively adding detail, or the way value is key to both his color and black and white work. I'm looking forward to reading his book and reading your foreword. Two masters with a lot to offer.

Studio Maywyn said...

I love Fowkes work. Thank you posting about the book.

plimages said...

Thank you for blogging about this fabulous book. I put it on my Christmas list and actually received it. This is exactly the instruction I need at this stage in my drawing journey. His approach to drawing portraits has helped me in my non-portrait drawings. Thanks again.