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Things You Don’t Want to Forget When Drawing Heads and Faces

Learning how to draw faces and heads is among the most challenging tasks for any artist. Even small errors are immediately noticeable. To draw a convincing human head, you need a solid strategy. Every head and face is different, of course, but there are some general principles that apply to just about everyone. Here we share three pieces of advice about how to draw faces and heads, adapted from an article by artist and instructor Jon deMartin that appears in the new issue of Drawing magazine.

It’s All About the Skull

The skull provides the framework of the head and face, and when looking at a person’s face we can clearly see the skull’s influence everywhere, from the forehead, the temple and the brow ridge down to the cheekbones, the bridge of the nose and the jaw. If you want to draw the figure realistically, you’ll want to develop a sound understanding of the most important aspects of the skull.

You Need to Set Boundaries

The head isn’t really just one shape—it’s a complex form made up of numerous small planes and sub-shapes. Put simply: It’s complicated. To draw a head convincingly, we want to mentally break it down into smaller parts that we can more easily understand.

One way to do this is to look out for boundaries, the places where these smaller planes begin and end. We can divide boundaries into two types: optical boundaries and base boundaries. Optical boundaries occur where the edge of a form disappears from sight, for instance along the outer edge of a head, or the edge of a nose where it overlaps another part of the face. Base boundaries are a little more subtle. These lines describe where one form or shape meets or transitions into another.

We can practice finding these boundaries by looking at drawings by the Old Masters. Illustration 2 (below) shows a drawing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806). In Illustration 2b, I traced over some of this drawing’s most important boundaries. I use solid black lines to indicate optical boundaries and dotted blue lines to indicate base boundaries. You’ll note that Fragonard included some of these lines in his drawing. Others he did not, and I drew those based on my own knowledge of the forms of the head.

You can try this exercise on heads of all different ages, and with practice you’ll learn to recognize the most important forms of the head. As your knowledge increases, try drawing heads of younger people, where the forms are subtler.

Jean Honore Fragonard | How to Draw Faces and Heads | Artist’s Network
Illustration 2: Man Wearing a Turban, by Jean-Honore Fragonard, ca. 1732-1806, ink wash, 11 3/4 x 9 1/2.

Start With Line, Finish With Shadow

Our first aim in a drawing is to delineate the boundaries of key forms. As the great draftsman and teacher Deane Keller put it, “Line first, modeling second.” Once we have a firm concept of the head’s surface and have constructed it with line, we can proceed to modeling it with values. To work in the reverse order and begin with light and shadow would be to merely copy the values we see in our subject, which would not produce a convincing three-dimensional illusion.

When you’re ready to add values to your drawing of a head, go in order of relief. This means you should start out by adding shadows to the deepest-relief forms—the parts of the head that protrude the most, such as the nose and the chin. In most cases, these parts will receive the most dramatic shadows.

After you’ve modeled the deep-relief forms, move on to modeling the shallower forms, which will have subtler shadows. In essence we’re modeling in the order of impression, because the eye is attracted to darker values (the deeper-relief forms) before lighter values (the shallower-relief forms). As a result, our modeling will have a sense of visual order.