I Need a GPS for Drawing Faces

In Janvier Rollande’s drawing, Sage (detail; pencil drawing, 2006, 17 1/4 x 12 3/4), the area from the child’s eyebrows to the base of her nose is the smallest of the three “segments” of the face. Remember this when drawing faces!

Drawing faces is a little like reading a map. And no, not the cool Indiana Jones map where the red line draws itself to the destination and “X” marks the spot. I wish!

When learning how to draw people, there are a few “signposts” on the face and rules of thumb about facial feature measurements that can steer you in the right direction.

These guidelines ensure you don’t get lost when drawing faces, as I often have. Here are a few I learned from artist and writer, Dan Gheno, that I wanted to share with you.

Rule of 3

The Greeks came up with a simple way to start a drawing of a face, which is to divide the face into three parts: from the hairline to the eyebrows, from the eyebrow to the base of the nose, and from the base of the nose to the tip of the chin.

When drawing faces, you will see that not everyone will have the same measurements of these three parts. But if you start by mapping your drawing with these regions in mind, you don’t have to feel overwhelmed by all the visual information you are trying to capture.

From there, ask yourself which of these segments is the biggest or the smallest. This way you can begin to add more specificity in your drawing.

Divine Distances

Drawing faces: In Andrea by Dan Gheno (colored pencil drawing, 2007, 16 x 18) the model's eyes are slightly closer set over the nose, not parallel with the edges of it.
In Andrea by Dan Gheno (colored pencil drawing, 2007, 16 x 18) the model’s eyes are slightly closer set over the nose, not parallel with the edges of it.

Okay, they aren’t really divine, but there are a few measurements on the face that have made the light bulb flick on for me when I’ve been struggling with a face drawing and can’t figure out what is wrong. One is that the horizontal span between the outside of the eye and the front of the ear is usually similar in length to the vertical distance between the outside of the eye and the outside corner of the mouth.

Leonardo showed us that when drawing faces the overall width of the eye is pretty close to that of the nose, and the edges of the nose line up with the insides of the eye.

The tip of the ear is usually in line with that of the eyebrow; the base of the ear usually coincides with the base of the nose.

Maps Can Only Take You So Far

When drawing faces, notice how the top of the ear and the model's eyebrow are roughly in line.
Notice how the top of the ear and the model’s eyebrow are roughly in line.

These measurements are more about making visual connections within the landscape of the face than being an actual map to a person’s appearance. I have to remind myself not to get too caught up in finding them at the cost of spending time observing what is in front of me. But I can vouch that these measurements are definitely worth knowing. They’ve helped me get over many obstacles when drawing faces and individual facial features.

It is insightful instruction like this that really makes the difference when you are trying to start drawing faces and have so much information to take in. Creating a sound drawing or having the technical savvy to match the drawing ideas I have swimming around in my head is what I’m constantly striving to do.

Drawing Lessons with Alain Picard puts an artistic fountain of wisdom at your fingertips when it comes to helpful drawing methods and insightful instruction across genre—Alain covers portraiture, landscapes, floral still lifes and more. I have my download pack open on my computer when I am in studio mode, and I don’t think it will be closing anytime soon—it is sort of like the drawing GPS I was looking for. Enjoy!






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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.