One of the main reasons why portrait drawings by beginner artists such as myself can look off is incorrect proportions.
No matter how good your shading skills are, the honest fact is if you don’t know the scale and position of the different parts of the face relative to one another, drawing a good portrait will be a struggle. And as you may have already experienced, any effort to ‘fix’ a portrait based on the wrong proportions is quite frustrating.
So in this guide, you will learn:
- What I have binge-learned about drawing the basic proportions of the human face from different angles.
- My process for outlining the main proportions of the face when starting a portrait drawing.
- How the proportions of the face can differ based on gender.
- Tips for drawing the basic proportions of the face that have proved helpful to me.
Proportions of the face
Here are the eight key proportions to remember when drawing a face. To get a better understanding, take your time to cross-check each of the following proportions from the reference pictures above.
- From my observation, you can usually box the entire head in a rectangle with a height-to-width ratio of 4:3 when drawing the front view. Most heads drawn from the side view can be boxed in a perfect square.
- If we divide the head horizontally into two parts, the eye line will be at the center of the head. For some reason, many beginners assume the eye level to be much higher on the face because they underestimate the size of the head, which often messes up the portrait.
- The front of the face (from the hairline to the chin) can be divided into three equal segments:
- the forehead (the hairline to the brow ridge),
- The brow ridge to the nose, and
- The nose to the chin.
- The sides of the nose vertically align with the inner corners of the eyes (near the tear ducts).
- The lower lip is distanced halfway between the chin and the nose.
- The top of the ears is parallel to the brow ridge.
- The distance between the two eyes is equal to the length of one eye.
- The ear is attached right in the middle of the head when viewed from the side.
These proportions might seem confusing or difficult to remember, but if you incorporate this knowledge into your drawing routine, after some practice it becomes almost intuitive. In the next section, I share the twelve-step process that I follow to block in these basic proportions in a portrait.
12 Steps to Draw the correct proportions of the face
And after a lot of experimentation, I have summarized my process in these 12 Steps that I follow to draw the proportions of the face from the front and side views. These steps may not seem very intuitive, but they work for me, and I hope you give it a try and find something that works for you too.
In case you want to follow along, these are the drawing references I will be using.
Step 1: Draw a head sphere
Drawing a circle is a good way to start your portraits because you can build up your drawings from this simple shape for any face angle. These circles are the simplified three-dimensional shape of the human head.
The circles don’t have to be perfect, but their height and width should be almost equal. If your circles don’t have an equal height and width, it’s better to make the corrections now because this will be the foundation of our drawing, and starting with an uneven circle can easily mess up the proportions.
I have drawn similar circles over the references to give you a sense of the dimensions of the circles in relation to the overall head volume.
Notice how the circle drawn on top of the front view (left reference) bulges from the sides? That’s because the sides of our heads are primarily flat. We will chop off this extra mass in the next step to show the side planes of the head.
Step 2: Indicate the sides of the head
The flat planes on the sides of our heads (that hold our ears) are about 2/3rd of the height of the head sphere.
To show the side planes in our drawing, we chop off the sides of the circle we drew earlier for the front pose (left) and draw an additional circle inside the circle we already drew for the side pose (right).
Remember when drawing the front pose, a small part of the side planes will be always visible because the face is typically narrower compared to the side of the head.
Step 3: Draw a verticle line across the center of the face
A vertical gesture line in the middle of the face helps to communicate the title of the head as well as the curvature of the face.
Step 4: Draw a horizontal gesture line across the browline
The horizontal gesture line helps us visualize how much the head is tilting sideways or vertically, and is also crucial for guiding other landmarks on the face.
The gesture line should run across the brow ridge and cover the top of the ears. When starting your drawing, you can assume that the top of the ears are at the center of the side planes (the circles we drew in Step 2).
Step 5: Draw the base of the hairline
The base of the hairline can now be found by drawing another gesture line parallel to the one we drew earlier in the previous step, but this time we start from the top of the inner circles instead of its center.
Step 6: Mark the base of the nose
To indicate the base of the nose, we need to draw another line starting from the lowest point of the inner circles that represent the side planes.
Notice that this creates two sections of equal height: one for the forehead (hairline to brow ridge) and one for the nose.
Step 7: Mark the base of the chin
To find the base of the chin, we need to add another section that is equal to the previous two segments.
Now we have three sections of equal height: the forehead, nose, mouth, and chin.
Step 8: Indicate the base of the lower lip
The base of the lower lip is halfway between the nose and the chin.
Step 9: Draw the ears and the mouth
The ears are attached somewhere near the center of the head’s side plane.
To help you visualize this, if we were to divide the side plane into four parts, the ear will always end up in the lower quarter that is further away from the face.
Step 10: Outline the jaw, nose, and the shape of the hair
We already figured out where the base of the nose will go in Step 6, so that is our reference for placing the nose. The jaw starts right behind the ear lobes and connects to the base of the chin. Although the exact shape of the jawline can vary based on gender (more on this later).
The mouth is usually wider than the base of the nose. So before you proceed to the next steps, this is a good time to recheck the relationship of angles and scale between the nose, the corners of the mouth, and the overall face.
It can be tricky for beginners to know how big we need to draw the nose. One way to determine the size of the nose is to see how many nose widths can you fit on the face.
In the reference above for example, we can see that the face can fit almost 4 noses. This means that we need to draw a nose that leaves enough room for us to fit 1.5 noses on each side of the face.
Step 11: Mark the placement of the eyes
The inner corners of the eyes (tear ducts) align with the corners of the nose and the eyelids will be drawn just below the gesture line indicating the brow ridge (Step 4).
The width of the eyes is usually about the same as the width of the nose. You can compare the width of the nose and eyes in your reference to confirm if this is the case or if the proportions need a little adjustment.
Placement of the eyes is arguably the most crucial aspect in these 12 Steps because eyes are usually the first thing we notice in a drawing (especially if they look off). It is therefore worthwhile to spend a little more time getting the placement of eyes right.
Step 12: Refine and Adjust
Once I have laid out the entire outline of my drawing, I like to refine the linework and compare the drawing with the reference for one last time to see if anything looks off and make any adjustments. In the above drawing, for example, I realized I had drawn the face too narrow in the front pose, which I then adjusted in the final revision.
This is the stage when I can finally commit to the overall shape of the portrait and start working up the specific details without worrying about the proportions.
Male Vs Female face proportions
I have found the 12 Steps useful for drawing both men and women. This is because, normally, the difference in proportions between men’s and women’s faces is not that significant to warrant a different approach altogether.
Personally, I find feminine faces more satisfying to draw. But occasionally, when I do draw men, there are three subtle differences that I try to accentuate in my drawing.
1. The foreheads of men are usually more flat compared to women.
In my observation, the women’s foreheads are generally more round.
2. Feminine jaws are more angular, whereas male jaws look more square-ish.
Also, in the reference above, notice that the point where the girl’s jawline turns towards the chin is slightly higher compared to the guy’s. Dropping this turning point in your drawing can give the portrait a more masculine look.
3. The brow ridge in masculine faces points outwards, making it more noticeable, whereas the feminine brow ridge is more adjacent to the forehead.
Of course, these are only my observations about the male and female anatomy, and we can’t categorize every face into a standard type or shape. I frequently notice men with feminine features (especially on Pinterest, where I get most of my drawing references) and vice versa. But knowing these differences is still helpful when observing the subject of your drawing so you can bring these out in your portrait.
4 Tips that helped me draw the correct face proportions
1. Don’t build up details before finalizing the proportions
This tip may be too obvious for intermediate to advanced artists. But one bad habit I am still trying to unlearn as a beginner artist is to construct the big shapes and structure of the complete drawing before going into details like hair, shading, eyebrows, highlights, and the nuances of the different features of the face.
The problem with skipping this part is that it often leads to abandoned portraits with some very nice details like this one below.
So to learn face proportions quickly, I am getting into the habit of starting my drawings with simple shapes like circles and boxes (as explained in the 12 Steps above). To reinforce this habit, I don’t allow myself to fiddle with the more complex aspects of a portrait until I have laid out a good structure of the face.
2. Hold the pencil from its tip
My usual grip for holding the pencil (as demonstrated above) is great for control which is necessary to draw intricate details. However, holding the pencil closer to the lead forces you to position yourself too close to the drawing surface, making it difficult to draw flowy lines and check the angles and scale of your portrait.
One tip I learned from my art mentor is to hold the pencil from its tip when starting a drawing.
Holding the pencil like this makes it easier to compare the different angles and scales in your drawing and helps you loosen up and draw portraits with more flow and better structure.
3. Step back from your drawing
Staring at my drawing from a close range often makes me blind to errors after a while. One thing I have learned from observing how professional artists draw portraits is to regularly step back from your drawing and view it from a distance to help locate errors in its proportions.
A similar concept that digital artists use frequently is to flip the drawing horizontally in their painting software, which is a great way to discover errors in the proportions of your drawing that you may have otherwise overlooked.
4. Know when to stop
If you are a perfectionist like me, you would understand my struggle to get the structure of the face just right, only to find myself getting stuck in an endless loop of making corrections over and over again.
Knowing when to stop making corrections and finally commit myself to a portrait by embracing all its quirks and flaws is a skill I’ve been trying to learn recently because I now realize that it’s the only way to get better at drawing faces.