When I got back to drawing this year, I struggled to draw faces well, so these past few months, I read a bunch of art books, took some introductory drawing courses, and binge-watched dozens of Youtube videos to improve my portrait drawing skills.
Here are 6 of the best tips I have learned from other artists that have helped me draw consistently better faces more easily:
- Tip 1: Instead of copying the outlines of the face and its features, start a portrait by drawing the basic shapes that represent the human head.
- Tip 2: Use these strategies to find easier portrait references.
- Tip 3: Check these three critical head proportions when sketching the portrait’s outline.
- Tip 4: Make sure to align the ears with the center of the skull, brow ridge, and the base of the nose.
- Tip 5: Learn to draw portraits in a semi-realistic art style before attempting hyperrealism.
- Tip 6: Learn to draw a portrait like a sculptor.
Tip 1: Instead of copying the outlines of the face and its features, start a portrait by drawing the basic shapes that represent the human head.
This may be obvious for many of you, but it took me embarrassingly long to realize how important it is to sketch the basic structure of a portrait using simple shapes first instead of just copying what you see.
When I started drawing portraits, my process, like most beginners, involved drawing an outline of the face and somehow trying to fit eyes, mouth, ears, and nose in the blank space without making it look weird.
After many failed attempts, I started drawing portraits by sketching the nose first and then working my way outwards towards the mouth, the eyes, the ears, and eventually (if I wasn’t already exhausted by the endless corrections), the outline of the face.
As you can imagine, drawing a portrait solely based on your observation skills can be a tedious and frustrating process. My aha moment was when I stumbled upon the book Drawing The Head And Hands by Andrew Loomis, which taught me the process of basing a convincing portrait on the structure of the whole head instead of just copying its outline.
Tip 2: Use these strategies to find easier portrait references.
Drawing a face is hard enough for beginner artists with a simple portrait reference, let alone dynamic angles and expressions.
Here are some strategies I use to search Pinterest to find suitable references for my drawings:
- Find face references with minimal expressions. The difficulty of drawing a portrait increases considerably if the portrait reference is very expressive (e.g., smiling with visible teeth). You can always practice those once you are comfortable drawing faces with simple and neutral expressions.
- When I’m having a terrible day drawing portraits, I find a good reference in the side profile because it’s the most straightforward angle to draw well because you only have to draw a single eye and ear. As a beginner artist, you can experiment with sketching more dynamic angles once you have a good hang of drawing portraits in the three basic poses (side view, front view, and three-quarter view).
- Only pick references that have an obvious transition between shadows, midtones, and highlights because it’s hard to make out the contours of the face planes as a beginner artist with references that lack contrast, and this can result in portraits that look flat.
- Opt to draw strangers instead of celebrities so that you don’t feel pressured to get the likeness of the face right.
Tip 3: Check these three critical head proportions when sketching the portrait’s outline.
- Eyes are usually placed around the verticle center of the head.
- The face can be divided into three equal segments:
- The forehead (hairline to browline)
- The nose (browline to the base of the nose)
- The mouth and the chin (base of the nose to the bottom of the chin)
- The base of the lower lip is halfway between the last third segment of the face (the base of the nose to the bottom of the chin).
Learning a basic head construction system like the Loomis or Reilly Method can help you draw the basic proportions of the face more intuitively when drawing portraits. If you need to get more familiar with those, I suggest you read this post in which I explain the basics of each method, and also this post about the 7 face proportions for portrait drawing.
Tip 4: Make sure to align the ears with the center of the skull, brow ridge, and nose.
If we view the head sideways, the ears usually connect near the head’s horizontal center or slightly further away from the face which is a good rule of thumb that is especially useful when drawing side profiles.
However, I found it particularly tricky to locate where the ears go in a portrait when drawing the three-quarters view until I started using the Loomis Method.
Loomis Method basically suggests that if we draw a circle representing the cranium side planes of about two-thirds the size of the head and draw vertical and horizontal axis following the general angle of the head, the ears will be placed in the lower back quadrant of the circle.
Another thing to remember when drawing a face is that the height of the ears is roughly equal to the length of the nose if we measure it from the brow ridge. Also, the upper and lower corners of the ears roughly align with the brow ridge and bottom of the nose.
Tip 5: Learn to draw portraits in a semi-realistic art style before attempting hyperrealism.
This may be a departure from the standard advice, but I have found working in a semi-realistic art style helpful in quickly improving my portrait drawing skills. To give you some context, when I began learning to draw faces as a teenager, I aimed to draw the reference as close to the real thing as possible because that’s what I considered the ultimate goal of creating art.
And I do admire the skill and talent of artists who can draw realistic portraits so well that you can’t even tell if it’s a photo or a drawing. However, based on my experience, having such art goals for beginner artists can be stifling because it doesn’t allow you to practice drawing more loosely at a rapid pace which is essential for learning quickly.
And I think once we learn to draw convincing portraits consistently using a more fluid approach, we can always try and improve realism if we want to.
Beginner artists like myself can benefit by incorporating the following tips to practice portrait drawing more loosely:
- Interpret a reference more loosely to create simpler forms, shapes, and values.
- Don’t aim to get the portrait’s likeness during practice, and embrace any minor mistakes you make.
- Use minimal shading to bring out the contour of the forms of the face rather than trying to match the exact value range in a reference.
- Learn from the portrait drawing process of artists with a more semi-realistic art style matching your art aesthetics. I personally like to study the art process of Layendecker, Loish, and Eliza Ivanova.
Tip 6: Learn to draw a portrait like a sculptor.
Beginner artists can learn a lot by studying how sculptors approach the human head’s construction. When I started drawing faces, I struggled a lot because I was jumping to the fun parts of portrait drawing, like shading, before I had laid a foundation that establishes the key proportions, relationships, and shapes of a portrait.
The biggest takeaway I have learned from observing the head sculpting process is that the first phase of a portrait should focus on getting the primary forms and proportions right. Because if you get this first step wrong, no amount of secondary details is going to make the final portrait look right.
From what I understand, sculptors construct the human head by laying in the primary shapes first and using those to develop secondary shapes, features, and planes by applying the following techniques:
- Carving out any excess volume
- Adding more volume where necessary
- Refining the shapes and edges
When I’m having a hard time drawing the face, I find it helpful to think about how a sculptor would approach a portrait using these basic drawing techniques. Here’s a simple demonstration of head sculpting if you’re curious to learn more about the process.