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Drawing Faces with Face Blindness

I have a condition called prosopagnosia, commonly known as face blindness. My case is not so severe that I don’t recognize faces at all, but I am prone to snubbing people because I don’t see them, even if I look right at them. This even happens with my own mother. If I see someone outside of the context I usually see them in, I won’t recognize them unless there is something else about them that makes them stand out from others, such as unusually colored hair.

I have developed workarounds for this problem over the years. I use other cues to recognize people, such as hair style, clothing choices, mannerisms, gait, or voice. Quite often when I am watching a movie, I won’t recognize the actor’s face, but I will recognize their voice. Someone changing their hair style can completely throw me off if there is nothing else unusual about them.

If there are two people in an environment (such as an office at work) who have similar hair, similar coloring, similar voices, similar height, and dress similarly, I may not realize for some time that they are two different people. This has happened to me more than once in different work environments or classrooms.

A lot of people strive to look like everyone else looks. This is just asking to not be recognized as an individual.

Face blindness affects my perception of beauty as well. There seems to be a particular configuration of features that most people find attractive. In any particular era, I cannot tell actors apart, because they all look the same to me, as they all follow that era’s ideals of attractiveness.

To me, if I can’t tell someone apart from someone else, I can’t find them particularly attractive. In my eyes, it’s the people with unusual faces that attract my eye. Prominent noses, unusually set eyes, anything that changes the lines of the face from the average, those are what cause me to find someone attractive. I can recognize them, and therefore I notice them.

People often wonder why I draw and paint portraits when I have this condition. I guess the assumption is that if I can’t recognize faces, I wouldn’t be able to draw them. But I don’t look at a face and draw eyes, nose, mouth, etc. I look at a face and draw the lines I see, or paint the blocks of hues, tints, and shades. In the end, the sum of those things equals a face.

Chuck Close portrait and detail

Chuck Close is a famous artist with face blindness who is known for his large-scale portraits. His method for reproducing faces involves creating a visual grid and painting what he sees in each pixel of a photograph. It’s basically the grid system of drawing but on a pixel level. In the end, all the pixels go together to create the face.

My own method is different, as I focus on painting areas that are similar rather than focusing on squares on a grid. Here, I will illustrate how I create vector avatar drawings using Adobe Illustrator. For these, I need a single reference photo. Sometimes people give me several photos, thinking that I can get some detail from one and some detail from another. But due to my face blindness, I cannot do this. If I try to combine photos, the end result is distorted and unrecognizable to anyone.

First, I draw the major edges that I see. These are the sharp edges separating one area from another, and they happen to be the lines that define the face shape, hair, and major features of the face. I don’t think that the drawing at this stage necessarily reflects what the person looks like, but that comes later when the smaller edges are defined.

 

Second, I fill in the major color blocks, starting with general skin and hair color. I then fill in the basic colors for the features: teeth and the whites of the eyes, then eye and lip color, then eyebrows. Eyebrows aren’t always distinctly defined, especially on men. If that is the case, then I don’t add them here but rather let them be defined with the following steps.

 

Then I start with the shades. Unless someone has unusual skin tones, I use the skintone color palettes that come with Illustrator, which are blocks of five colors from light to dark. The basic color is defined using the middle block. Then in this step I start with the darkest block and define the edges of the darkest areas that I see on the face.

 

Next I define the medium shades using the second darkest color.

 

At this point, I need to vary from the palette I’m using, because most people have pink areas on their faces which I see as separate from the other color areas. I like to add these areas in separately, but sometimes guys especially don’t seem to like it, so I end up removing it later.

 

Now I define the large highlight areas with the second lightest color on the palette.

 

And then I define the brightest highlight areas with the lightest color on the palette. Sometimes at this point, the face looks complete.

 

In this case, I could see there were some darker areas, especially around the eyes and brows that were missing, so I added some darker areas where needed.

 

And finally, I do the same color blocking for the hair. Sometimes it’s just adding a darker shade in some areas. Other times it needs a shade and a highlight, sometimes just a highlight. Sometimes there is a lot of color variation in the hair and it requires several different layers of color blocks. It all depends on the individual’s hair.

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