Q&A with TED2011 portraitist Siegfried Woldhek

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The bright, useful TED2011 Program Guide (download it for iPad or for desktop) draws a good helping of its personality from 50 extraordinary drawings, from the pen of illustrator Siegfried Woldhek. (If his name sounds familiar, watch his TEDTalk.) Charming and incisive, the portraits of TED2011 speakers and performers speak volumes about who they are.

The TED Blog asked Siegfried a few questions about his work on this guide and his thoughts on the art of making faces.

For this assignment, TED asked you to draw 50 portraits in a fairly short amount of time. What was your first reaction when you got this assignment?

Great excitement — it was wonderful to draw 50-plus portraits, especially for TED. And anxiety, not so much because of the short deadline, but because of the restrictions: no background, photorealistic rather than some exaggeration, all more or less in one style rather than letting the personality determine the style, etc. It was very different from my usual way of working, and therefore interesting to see if I could pull this off for 50 portraits in a short period.

How do you approach drawing a portrait of someone you haven’t met in person — what’s your research process?

I’ve been drawing authors and politicians for newspapers for many years. I try to read up on the person; in the case of authors, read one of their books. I watch interviews via YouTube and collect pictures via the internet. I did the same for TED.

(Portrait of Carlo Ratti by Siegfried Woldhek)

What makes a great portrait of the human face — how do you know when you’ve “got it”?

That’s a big question, and it’s been the subject of much debate over the centuries. I spend a lot of time on it during my workshops in portrait drawing. Three elements are important for me:

+ Likeness: There’s lots to be said about that. It depends on the time, on the viewer.
+ Idea: The portrait should be intriguing — it should make your eyes go back. I should portray something more than the surface, something about who the person is. This can refer to their latest work (whether an author, scientist, politician, artist, etc.) or to the person’s character.
+ Execution. The portraits should be pleasant to look at and well done. If it hurts the eyes, it’s not good.

What are the tools you use for drawing and sketching?

Paper, pen, watercolors.

I don’t use names or captions for my many portraits of politicians and authors for newspapers. The drawing has to be self-explanatory, so I spend a lot of time sketching to find an idea and an angle that is clear. Once I have the idea and general composition, I make a rough sketch and start painting or do some drawing with ink first. I usually work on 140lb arches paper and love the feeling of a good brush on it. All the TED portraits are done on this paper and measure about 8 x 10 inches.

I do play with digital drawing tools (iPad, tablet) and am excited about the possibilities, but I prefer the physical sensation of paper, pen and brush.

Who are some of your inspirations as an illustrator and portraitist?

Hans Holbein Jr., David Levine, Axel Zorn, Ralph Steadman, Georg Grosz, Rik Wouters

(Portrait of Ai Weiwei by Siegfried Woldhek)

Can you update us on your research into the face of Leonardo — have you learned more since your 2008 TEDTalk? What has the reaction been like?

National Geographic Magazine published a one-page story about it. The talk was viewed several hundred thousand times. Dutch TV and newspapers picked it up, so the story is out there, which is what I wanted.

My brother and I have sculpted the head, to facilitate comparison between the portraits that surfaced in my study, which differ in size and technique. The reaction from artists is very positive. It’s fascinating that art historians refuse to engage.

You also do amazing illustrations of birds. What have you learned from drawing birds, that enriches your drawings of people (and vice versa)?

Thanks for the compliment, but others are much better. I can’t hold a candle to, for instance, Lars Jonsson, Darren Woodhead or John Busby. The common element is that you need to look, really look. Even the dullest bird or face becomes interesting when you give it a good look in the wild/flesh. The way the shadow drops across the cheek, the light hits an eyebrow, etc. … there are many more angles, positions etc. than you can ever imagine. My heart always makes a little jump when I see things in birds or faces that surprise me.

Rather than trying to figure out a face or a bird while it moves and moves, you can learn to watch intently, close your eyes and “take a picture.” This works for faces as well as birds.

Imagine TED could invite anyone from history to speak. Who would you most like to draw?

No-brainer: Leonardo, of course!

Download the TED2011 Program Guide for iPad >>