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Monday, March 24, 2014

Getting a Head

Copyright, Jim Lane
The model: key light is on the
left, fill light on the right.
Inasmuch as I discussed yesterday the basic points of painting from photos, I thought it only appropriate to delve into the fine art of drawing a head from life. Really there's not all that much difference in working from a good photo and working with a good model. The difference is in "handling" the model. One of the problems in drawing from life is that the models have a bad habit of breathing. I tried demanding a cessation of respiration once but the flesh tones tended to take on a blush tint after a short time. This color change is not too critical in drawing with pencil though it does shorten the posing time before the model slumps to the floor. Thus the artist has to learn to tolerate a certain degree of movement. Posing is boring as well, so a steady stream of conversation is always helpful provided it does not involve humor, or worse, anger on the part of the model. Try also to avoid causing the model to cry.
Copyright, Jim Lane
Left eye outline
Beyond the obvious, the model should be comfortably seated, the lighting almost, but not quite, even as it falls upon the face, slightly less on one side (as seen above, left). Avoid lighting the model from the front only in that this cause a "snapshot" effect as in photographing the model with a flash. In photography the ideal lighting is referred to as "key" and "fill." Avoid lighting aimed at BOTH sides of the head in that this tends to cause an unsightly shadow down the middle of the face. In most cases, a three-quarter view is most desirable. Profiles and straight on "mug shots" are generally to be avoided. Smiling for an extended period of time is quite trying and tiring for the model, but often produces a more attractive portrait in the end. I should point out at this juncture that what follows is not intended as a thorough discourse on drawing heads. For that I suggest you check out the online instructional material created by my publisher, Brenda Hoddinott at

Copyright, Jim Lane
The essence of the eye.
Now, where to begin? I wish I could say there is one best way to draw a head, but that would be way to academically rigid. I will, instead, simply recount how I proceed, starting about three-fourths the way up the paper from the bottom and slightly to the left of center, I draw the left eye starting with the upper eyelash and the iris with its "donut hole" pupil centered within (above, right). Both are, in general, round, though the head angle may distort this slightly.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Both eyes and brows. The old rule applies: "Sketch it light till you're sure its right."
Keen observation of the details of the face and proportional relationships at each step is crucial in drawing any face, which is why I start with details, which absolutely MUST be right or else all the rest will be in vain. Move on now to the right eye, allowing about one eye width between them, depending upon the head angle. The closer to a profile, the less space between the eyes. Once the second eye is established begin sketching in the eyebrows and shading around the bridge of the nose and the outer areas beside the eyes. Establish the leading edge of the face next to the eye furthest from you (above) Notice the eyes are not identical in size and shape as they would be in a front view.

Copyright, Jim Lane
The essence of the nose--think in terms of the nose shading and the nostrils.
Once you're satisfied with the eyes, move from the bridge of the nose down toward the tip. Then sketch in the nostrils as a guide.  Inasmuch as the nose is going to be at least somewhat foreshortened, think in terms of drawing the shadow cast by the nose on the less-lighted side of the face (fill light side). Remember, draw each feature as it appears from your angled point of view. Draw them how they actually look, not how you think they should look. Once you have the essence of the nose, fill in the shading on and around the nose (above).

Copyright, Jim Lane
Try to stick to the basics rather than details until the likeness is established, which should occur about at this point. If not, concentrate on that rather than getting bogged down in additional details.
Copyright, Jim Lane
Work from the features
outward. Narrow spaces are
easier to judge than broad
Moving on down the face, next establish the lip line, where the two lips come together, being especially conscious of the distance below the nose, the length of the line across the face, and any variations as to curves. Remember, it will not be the same on the left as on the right. It is absolutely necessary you not allow your mind to influence you toward a straight-on front view stereotype. Lightly sketching in the cheek line, if done carefully, should help in this regard.

Once you are satisfied with the features, the hardest part of drawing a head is over. Notice I have not talked about drawing faces. The face is only one part of the portrait head (albeit the most important part). Work outward from the features, moving on to the hairline, cheek line, and chin. Next place the ear and neck before tackling the upper edge of the hair. Remember, sketch the essence first (left), then the details. It's important that if you encounter problems with the likeness to the model, you STOP and concentrate on that difficulty first before continuing. Any errors you encounter later will be at least twice as difficult to correct then as they are if discovered and remedied early.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Shading and details serve to complete the portrait.
The next step is to add the visual texture to the hair.  Use the tip of the pencil, sketching one hair at a time (not really, but think in those terms). Basically "comb" the hair with your pencil lifting the tip as you encounter highlights, then adding contrasting darker strokes in shaded areas. Avoid the temptation at every step in drawing the head to "smudge." Use the side of your pencil to shade, not the side of your fingers, or even a paper stump (okay for drawing in charcoal). You can also begin adding details to the ear(s) and neck at this point. Finally, move to the shoulders and clothing details always being conscious as to the visual textures you create matching those of your model. Usually a darkened, textural background helps "pop" the head forward. If, at this point, the drawing "winks" at you, then you know you've done good. If the model winks at you...I'm not gonna go there.


Note: pencil drawings are notoriously hard to photograph. The variations in tone of the various steps above are the result of trying to balance the subtleties of shading with adequate contrasts.


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