Sketching a 19th-Century Portrait
I am inspired by Thérèse Schwartze’s portrait of a woman: a delicate and lively drawing
Lately, I have been very interested in portrait drawing, and, as always, looking for new sources to inspire me to improve. I happened to find this sketch from the Rijksmuseum. Its simplicity and warmth moved me.
The artist is a 19th-century woman, Thérèse Schwartze. I learned that she was a Dutch portrait painter. She was quite famous in her own time, and commissioned to draw the portraits of Amsterdam’s elite, which she did with pastels or oil paint. She made a comfortable living doing so and was apparently an accomplished businesswoman.
I am very interested in Schwartze’s portrait technique. Not that I loved everything I saw from her (that’s rarely the case with any artist), but I am really taken by the way she was able to draw portraits that are well crafted and precisely painted, but that also look spontaneous, warm and lively. She usually drew or painted the face and the hands in more detail, and left the rest of the figure as a quick and vivid sketch.
This drawing with chalk is said to be the portrait of Fortunati, an Italian model if I understand correctly. Let’s try to learn from it!
Thérèse Schwartze tijdens het schilderen van een vrouwsportret, anonymous, 1890 - 1918. Gift of the Stichting Twickel.
Zelfportret met zwarte hoed en bril, Thérèse Schwartze, 1917. Gift of Paul Brandt, Wilrijk.
De schilderes Thérèse Schwartze in haar atelier, Prinsengracht 1021, Amsterdam, Löw (firma Herz) , S. (attributed to), 1903.
All from Rijksmuseum.
Thérèse Schwartze (1861–1918) was a Dutch portrait painter. She trained with her father and then travelled around the world. There were various influences on her work and she was partly self-taught. Back in the Netherlands, she became famous enough to be asked to draw portraits of Amsterdam’s elite, which she did using mainly pastels and oil paint.
To work on this project I opted for
coloured pencils: black, grey and white
brown paper (160 g/m2 or 98 lb)
Step 1 – Sketching the general shape of the portrait
For this sketch, I wanted to observe Thérèse Schwartze’s work as closely as possible. I used my usual method, which is very much a trial and error process, in three steps. First, I look intently at a small part of the reference photo, as if it were some abstract shape. I try to reproduce it on paper, looking back and forth a lot between the photo and the drawing. Do the shapes look the same? Yes: keep it. No: erase and repeat. Then I look at my drawing again, not as geometrical shapes but as a portrait. Does it look like the 19th-century portrait? Yes: keep it. No: erase and repeat.
It begins with the general shape of the portrait.
In the short video above, this runs from 0:00 to 01:50. It actually took me 10 minutes.
Step 2 – Drawing the details of the face and hair
This step is all about refining the sketch using my method of looking at the picture as a set of abstract shapes.
I learned something crazy during this step. First, I was drawing with my reference picture in front of me, on my computer screen. After a while, I realised that some of my vertical proportions were a little off. Following my intuition, I printed the reference picture and put it next to my drawing, on the left, as you can see in the picture. And guess what? Suddenly, it was very easy to correct the vertical proportions.
Note to self: When working from a picture, try to put it in different positions in relation to my own drawing: above my paper, next to my paper, and so on. Each time, focus on the proportions and see if things look different.
In the short video above, this runs from 01:50 to 02:30. It actually took me 1 hour and 10 minutes.
Step 3 – Adding grey, black and white accents with pencil
I then needed to add accents to my drawing, using three different colours:
I used grey pencil to add some volume to the hair and to emulate the grey chalk that was visible on my reference picture.
I used more black pencil to add accents where the reference picture was darkest.
I used white pencil, with very light touches, where the light hit the face. This is a little bit of artistic licence from my part, because I don’t think there were white accents in the reference picture. I was inspired to add them to suggest depth, and also because it’s very tempting on brown paper, in the spirit of the trois crayons (three chalks) technique.
In the short video above, this runs from 02:30 to 04:02. It actually took me 10 minutes.
It was a pleasure to draw this sketch. I framed it and took a picture of it: it looks really good in a home interior!
I learned a lot during that project. I learned how the place where I put the reference picture had an influence on the ease with which I could get the proportions of my drawing right. Above the drawing, it helped me define the horizontal proportions. Next to the drawing, it helped me define the vertical proportions.
I also learned a lot about the subject of portrait drawing. The drawing of the eyes, nose and lips here is simple, yet clearly defined. This project made drawing a leaning face seem easy (which is not the case, usually!).
If you want a step-by-step guide to how I draw a self-portrait, with even more detail, check out this course, a simple guide to creating an elegant portrait or self-portrait, which will be ready to frame or gift in only 7 days.
If you liked this post, you will almost certainly like some of these other portraits. Enjoy!