100 Heads Later

People, and specifically faces, have always been one of my favourite things to draw, ever since I first attempted to reproduce Beatles album covers in oil pastels in my high school art classes. I became fascinated by caricature in my teenage years and throughout my twenties, then gravitated back toward realistic portraits, but the challenge of capturing someone’s likeness in a convincing way has always drawn me in.

However, I’ve also always found portraits fairly daunting. Being “self-taught”, I’ve always lacked confidence in my ability. I struggle with perfectionism, and I would sometimes put off starting a portrait for fear it wouldn’t turn out right, then when I did do one that turned out well, I would dwell on it for too long, rather than putting it aside to focus on the next one. So my portraits were pretty sporadic and never felt particularly enjoyable.

Last year I started working on learning to draw better, focusing on structure, gesture sketches, and trying to draw more often. I was doing occasional head drawings, but focussing more on figure drawing, as it’s more forgiving if you don’t get it quite right.

Then I spotted someone on Instagram using the #100heads hashtag. The idea is to draw 100 heads in 100 days, and I thought this was just what I needed to increase my confidence with portraits. I wouldn’t have time for perfectionism, and I figured it would be a good way to just get more experience in a relatively short time period.

126 days later

Yeah, I didn’t manage to stick to the one head every day part, but I did get 100 heads drawn in just over 4 months. Here are a few of my favourites:

You can visit my Instagram profile @danjohnsonart to browse through them on my timeline or all together in my highlighted story.

Was it worth it?

Absolutely! At times it was tough, sometimes I just didn’t feel like drawing, and other days I couldn’t draw anything that looked remotely like a real human (good job dogs have heads too!), but just going through the process of drawing a head almost every day for 4 months has been invaluable.

First and foremost it was great practice. Prior to this I probably wouldn’t have drawn 100 heads in a year or even 2, so getting that many done in such a short timeframe has really developed my muscle memory. I also feel a lot more confident, and the idea of starting a new portrait doesn’t feel particularly daunting any more.

What’s next?

I wonder whether I should start a new challenge. #100moreheads? #100blogposts maybe, haha! I’ll probably just keep drawing portraits when I feel like it, knowing that at least I can do a half decent job most of the time. I also need to get back to painting at some point soon. Let’s see where the mood takes me!

The art of the Selfie

Anyone who draws or paints portraits has most likely done their fair share of self portraits. While it may seem to some like an exercise in narcissism, it is in fact mainly a matter of convenience. It’s not easy to find people willing to sit still for several hours while you draw them, so it makes sense to draw the one person who is guaranteed to be sitting still for as long as it takes!

It also makes for a decent profile picture!

I drew a new self portrait recently, and I thought I’d share a few others that I’ve done over the years, in a variety of different styles and media:

It’s always interesting to see with each new self portrait, how I’ve developed in my drawing/painting ability, as well as how I’ve aged! Look at those long flowing locks I used to have 😦

I think it might be fun to do a new selfie every year around my birthday. Maybe I’ll try an oil portrait next time.

What it means to be a ‘self-taught’ artist

I consider myself a ‘self-taught’ artist.

What does this mean?

Essentially, it means I have had very little formal training in art/painting. I took art in high school, and very briefly in college, before switching to psychology for some reason, but since then, everything I’ve learnt has been through self-guided learning, using books, videos, informal online courses, and a large dose of trial-and-error (heavy on the error!)

So in a sense, I have been taught by the people who wrote those books and made those videos/courses, but not directly, and the ‘self-taught’ label applies more to the self-directed nature of the learning. I chose what to learn and when, and at what pace. I wasn’t following a curriculum, or being told exactly what to study.

As such, my learning has been sporadic, and I’ve been known to go for months at a time without picking up a brush/pencil (although I’m getting into a more regular routine these days).

How to be a self-taught artist

Here are some of the most beneficial resources I’ve used in my learning path so far. I hope you’ll find them equally useful.

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Every Painting Needs a Good Drawing

Drawing is one of four essential elements of a good representational painting (if you’re doing abstract work, the drawing is not quite so important).

(The other elements are value, edges and colour)

In his book Alla Prima – Everything I Know About Painting, Richard Schmid describes drawing, in the context of a painting, as “the size, shape, and arrangement of all the patches of colour that collectively constitute a painting.”

Essentially, it’s making sure every patch of paint is in the right place and is the right size.

I often start a painting by sketching in the shapes of the main elements, as you can see in these examples:

IMG_2756 IMG_4466

It’s not essential to get this kind of sketch 100% accurate, as you can adjust things as you paint, but it certainly helps to get as close as possible to begin with, and if you’re too far off it will be impossible to achieve a realistic looking painting.

If you struggle with drawing, I can strongly recommend the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. It teaches you to learn how to see like an artist, which is a first essential step to learning to draw. It’s also full of practical exercises to hone your skills.

One thing I’ve always found useful for keeping my drawing skills sharp is going to life drawing sessions. Accurately depicting the human form can be tricky, and it’s great practice for drawing, even if you only ever paint landscapes. I’d encourage you to try going to a life drawing class if you’ve never been.

Here’s a few of my favourite sketches from previous life drawing sessions:

reclining-figure-sketch figure-reclining foreshortened-legs-study torso-red-chalk

Learn How to See Like an Artist

If you’ve never taken a look at my other blog, Right Brain Rockstar, now would be a good time.

I usually write articles with advice and inspiration for people wanting to make a living from their creativity, but this week I posted the first of my art instruction articles, Top 3 Tips For Learning to See Like an Artist.

If you’re an aspiring artist, I’d love it if you’d read that post and let me know if you find it useful. I’m planning to develop a complete art course, and these posts will help me decide what people need the most help with.

Cheap Drawing Advice

If you can’t wait for the course, I’m currently experimenting with offering different forms of art instruction, and for a short time, you can get a drawing or painting critique from me for just $5.

If you send me a drawing or painting you have done, along with the reference photo, I will give you my feedback on your work, with a list of areas you need to work on, and I will even draw/paint over the top of your work to demonstrate my suggestions.

Check out the gig on Fiverr for more details, and let me know if you have any questions about it.


Where to Buy Drawing Reference Plaster Casts in the UK

One disadvantage of studying art online, is that as well as buying all of your regular art supplies such as paints, canvases etc, you also have to buy the reference material that would normally be provided by an art school.

One thing that I’ve found most difficult to find at a reasonable price is plaster casts, which are commonly used in art ateliers for drawing practice.


Example of a drawing cast

The course I’m doing lists several sources of plaster casts, but since it’s based in America, most of the sources are US based, and the cost of shipping a heavy across the Atlantic can almost double the cost of some casts.

I spent a long time on Google scouring the UK for any suppliers who might be able to provide me with a plaster cast for a reasonable price. I only found three suppliers based in the UK, but there is a German supplier who is very reasonable, and there are some online alternatives which you might consider.

Here’s my roundup of the suppliers I found, as well as the American ones, which you may consider if you have the budget for it.

Plaster Cast Suppliers


London Atelier of Representational Art (LARA) – LARA have a variety of different sized casts, busts and reliefs, ranging from £45 for facial features to £195 for full torso casts. The casts are not listed on their website, but I emailed the school and they sent me photos of what they had available, and they look like they are great quality.

Lavender Hill Studios – Lavender Hill have a large selection on their website, but when I emailed, they only had five available, ranging from £120 to £285, and the quality of the casts didn’t look as good as the ones from LARA. Worth emailing for details though.

Plaster Cast Interiors – There’s a wide range of weird and wonderful plaster casts available here. Not so many classical art type casts, but you might find something suitable and the prices are very reasonable. Make sure you order the plain white finish.


Cast-Drawing.com – Based in Germany, this is where I ordered my first cast from, due to the very low price. They also sell Nitram charcoal, which is supposedly one of the best kinds you can get, and it’s also very reasonable. Casts range from just 7 Euros to 23 Euros. The female torso doesn’t look amazing, but it would definitely work for cast drawing practice.


There’s a lot more to choose from in the US, you just need to watch out for the shipping costs.

Giust Gallery – These are great quality casts, and a great selection, where you can pay anything from $15 to over $4000, depending on your needs.

Philippe Faraut – These are also very nice casts, although the selection is more limited. I intend to buy either the male or female torso at some point, although the shipping cost is almost as much as the casts themselves.

Statue.com – A wide selection here at a variety of price points.

Utrecht – A small selection here, but what they do have looks like good quality and the prices are reasonable.

Fine Art Store – Another alternative, with some reasonably priced casts.

Online Alternatives

If you’re on a really tight budget and can’t afford any of the casts from these suppliers, you might want to look into online photo references.

This is definitely not ideal, as photos can’t portray the subtleties of real life, and some information will be lost, but if this is all you can afford, then it’s better than nothing.

Online Life Drawing now has cast drawing reference images, which you can view from all angles, giving you many different poses to draw from. A 2-day pass is just $5, but currently the cast drawing selection seems limited. Might be worth emailing them to see what they have available.

EnsoMobile is an iPhone app which also features 360 degree plaster cast images. The apps are only $0.99 each, so this is a very affordable option.

Learning Cast Drawing

If you want to learn how to do cast drawing, there is a great book called Cast Drawing Using the Sight-Size Approach, which has been a big help to me.

I hope this has been of some use in your search for drawing casts. If you know of any other good sources which I have missed, especially in the UK, please let us know about it in the comments below.