I Need a GPS for Drawing Faces

26 Dec 2013

Sage by Janvier Rollande, pencil drawing
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.
Drawing a face 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! It is more that 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 so you don’t get lost when drawing faces, as I often have. Here are a few that 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.

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
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 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.

Andrea by Dan Gheno, colored pencil drawing
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.
Leonardo showed us that the overall width of the eye is pretty close to that of the nose, and that 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.

Oil painting--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.
Maps Can Only Take You So Far
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 obstacles in many drawings.

It is insightful instruction like this that really makes the difference when you are trying to start a drawing and have so much information to take in. Creating a sound drawing or having the technical savvy to match the drawing ideas you have swimming around in your head is what I’m constantly striving to do. A digital subscription to Drawing magazine can act as an artistic fountain of wisdom when it comes to helpful drawing methods and insightful instruction. I always have the current issue on my computer and don't think any of my past issue files will be leaving my desktop anytime soon—it is sort of like the drawing GPS I was looking for. Enjoy!


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