Much better drawing session today. I'm actually getting somewhere. I ended up flipping the piece and reference upside down and drawing while squinting my eyes. Then I just block in the shapes I see. Tricking the brain this way really pulls me into the drawing. Instead of drawing what my brain thinks I'm seeing I'm actually using my eyes to draw this individual person with her own individual features. That's when I start to achieve the likeness of the person.
Now I'll let this drawing sit for the rest of the day. This is actually so important for me to do. When I rush this part I always have disappointed clients and will have to go back or start over. I have to look at the drawing with fresh eyes. I also find looking from different perspectives helps me with likeness. As I go in and out of the room I'll check to see if something is off. I'll turn the photo and reference sideways and upside down and let it sit; again, tricking the brain into seeing unique shapes instead of nose, eyes, lips, etc. It's all about breaking the features down into shapes. Another helpful trick is to look at the drawing in the mirror and check it against the reference. This always reveals something.
Even now, looking at the photo with the two side by side I see all sorts of things I can tweak to make Ellie look more like Ellie. After I give my eyes and brain a rest I'll be able to do tons of tweaking. By the time I'm done I want the drawing to feel like her.
After a few days of observing/tweaking the drawing I'll start laying in charcoal. Other than the eyes I don't do a lot of detail in pencil because the charcoal covers it right up. I'm pretty good at manipulating charcoal and I can get pretty detailed but the eyes are just too important and detailed to leave to a hunk of charcoal. So I pull out my charcoal pencils and get a brand new pencil eraser to help me fine tune the eyes.