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Why is drawing a face so hard? (5 Tips to draw faces better)

One of my recent drawings

The human face is by far my favorite subject to draw. But even after drawing thousands of faces in the past, I still add a considerable number of drawings in my collection of portraits each month that will never see the light of the day (hopefully).

And it doesn’t help that our incredibly powerful brain can just intuitively tell when a drawing of a face doesn’t look right, even though it doesn’t simply tell you where the fault lies (thanks brain!).

So in this post, I try my best to break down what I think makes drawing faces so tricky, especially for beginner artists and share some tips that have helped me draw portraits more easily.

Why is drawing the human face so tricky?

Drawing the human face is hard because it involves observing the complex shapes, anatomy, angles, tones, and textures of the face and marking this information efficiently on a drawing surface while following a specific art style.  

And as if it wasn’t already hard enough, beginner artists have to deal with an additional set of problems that makes drawing a face even more challenging, including but not limited to:

  • Unreliable hand-eye coordination and muscle memory which makes it hard to draw confident lines;
  • Lack of knowledge of the structure of the face which makes their portrait drawings look flat;
  • Inability to leave out unnecessary details causing their drawings to look messy and busy;
  • Problems with their drawing process, techniques, and learning habits.

How to get better at drawing faces

Until recently, I struggled with drawing faces myself. So in the past few months, I have been focused on improving my portrait drawing skills by learning from other artists that I admire and, more importantly, applying what I learn into practice.

And after practicing drawing faces consistently for almost five months now, I am pretty happy with how much I have improved.

While there is still a very long road ahead for me in improving my skills, I find portrait drawing more enjoyable and less complicated now. While progressing as a beginner artist in recent months, I have learned these six things that have helped me improve my portrait drawing skills the most.

1. Draw the structure of the face before adding details

this picture shows how to draw the structure of the face
A rough outline for one of my drawings to block in the major shapes, proportions, and angles

This might seem obvious to many of you but until recently, my process for drawing faces was to draw and shade the lips and then work my way to the nose and the rest of the face.  

As you can imagine, this is a painful and inefficient way to go about a portrait drawing that requires countless corrections and disappointment (unless you are Kim Jung Gi).

If you look at how most professional artists draw a face, they never start adding any details to a face until they have gotten the basic structure of the face right to the T.

I personally love shading, so when I feel tempted to skip this part I try to remind myself that spending time at the beginning of my drawing to get the structure of the face right ensures that the biggest mistakes have already been made, and this just speeds up the whole process for me. 

2. Use a drawing reference that shows the forms of the face clearly 

While drawing from imagination is great for coming up with new ideas and sparking creativity, if you want to learn how to draw a face well, I think it is better to do so with the help of a good drawing reference.

Since most of us don’t have access to live models, choosing good reference photos for your drawing is an important skill that beginner artists must master.

One tip I learned from a course taught by the artist Chris Hong is that when you’re drawing from reference photos, you should avoid pictures of models captured under bright lights coming from different angles because such references look flat and hide the 3-dimensional features of the face.

This is important because trying to achieve realism from a reference that looks flat would always be an uphill battle for a beginner artist. A good drawing reference shows the depth of the human face through the contrast formed by a well-directed light and clear shadows.

This Pinterest library curated by Chris Hong is an excellent source of drawing references for artists if you are looking for one. 

3. Understanding the basic proportions of the human head 

One of the reasons portrait drawings by beginners lack believability is that the different features of the face are not aligned correctly in relation to one another.

While there are so many great articles, tutorials, and books written on how to construct the human face (check out Proko on Youtube if you haven’t), knowing these 7 rules is a good first step because they have been instrumental in improving my portrait drawings.

  1. If we divide the human head horizontally into two parts, the centerline will be at eye level.
  2. The distance between the chin and the nose is equal to the distance between the bottom of the nose and the browline, which is also the same as the space between the browline and the hairline.
  3. The distance between the nose and the bottom of the lower lip is the same as the distance between the chin and the lower lip.
  4. The gap between both eyes is equal to the length of one eye.
  5. The distance between the nose and the bottom of the lower lip is the same as the distance between the chin and the lower lip.
  6.  A verticle gesture line in the center of the face and a horizontal gesture line connecting the ears and the eyes show the overall perspective of the head. 
  7. The above proportions vary based on the person’s anatomy, expressions, perspective, and art style.

Once we have mastered drawing the human face following these basic rules of proportion, we can always break the rules to create our own style but I think it is really important to work on these fundamentals first.

You can learn more about the average face proportions for drawing and drawing face proportions correctly by following these linked posts.

4. Do practice studies of each element of the face separately

Drawing studies of noses from different angles
One of my recent drawing studies of noses

Studying each part of the face separately instead of drawing the whole portrait is a great way to learn the three-dimensional forms of the human face.

Focusing on one part of the face when you’re practicing portrait drawing really helps you observe the flow of shapes and forms, which is something I struggled with a lot early on in my art journey when I tried drawing the whole face.

Now I try to squeeze in practice studies of the different parts of the face in between full portraits, which always helps me learn new ways to render the forms and simplify the shapes.

5. Don’t try to draw every little detail in a portrait 

I have been trying to draw portraits more loosely recently

Most aspiring artists want to capture every little detail of the face in their drawings. 

In the past, I have been guilty of trying to draw every hair, shadow, and wrinkle appearing on the subject’s face in the hope of achieving realism, only to end up with a drawing that looks stiff, distracting, messy, or uninspiring.

By studying the works of old masters like John Singer Sargent and contemporary masters that I admire like Lois van Baarle, I am slowly learning how to leave out certain details in a portrait that can be distracting.   

Admittedly, this is the hardest skill on this list that will probably take me years (if not decades) to master, but I am glad to have started incorporating these ideas into my drawings because not getting caught up in minor details is helping me to learn drawing more quickly.

6. Make portrait drawing fun!

Ideas for making interesting portrait drawings
I love experimenting with different art styles for drawing portraits.

It can be demotivating for beginner artists to continue drawing despite their portraits looking nowhere near the level they want them to be. And even for experienced artists, drawing people over and over again can be a bit exhausting.

Since the only way to improve as an artist is through practice, how can we keep drawing portraits even if we don’t feel like doing it?

Personally, if I’m lacking the motivation to draw faces, doing one of the following usually helps me to get back on track:

  • Taking a break from portrait drawing. Doing some relaxed/low-pressure drawing studies of something such as statues or cats until I’m ready to do portrait drawing again.
  • Drawing portraits with different art materials such as watercolors instead of pencils.
  • Learning something new about drawing by taking a course or reading an art book.
  • Drawing portraits in a new art style.
  • Studying the work of artists that I admire on Artstation, Instagram, and Pinterest to get a fresh dose of inspiration.
  • Drawing something from imagination.

A note to my future self 

I’m writing my first post for bingedrawing.com on 30 May 2022. In the years to come, I hope this website serves as a source of inspiration and learning not just for me but for hundreds of other aspiring artists.   

I hope one day I stumble upon this note to reflect on the humble beginnings of an incredible journey, the reasons for creating this website, and the support of many people (and the doubts of few) without which creating this website would not have been possible for me.  

Keep drawing!