Portrait of the Artist as a Young Portrait Artist
Kokeith Perry was talking about drawing a face: “You start with an oval, or whatever the face shape is, and then you break the face into subdivisions, so you know where the eyes are, or the nose is. Like literally. The calculation of how wide someone’s nose is is directly related to where their eye is. And that determines where their ear is. It’s like drawing a face on a grid.”
And is that how he draws portraits?
The face-on-a-grid technique is something Kokeith came across on YouTube a couple of years ago. As a Design Assistant at O+A, he was interested in how architectural drawing might apply to human anatomy but found it was actually the opposite of what he does when sketching portraits. Much of Kokeith’s progress as an artist has been in this find-your-own-path vein. In grade school, for example, his young talent had to flower unassisted as his teachers were slow to pick up their cues.
“I got in so much trouble,” he says. “I was always drawing instead of taking notes in class. My teachers were like, ‘You’ve got to stop doing this. Pay attention.’” It wasn’t until the seventh grade grade that one of them encouraged him to take an art class. “And I was like, Whoa! We can do that? We have those?”
Kokeith’s first class in still life taught him how to look at something you want to draw, how to look with an artist’s eye, but drawing didn’t really become a passion until a few years later in architecture school when he had to draw buildings in survey classes. By that time, he was too jammed to draw for fun. Still, nothing fans the flame of art faster than realizing you are good at it. “At that point, drawing for me was all analytical. Just space and values and shadows and light and things like that. When I started drawing for fun again, it was kind of like unlearning being analytical.” Here, too, Kokeith took the road less traveled. For many designers, an interest in drawing leads to a practical career in architecture; Kokeith let the practical lead him back to art.
So how does HE draw a face?
“When I draw a person, I’m thinking, Okay, what does your face really look like? I started drawing faces specifically because of my interest in values and where shadows go. I’ve always looked at faces since I started drawing as closer to a statue—where you’re looking for the curvature and looking for where the shadows are.” Drawing actual statues was a door to that approach, then drawing real people as statues (like ancient Greek relics with cracks in the marble and broken arms). But when he started drawing friends, the responsibility of capturing a real person’s likeness added another dimension. Personality.
“I started asking my friends to send me pictures of themselves. It’s much easier than having Pinterest open and scrolling for days to find a good pose. So I get texts all the time from my friends and they take a picture of their face or making funny faces. And I practice on those.” Of course, unlike a statue, a living subject wants to see the result.
“I stopped showing people,” Kokeith laughs. “They’d say, Okay, you’ve got a week then send it back to me. And I’m like, This feels like a JOB.”
One subject that gets kicked around a lot at O+A is the difference between design and art. Perhaps a more pressing subject is what is the difference between a JOB and art? One is work, the other play. One is the thing you’re supposed to do (take notes in class), the other the thing you do to be you (sketch in the margins of your notebook). If you can find a way to link the two together, you’re on your way to happiness.
“I started my Instagram page during the pandemic as a way to keep myself motivated,” Kokeith says. “So I’d have some sort of schedule, I guess. But it’s also kind of a digital sketchbook. And through that, I’ve been getting a lot of commissions recently. You know, that’s a different level of pressure.” He pauses to consider the ever-fluid line between work and play. “Now when people ask me to draw their face, it REALLY has to look like them because they PAID me.”