ArT HisTorY

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Portrait drawing begins with a focus on technique - mastering head anatomy and proportions, and learning to observe and draw the features accurately. But the ultimate challenge for the portrait artist is to capture the character and spirit of their subject.

Proportions of the Human Head Drawing the Structure of the Head and Face
To draw the human head accurately, first become familiar with the basic proportions. Traditional rules of proportion show the face divided into six equal squares, two by three. The upper horizontal division is roughly at the 'third eye' level mid-forehead, the lower at the base of the nose. The eyes sit on the horizontal centre, the mouth on the centre of the lower third.

If you are skeptical of such simple mathematics, try it out on some models in magazines - it works! While this is an ideal which does not account for racial and individual variation, observing these basic proportions gives you a starting point to measure against.

By ensuring your basic proprtions are correct to begin with, you will avoid major re-draws at a later stage of the drawing.

To construct a well-proportioned head, follow these simple steps,
  • Begin with a ball.
  • Drop a line from mid-forehead to the chin. 'Slice off' a circle at the side of the head, and from the front of this circle, curve a line down to the chin. Complete the plane of the face with a line on the other side. Now add the jawline.
  • Construct the nose, indicate mouth and chin position and elongate skull slightly. (The distance from chin to crown is almost the same as from forehead to the back of the skull).
For an in-depth explanation of this method, see Ron Lemen's excellent tutorial.

Drawing the Human Head from Life Using Basic Structure

Now that we know the basic proportions of the head, how do we apply these concepts to drawing from life? The trick is to take it a step at a time, and to trust your eyes. Keep proportion and perspective in mind, and remember that what you 'know' about the face may be very different from what you see, depending on the angle. Two of the most common faults are placing the eye too high on the face, and making the skull too short.

Here is a step-by-step guide to drawing the head using a simple linear approach.

Observing the subject, begin with a rough ball indicating the main part of the skull. Draw the line from forehead to chin, form the plane of the face, and add the jawline and main features. Note that the line indicating the nose shows the base of the nose, not the tip. This will help with modeling the nose later.

Place the ear, construct the nose (in a frontal view using two lines along the length), draw the jawline and indicate the brows, forehead and cheeks (depending on the pose). Position the eyes carefully.

Erase construction lines. Improve the linework, checking the model constantly, adding detail and correcting shape. Add hair. Note that the drawing of the neck and shoulders must also be accurate. This drawing has been darkened to demonstrate the observed lines. If you wish to shade your drawing, keep the linework light.


  • Practice drawing the head from many different angles. Observe how the facial muscles change as an expression changes.
  • Try taking your own reference photos.
  • Adults are easier to draw than children, as their features are more sharply defined.
  • Try doing some studies of a skull if you can, (try the local museum,art school or school science department) as this will help you understand the planes of the face.