Proportional Divider for Facial Feature Positioning

My painting journey has taken a learning-oriented turn towards trying to abandon some of my most loved crutches. The most significant of these crutches has been using pencil to sketch outlines before painting, which is how I got my feet under me with the first dozen paintings. But recently, I decided if I wanted to truly develop my skills, I’d need to change some of my processes and become more flexible. For example, taking out a ruler when trying to paint from life probably wouldn’t do much good.

I started by doing a couple of portraits without pencil outlines at all. This turned out decently, but I could tell it would take a lot of learning and practice to get these freehand paintings to show any good resemblance. If I want to get to this far off, long term goal of from-life portrait painting, there is no way around it – I will need to develop my skills without using proportional aids. All that being said, this post is specifically about a detour to those goals! I recently came across a video by “The Paint Coach” Chris Fornataro which discusses his use of a tool called a “proportional divider.”

It’s possible this is a basic tool any new art student learns about early in their education. But since I don’t have any formal education in this field, there are sometimes beginner-level things that I learn much later than I should. This seems to be one of them, because I’ve found it to be an absolutely incredible device! I actually did a full review on a proportional divider at Armdog Reviews, along with a video, because I have become so fond of this tool. I suppose that’s both a good and bad thing, because it’s simultaneous both a useful/easy way to measure proportions and another crutch that might impede fully developing my freehand painting skills.

All that being said, before I get too crazy, ranting and raving about nuisances and peripheral things, let me talk a bit more about what exactly it is. I’ve embedded a YouTube video I made showing the proportional divider in action. As you can see, basically you use one side to measure your reference, then the other side to measure your painting or drawing. As you slight the middle piece, it changes the scale (with 1:1 being the center). It’s such a simple design, but absolutely blows away my old ruler in terms of ease of use. To some extent, I’m kicking myself to have just learned about this now of all times, with me actually trying practice without stuff like this. But, as you’ll see in the next couple of paintings, now that I have it, I couldn’t resist using this proportional divider a few times.

So, here’s the second painting I’ve done using this tool. This one was kind of a generic looking older fellow that I ended up changing a bit to try to make him look sort of like an old west cowboy. Here’s the painting:

Mustache Man. Oil Paint on Paper.

As I said above, I ended up going sort of rouge on this one partway through, morphing the subject into almost a Virgil Earp style rugged person. Although I was by no means trying to make him look exactly like the actor Sam Elliot, I did achieve the general cowboy-ish vibe I was pushing towards I think. He looks like a tough older mustachioed dude. I pushed some dark shadows pretty successfully, which I really like about this painting.

Although the painting was mostly smooth and uneventful, there are a couple areas that are not ideal. One is the overall position and shading around the mustache and mouth. There was a point during this process where the lips were too red and the shadows were so out of position that he didn’t look at all normal. That phase was somewhat off-looking, so I definitely had to keep molding and pushing the paint around until he looked more like what I was trying to depict. I did not get it exactly where I wanted it to be (mouth/mustache shadows are still off a bit), but at least it’s better than it was.

I made the usual fast/short progression video set to music, which actually seems like one of the higher quality videos (in a relative sense) that I’ve done in terms of clarity and lighting. I’m really not sure why that is…it’s weird that I remember this, since the actual painting was probably a month ago now, but I’m fairly certain it was raining. So I don’t think I had particularly good light upstairs where I do all my art-related stuff. I wish I could figure out why the quality seems better here, because I’d sure love to reproduce those conditions! I ended up sharing this one as a YouTube “Shorts”, which is basically like their version of Instagram Reels or Tik Tok. Thought I’d try something new in this smartphone-oriented world.

So, that’s pretty much it for my lengthy dissertation on the proportional divider. This thing has already completely replaced my poor, lonely ruler, which will probably be relegated to the dark corners of my desk. But, as I discussed, I still want to practice without such a measuring device. I don’t want to become utterly dependent on this tool! But in the interest of full disclosure, I did recently try another painting without any guiderails…it turned out so bad I threw it in the garbage. Which is something I almost never do. Part of that may have been frustration with trying to use paints that were too dry from sitting on my palette for days, or perhaps I just wasn’t having a good day. Bad days do happen. But I’m not so sure I’m ready to be some wizard of a dynamic portrait painter – I may need to get a hundred or two paintings under my belt first (seriously, no exaggeration there, as that aligns with my pencil drawing journey).

I’ve got one more portrait to share from this day of painting; mustache man, Morrigan from Dragon Age, and then the last is Melina from Elden Ring. You got a preview of that one from the YouTube review I showed of the proportional divider. But, I’ll share that progression and probably talk a bit about what I’m discovering about painting videos. I would normally talk a bit about Elden Ring, but I think I’ve already covered that in the four other posts I did on that game!

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