Sketch of the head of a girl

How to draw the human face

How to Draw the Human Face

Learning to draw the human face is one challenge most of us would like to master in order to call ourselves good drawers! I have run out of fingers and toes to count on the number times people have said to me that they wish they could draw. Only adults say that though, kids have a natural confidence.

Drawing the face is definitely an art, but did you know it’s also a science?

Yes, you can learn to draw, if you really want to. Like riding a bike or learning to swim, it is a skill that you can develop as an adult if you take the time and are patient with yourself.

Sketch of  the head of a girl
Study of the head of a girl – Leonardo Da Vinci

The reason why it’s possible to draw a face fairly accurately is that our features are all positioned in relation to one another based on geomtery, and once you have learnt a few secrets, your drawing skills will improve significantly.

Every human face has features that can be measured in the same way, with minor variations. Obviously some pople have bigger noses, smaller chins, wider eyes etc., but on the whole we are similar. This is how we recognise other humans (unless it’s your brother who reminds you of a monkey).

The art of drawing well lies in the ability to really look very throughly. Anyone drawing anything should spend significantly more time looking at the object they are drawing than at their page. After all it is the object you want to draw, and NOT your memory of the object.

Pencil outlines of an eye
Looking closely at all the contours of an eye and eye lids

One of the biggest hurdles we have to overcome as adults learning to draw is the symbols we have learnt as children which represent the object around us. In other words, when we are young we learn to create symbols which decribe what we see. If you take a face for example, we could have drawn it like this:

circular smiling face with triangle nose and round eyes
the typical stick figure face

Note how the nose is a triangle, the mouth is a U and the eyes are three concentric circles. Nobody actually has those shapes on their faces in real life!

Learning to really observe what you are wanting to draw and measuring the position of each angle, object and line in relation to everything around it takes huge patience and practice. It’s not a skill you can learn over night. But the sense of accomplishment when you find yourself creating something that respresents what you had hoped for is enormous.

Pen and ink sketch of a woman's head
Study of a woman’s head – Leonardo Da Vinci

Kids have no lack of confidence when it comes to art. It’s the same with singing and dancing. It’s as if there’s a magic switch somewhere in our heads that either switches off or stays locked in the up position at the age of 12 when we decide whether be are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at all of these activities that as children we enjoyed with a lack of self-consciousness.

Before you draw any faces, grab a ruler and take a long hard look at your own face in the mirror. Tell yourself that you can do this, then using the ruler – look at these points below and see how you measure up!

Some measurements of the human face when looking directly ahead:

Approximate distances on the face designated by dotted lines.
Dotted lines marking out central axis as well as halves and quarters for position of the features
  • Heads are egg-shaped with the narrower end being down at the chin.
  • The space from the top of the skull to the centre of the eye socket is the same as the distance from the centre of the eye socket chin. One of the commonest mistakes people make when drawing a face is ignoring the forehead and top of the skull, they position the eyes in the top third of the face. You may be surprised to know that all of our features are in the bottom half of our face. (Unlike emojis).
  • The distance between our eyes is exactly the same as the width of one eye.
  • The bottom of the nose is more or less half way between the eyes ockets and the bottom of the chin.
  • The centre line of the mouth is approximately half way between the bottom of the nose and the bottom of the chin.
  • The top of your ears are in line with the top of your eye socket and the bottom of your ears are in line with the tip of your nose.
  • The corners of your mouth end in a direct line underneath your pupils.
  • The outer edges of your nose are directly beneath and in line with the inner corners of your eyes.
Here is a four minute video where I briefly demonstrate the position of facial features

Now that you have those measurements you can bear them in mind as you start your drawings.

When starting off, I would recommend you draw a profile first. This is because you will be less inclinded to be distracted by the symbols you have stored up in your memory from your youth and start drawing what is in front of you instead.

Profile of a girl, sketch by Leonardo Da Vinci
Profile of a girl – Leonardo Da Vinci

Take your time to observe each curve and each angle, use your pencil as a visual guide by lining it up vertically or horizontally next to the features so that you can note the relative positions.

Remember, each feature is in relation to another, don’t draw them in isolation but constantly check the distances of various parts against one another.

sketch of woman's profile demonstrating the positioning of the eyes
The eyes are in the centre of the head

Drawing a face step-by-step

Ask someone to sit as your informal model with a book or the T.V.

Sit about 2 metres away or across the narrow side of a table from them.

Allow 30 – 40 minutes to draw with a break for your model to rest.

Extend your arms from where you sit, close one eye, and using your hands and your pencil, block out a space around their head to get an idea of how much space they will take up on the paper.

Look at your page and visualise the postion of the head on your paper.

Use an HB pencil and don’t press hard. Don’t worry about drawing a line in a wrong place, simply draw another next to it until you are satisfied.

Draw a very rough outline of the whole head.

It doesn’t matter where you start with the features, draw light outlines and don’t stress about too much detail initially.

Look at the curve of the nostril, it isn’t an oval, it is more of a little hook. In fact here are very few continuous lines on a nose except for the profile outline.

Different types of noses

Notice in this sketch below that the nose and lips are separated by a space that is just as important as the nose and lips although it hardly gets any attention! So have a look at it and observe its shape when you draw the adjacent lines. Also notice that the upper lip doesn’t have a hard top outline but there is only a variation in the colour.

Note the shape of the upper lip area

Have a careful look at the eye (you’ll obviously only draw one eye when you’re drawing a profile as you’re not drawing a plaice, a sole or an Egyptian heiroglyph). From this angle there are no perfect circles in the eye.

Adding an ear

When it comes to adding an ear, you’ll see by the diagram above that the distance from the back of the ear to the corner of the eye is the same as the distance from the corner of the eye to the bottom of the jaw.

The human head could fit into a square box, i.e. the distance from your forehead to the back of your skull is the same as the distance from the top of your skull to the tip of your chin.

So when you draw the rear of the head, make sure you allow enough space for all of the brains! Now I’ll tell you something shocking – Leonardo made a booboo!! His Profile of a Girl above lacks the back of a head that would be in proportion to her face.

Finally draw a few soft likes to represent hair. Drawing hair presents it’s own set of challenges, I’ll talk more about that further down below.

The Three Quarter Profile

The next step would be to attempt drawing a three quarter proile. See how I have mapped out the basic proportions below.

three quarter profile

Note that in the image below, the space between the eye and the bridge of the nose is a similar width as the forward eye. The further eye would be slightly smaller as it is further away.

All the arrows on the left below point to areas in the face that create unique shapes. Study each shape in its own right before you draw it.

Learning to draw the human face, dotted guidelines on a face demonstraing relative distances
Some basic guidelines

Continue with all the features as I described in the profile exercise above.

Now you’ve completed a profile and a semi-profile you are ready to do a few more! If you are feeling confident though, see if you can attempt a full frontal face portrait. How about starting with your own? Find a large mirror and prop it up on the table in front of you, be patient and keep going.

Consider shading much later!

Later when you are more confident you can draw in some shading. Light and dark is what gives our form dimension and makes our 2D pictures create the illusion of being 3D. It takes some practice learning to observe the way light plays across surfaces and textures.

Use softer 2B, 4B and 6B pencils for shading and build up your shadows gradually. Copying the Leonardo drawing above, I created this very quick sketch below. I used a 6B and, without drawing any lines but only soft side-to-side scribbling motions, I concentrated on the shadows only. Sometimes it helps to squint your eyes to determine which areas are darker and which are lighter.

Eye sketch, shading exercise
Eye sketch, shading exercise

Hair

When it comes to tackling the hair, naturally it will be impossible to draw every single strand. this is where detailed shading really pays off. Concentrate on mapping out lighter and darker areas and gradually working these up until you have the effect you’d like.

Hair study in pencil, girl with a plait of dark hair
This girl had black hair but note how I used bands of grey to show where the light reflected of the surfaces.

This is definitely not an overnight job! So be patient and keep practicing. The best way to improve your drawing skills is to copy the masters. Find a few books in the library and spend time copying their work – that’s what they used to do themselves afterall.

All the Leonardo images in this post are from The Drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci; compiled by A.E. Popham; The Reprint Society, 1958


Thank you for reading my post, I hope you found it enjoyable and helpful. Please let me know in the comments below if this has helped.

You may be interested in trying some of my other drawing tutorials too:

Drawing Dogs and Drawing with Oil Pastels

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14 thoughts on “How to draw the human face

  1. Thanks for the wonderful post. I am going to give it a try. Your instructions remind me of a book I once read, “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”.

  2. Really interesting, Liberty … going to show this to my daughter who loves art, especially drawing. She is fascinated with faces — and selfies! #GlobalBlogging

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