Life Drawing Pointers 5 Drawing a Head

Text and Images © Nicholas Ferenczy Feb 2012
(Text may be used for not for profit purposes, but please appreciate that originating the text for these articles has taken a while. So please give a credit.)

Ask yourself the following…

head_71. Why are faces special to us?

A face can convey a whole range of emotions; it can seemingly put us in touch with the inner world of another person. Rightly or wrongly we make judgements about a person’s character and temperament based on their looks.
In other words, facial features have great psychological significance for us. As such, the face of any figure that we draw vies with the rest of the body, for our attentions.

*see below [Coincidentally, I believe there’s a very important contemporary issue here (in 2013/14) as to how the non-verbal communications of facial features and facial expressions relates to the interpretation (by a jury, for instance) of the perceived truth of what that person is saying (in a court of law, say).]


head_32. Is my primary interest with the figure as a whole?

If you’re not making a portrait, it really ought to be with the figure as a whole.  That’s not to dodge or fudge the issue when it comes to drawing the head. It’s just to make the point that in a drawing, the body can have as much expressive interest as the face – ultimately, perhaps more so. That in mind, we oughtn’t to get hung up on drawing the features, certainly not on getting a likeness.  It’s good to put a head on your figure and a face on your head, but it’s important not to lose sight of the overall picture.


head_63. So, what can I achieve in the time?

Trunk, limbs, hands and feet are challenging in their own right. If you let them, the complexities of face can tie you in knots. Given 20 or even 25 minutes, an indication of the features is probably enough.

4. Is the head in my drawing ‘believeable’?

What you’re after, or should be after (I think) is a head that is believable, by that I mean one that fits within the logic (the perspective, for example – if that’s the game you’re playing) and mark-making of the rest of your drawing. [Remember that the ‘perspective game’ has been endemic to 2-D representation of a 3-D world for about 600 years – but it is no more ‘right’ and no less artificial than a whole load of other idioms incl. comic strips whose frames convey the impression of time passing and have heads whose bubbles make them ‘think’ and ‘talk’!]

5. Ought I to draw the head at the start or later? 

At the moment I’m supposing one were to draw the head last – which really applies to a standing figure. It’s a strategy that seems to work best (certainly for me, it does). Though you ought to have a good idea where the head is going to come, from very early on – if only so you don’t chop it off!

head_1An exception would be if you were standing close to and looking down on a figure. I guess then you’d be better drawing the head and fitting what little you can see of the body as it dwindles away rapidly in perspective, to it. Or if you were drawing a reclining figure from the head end – where obviously the head will be most prominent. You might say: well the head is the hardest, if can I nail that I can draw a body to it.

In fact it isn’t really the case that it’s the hardest, the head is a relatively simple form compared with the trunk and limbs. It’s the features that are hard and they should come at the end.

head_9So unless you find it best to do otherwise, I suggest drawing the best body you can, putting a head on it and then, in the remaining time, indicating the features – resisting the temptation to race in order to complete them, which would be treacherous.

It’s also much easier to make the head look the right size by drawing it in relation to what’s already there, rather than trying to draw a terribly complex structure (i.e. the remainder – the body) such that the head looks right!

This said, there certainly is no one right place to start – and I’ve often thought it would be fascinating to see where the first brush strokes of paint in some of the greatest works of art history were placed, let alone see how these paintings proceeded from there.

head_106. Need the drawing be of this person in particular?

Obviously, a drawing needn’t be a portrait, but nor need it even be a drawing of a particular person. (I have mentioned in the past this idea of empathizing with a person as if drawing yourself – as if they were standing in for any of us – a kind of humanitarian? perspective.)

It’s strange how after a day or two, in the absence of the model, likeness is no longer an issue. The drawing can work beautifully so long as the head is believable and drawn well – that is, in keeping with the rest of your drawing.


head_27. So do I really want a likeness?

Okay but let’s say for the sake of visual sincerity, you have a burning desire to make something that corresponds with what’s ‘out there’. How might this be achieved?

Time and time again one is drawn back to the triangle of the face, the features of the mask, the eyes, nose and mouth – it’s an inverted triangle with the point – the apex – where the mouth is.

There’s a good reason why these hold our attention. Hard-wired into our brains is a specialized module for registering faces and in particular the relation between eyes and mouth (there’s one for hands too, apparently). And these are already working from a very early age.

To demonstrate how strongly our perception of eyes and mouth dominate facial recognition. Have a look at this (you’ll need to turn the faces right way up – or turn your head a bit)…

The Thompson Effect (aka The Thatcher Effect)










So that’s the Thompson Effect (I believe first demonstated by psychologist, Peter Thompson in 1980 – possibly then using an image of Margaret Thatcher It shows how our perception of the eyes and mouth dominate to such an extent that even when the rest of the face is ‘wrong’ – in these cases, upside down, we still make the face ‘fit’ with eyes and mouth, because the eyes and mouth seem right. (By the way, it works with any face – not just those of the Royals!)

[If you want to find out more about visual perception and to think for yourself how it might effect the making of observational drawings (and paintings) take a look at the excellent primary source: Eye and Brain The Psychology of Seeing by (the late) Professor Richard L. Gregory (O.U.P 1998). Though not written specifically with art in mind, anyone interested in visual art and how the mind and brain interpret what is ‘out there’ can’t help but be fascinated by it.]

So where does that leave our drawings?

You might say: ‘well it’s a good argument for just concentrating on the eyes and mouth – if we can get those right, everything else will fall into place.’ And that is to some extent true. Certainly if you were making a portrait, you’d be looking hard at the eyes and mouth and their relative sizes and positions. But observational drawing is a very peculiar activity. You would never normally look at a person in the way you do when you draw them. (I wouldn’t recommend trying it in public!)  In fact the way in which we look at people always does depend very much on what we’re actually doing.

8. In what sense is looking at a face when making a drawing, normal?

For instance, compare the way you look at the face of say, a cashier on a till in a supermarket (or not, as is often the case), with the face of a person who’s interviewing you for a job or the face of someone whom you’re interviewing, or the face of a friend or family member whom you’re seeing again for the first time in five years.

(Particularly in the latter case, you’d probably be so emotionally engaged that you’d be unaware of even looking at them. And there is a rather interesting little thought experiment you can try, where you first try to conjure up in your mind’s eye, the face of an acquaintance or colleague – someone whom you know, but do not love, and then try to bring forth the face of a loved one. What you might find, rather surprisingly, is that the face of the more ‘emotionally distant’ person is more easily visualized, where the ‘loved one’s’ isn’t.)

So here we are back to drawing this person’s head, and the point of this little excursion is to make us aware that to draw it successfully, you have at least in part, to avoid the obvious, detaching yourself psychologically and kind of tip-toeing around the great gaping pit-falls such as that one demonstrated by the Thompson Effect, by looking at the not-so-obvious: by looking, in part, entirely objectively and dispassionately, as if seeing the landscape of a head for the first time, being constantly surprised by it and mapping it.


9. Can you see the personality of the head?

drawing of a headAs a general strategy I’d suggest thinking not of the surface of the head, as you would a landscape but rather, thinking of it sculpturally – in the round – thinking of the ‘personality’ of the head.

• Look at the big forms – the neck and how it sits into the shoulders and the shape of the head and how it sits on to, and joins the neck. If you don’t get those right, no amount of attention to the mask of the face, will give you even a passing likeness.

• Check the thickness and length of neck.

• Before you think of dividing the head further, be sure you have the head the right size and overall shape. Check too, the inclination of the head and see whether the chin comes below or above the level of the shoulders.

• If the head is tipped forwards the chin might come below, if held up then it might come well above them.

• The central division is an imaginary line running down the middle of the face. If the head is presented front on, without being turned to one side, then the central division runs down the middle of the nose with the face divided equally about the central division. If the head is turned to one side, then the side that is turned away becomes foreshortened as it’s seen in perspective. If it is turned, then just how much of the far side can you see?

• Another imaginary dividing line is the horizontal (eye line) that runs across just under the brow. If you can get the head and neck right, with perhaps just a suggestion of the positioning of the central division and the eye line, then you might find that’s enough to complete your figure.

(Often, what you leave out of a drawing is as telling, as what’s left in.)

10. Can you see the ear and have you given it due consideration?

You might think the ear isn’t so important. In fact, as the head turns more and more to the side and is seen in profile, the position of the ear become crucial in locating the jaw line, and the jaw line is a big deal in giving the particular personality of the head.

Again if you were looking in profile, you might check the amount of neck you can see behind the ear as a cross reference to correctly positioning the ear.


11. Have I looked and seen the facial slope?

pen drawing of headLook carefully at what is known as the facial slope – that’s the forehead seen in profile – more upright in some people than others. And if you can see it, check the back of the head too. Often it is hard to see all this if there’s a lot of hair – but you have to try to work out what’s going on underneath.



12. Have I made full use of the hair in describing the form of the cranium?

figure drawingThe hair, though superficial in itself, can help ‘explain’ the form of the head in so much as the hairline wraps around it, creating a contour which you can follow visually.

In the same way, masses of strands bulking over the cranium, create contours that can be described in line. Light striking the hair from above often creates highlights (which can be quite strong because of the shininess of hair).

Again, these can also help you to describe the forms – in a tonal drawing, for example.


13. Has my close drawing of the features pushed the head too large?

There are so many different approaches to drawing. Some people seem able to make their own approach work where another person would not.

But as a general rule it is tricky to ‘accumulate’ a head by stacking the features: that is, by starting drawing the chin, adding the depression below the mouth, the mouth, the depression below the nose (filtrum), nose, brow and so on.

It’s generally not advisable to do so because if you do do this, then before you realize it you’ll probably have made the head one and a half or even twice as big as it ought to be. And if you’ve gone to a lot of trouble to get the features right – which would probably be the case because that’s usually the way many of us do so, you’ll perhaps be reluctant to correct it. In all likelihood the result would be like two separate drawings that simply would not relate correctly to make a whole.

Somehow, in the same way that stacking the body to build it up doesn’t seem to work (at least, for me – and I hasten to add that there are people who can and do work this way successfully), neither does stacking the features to make a head.

14. Am I thinking ‘in the round’?

So as an overall strategy, think of drawing the head not so much in terms of (to use a rather clunky metaphor!) drawing a face on to the back of a frying pan as kind of flat and facile representation, but to think of it in the round, as if carving it out of stone or compiling it out of clay.

So if you intend to split the head into smaller units and analyse those in your drawing, it would be best to divide it (vertically) at the central division and the brow (say) and then to start dividing that, at least that way you’ll define limits early on, in which to contain the rest of the features. And so make it less likely for the head to keep growing out of all proportion with the rest of your drawing.

But you have to be disciplined in staying within these limits. You will be tempted, particularly when drawing the spaces between the features, so for instance, when drawing the area above the eye but below the brow; the space between nose and mouth and between mouth and chin, to be pulled such that the scale exceeds those original limits – set by you!  The reason is because these are small areas and they seem psychologically less significant than the eyes, nose and mouth themselves.

They aren’t of course, in terms of making the features read correctly they are equally important. And in fact it is worth bearing in mind something that Giacometti once pointed out, that the likeness resides not in the eye (as one might expect) but ‘around the eyes’.

*[Personally I find the idea of needing to see a person’s face in order to ‘judge’ the truth of what they are saying based on their facial expressions, almost ‘medieval’. Surely faces can be artfully misleading – though they might not be so? So too might be the sound of a voice. But at the end of the day, it is words alone that ‘mean a statement’ that is then either true or false. And yes surely there is a difference between a false statement that is a lie or a mistake. But if one could not, beyond all reasonable doubt, rule in evidence based of a facial expression as reliable grounds for a lie, why even consider it? Asking: ‘Is it harder to tell if a person is telling the truth if they’re on the radio or TV?’ seems to me somehow misguided. For all I know there might be a scientific study on this with a clear outcome. But if so, and if it is possible to tell, I wonder if it is an acquired skill such as the average member of a jury would have.]


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