Human Anatomy Fundamentals: Basics of The Face

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What You'll Be Creating
Having thoroughly explored the human body, it is time to start looking more closely at its details, starting with the face. The very first thing the eye looks for, in any setting, is the human face, and this applies also to art: a viewer will first look at the face of your character. Mastering the face, particularly the drawing of lively expressive faces, is therefore well worth the effort.
In this tutorial we're learning the basics of the face – proportions, features and foreshortening, and we'll go into the details of facial variations in our next session.

1. Proportions of the Face

Seen Face-on:

The skull is a slightly flattened sphere, to which the jaw is appended so that, seen face-on, it has the shape of an egg, pointy side down. Two perpendicular midlines cut the egg into four quarters. To place the features:
  • Mark the middle points of the left and right halves: The eyes sit on the midline, on these middle points.
  • Divide the lower half in five: The bottom of the nose is two points down from the midline. The slit of the mouth is three points down from the midline, just one point down from the nose.
  • Divide the upper half in four: The hairline (when not receding) is two to three points up from the midline. The ear is positioned between the upper eyelid and the tip of the nose, but this is only when the face is level. Looking up or down changes the apparent position of the ear (see Foreshortening).
It is helpful to know that the width of a face is generally five eyes or a little less. The distance between the eyes is equal to one eye. It's not uncommon for people to have eyes further apart or closer together, but we notice it when they do (wide-set eyes give a child-like innocent impression, while close-set eyes inspire distrust for some reason). The distance between lower lip and chin is also the length of one eye.
Another measurement is the length of the index finger beyond the thumb. In the diagram below, all of the distances marked are equal to this length: height of the ear, hairline to brow, brow to nose, nose to chin, and pupil to pupil.

Seen in Profile:

From the side, the head is still shaped like an egg, but pointing towards a corner. The midlines now divide the head into front (face) and back (skull).
On the skull:
  • The ear is just behind the central line. In size and vertical positioning, it still fits between the upper eyelid and the bottom of the nose.
  • The depth of the skull varies between the two dotted lines shown in step 4.
On the face:
  • The features are placed the same way as above.
  • The hollow at the root of the nose either coincides with the midline or is slightly above it.
  • The most prominent point in the brow is 1 point up from the midline.

2. The Features

The Eyes and Eyebrows

The eye is simply two arcs forming an almond shape. There's no particular rule here because the eye shape can vary a great deal, but we can note the following tendencies:
  • The outer corner of the eye can be higher than the inner, but not the reverse.
  • If the eye is compared to an almond, the rounder part would be towards the inner corner, with the tapering part in the outer corner.

Details of the Eye

  • At rest, the iris is partially hidden behind the upper lid. It only intersects the lower lid if looking down, or if the eye is narrowed so that the lower lid rises.
  • The eyelashes sweep outward and are shorter on the lower lid (in fact it's unnecessary to draw them most of the time).
  • Whether to show the small oval of the tear duct in the inner corner, and the thickness of the lower lid, is a personal decision that depends on one's style, as too much detail does not necessarily look good; detail should certainly decrease with the scale of the drawing.
  • The same goes with the fold of the eyelid, which in addition contributes expression and can make the eye look less alert. I find that when a drawing is too stylized, or so small that the fold can't be included without changing the expression, it's best to omit it.
In profile, the eye takes on the shape of an arrowhead (with the sides variously concave or convex), with a little hint of the upper eyelid and possibly of the lower as well. In real life you wouldn't see the iris from the side, you'd only see a white eye. When I did that in my work, I received so many "this really looks weird" comments from readers that I had to start including at least a hint of the iris.
As for the eyebrow, the simplest way to draw it at rest is to make it follow the curve of the upper eyelid. Most of the eyebrow body is towards the inside, with the outer tail slightly or much shorter.
In profile, it changes shape completely and becomes comma-like. The comma appears to be the continuation of the eyelashes before curling back on itself to and over the eye – indeed sometimes it looks connected to the eyelashes, so that you can draw in a single curve the upper line of the eye curling back to become the eyebrow.

The Nose

The nose is roughly wedge-shaped, a shape that's easier to visualize and draw in 3D before detailing it.
The bridge and sides of the nose are flat surfaces that may be only implied in the final drawing, though it's important to put them down in the buildup sketch so the detailed part of the nose is placed and sized correctly. This is the bottom flat side in our wedge, a truncated triangle connecting the wings and the tip of the nose. The wings curl inwards into the septum, forming the nostrils – note in the bottom view below how the lines that form the sides of the septum are at the fore and start from the face, not the other way around. The septum juts out lower than the wings when seen from the front, which also means that in 3/4 view, the further nostril is hidden by it to a varying degree.
The trickiest part about the nose may be deciding what lines to draw or to omit for a good-looking result! You don't always want the wings drawn fully, as they are in the side nose above. Similarly, the front nose here shows all four lines for the bridge of the nose and where it connects with the face, but most of the time it looks much better if you only draw the bottom part, the wings/nostrils/septum (hide the lines with your fingers to see). If the nose is in 3/4 view, however, it becomes almost essential to draw the further line of the bridge. It takes a lot of observation and trial and error to arrive at one's own "signature nose", and with this as with any tricky feature, I find it very useful to look at comic artists' work, observing their noses very closely, to see what decisions they have made for themselves. We'll look at this again next session when we cover diversity of features in more detail.

The Lips

Notes on the mouth and lips:
  • The slit of the mouth should be drawn first as it's the longest and darkest of the three somewhat parallel lines forming the mouth. It is not a simple curve but a series of subtle curves. In the figure below, you can see an exaggerated example making the movements of the mouth line clear; note how they reflect the line of the upper lip . They can be softened in a number of ways, the central dip can be very narrow for a pointed look, or so broad its presence is attenuated – but it can even be reversed when the lower lip is fleshy, and that creates a slight, natural pout. If achieving symmetry in this line is challenging, try starting from the center and drawing it out one way, then return and do the other side.
  • The upper lip's two peaks are much more obvious, but they can similarly be softened into broad curves, even so softened that they blend into a "peakless" lip. 
  • The lower lip on the other hand is always a smooth curve, but it can range from nearly flat to generously rounded. It's always good to mark the lower lip, even with a mere dash. 
  • The upper lip's nearly always thinner than the lower, and its sticks out from the face less than the lower. If it's outlined, it should always be done more finely than the lower, because the lower lip's outline is emphasized by its shadow (as thin as it is!)
  • From the side, the lips take on an arrowhead shape and the jutting of the upper lip becomes clearly visible. So does the contrast between the profile shape of the two lips: flatter and diagonal for the upper, rounder for the lower.
  • The slit of the mouth, from the side, slants down from the lips. Even if the person is smiling, it slants (or curves) down before rising again into the corners. Never slant the mouth straight up in profile.  

The Ears

The most important part of the ear, for it to look right, is the tall C shape of its outer outline and the inverted U inside it that marks the rim of the upper ear. There's often a smaller U just above the lobe (feel it with your finger), connected to a smaller C. The general effect is concentric around the ear hole (not as a rule visible) and varies a lot individually. This can be stylized – for instance my generic ears, below, look somewhat like stretched @ symbols.
When the face is seen from the front, the ear is in profile:
  • The rim earlier outlined by the inverted U now stands out as a separate unit – as happens when you look at a dish from the side and suddenly see its bottom side as being in front of the inside.
  • The lobe can also looks almost drop-like, more distinct from the ear as a whole.
  • How thin the ear is from this angle depends on how close it is set to the head, and that varies individually. However, it is always tilted slightly forward, as that is the direction we have evolved to listen from.
From the back, the ear looks detached from the head: a rim attached to the head by a funnel. Don't be shy about the size of the funnel, it needs to tilt the ears forward! It is more important than the rim from this angle.


Being basically a ball where the features are mapped out on contour lines, the head is easier to foreshorten than may be expected. However, it's more important than ever to observe it from various angles in real life to become familiar with the way the features jut out and sink in, overlapping each other in sometimes unexpected ways. The nose protrudes of course, but so do the brow, the cheekbones, the central part of the mouth and the chin, while the eye sockets and sides of the mouth are depressions on the surface of our ball.
When we drew the face straight on and in profile above, we were simplifying it into a flat, 2D surface where our reference lines were straight. For any other angle, we need to shift our thinking to 3D and become aware that this egg-shape is in fact really like an egg, and the lines we used earlier to locate the features curve all around it like the equator and latitudes on the globe: their circular nature is revealed when the egg is tilted. Placing the features, then, is simply a matter of drawing the crossing midlines under the desired angle – all three of them at once now. We can then divide the top and bottom half as before, creating slices in the egg, bearing in mind that the slices closest to us will look thicker. The process is the same to draw a face that's looking down or up.

Looking Down

  • All the features curve up and the ear moves up.
  • Because the nose juts out, it oversteps its line (see figure) and the tip looks much closer to the mouth – if the face turns down enough, the nose will squarely overlap the mouth. Seen from this angle, the nose displays no details at all, just the wedge with a hint of wings.
  • The curve of the eyebrows is flattened, though it takes extreme perspective to make them curve the other way.
  • In the eyes, the upper lid becomes much more prominent and quickly changes it usual curve to cover the orb of the eye.
  • The upper lip almost disappears and the lower one appears larger.
  • Note that because the mouth follows the general curve, it appears to be smiling, so a tweaking of reality may be needed to adjust the expression (if desired).

Looking Up

  • All the features curve down, and the ear moves down accordingly.
  • The upper lip displays its full surface that normally doesn't face the observer. The mouth now seems to be pouting!
  • The eyebrow gains more curve, but the lower eyelid curves down, producing the effect of narrowed eyes.
  • The bottom of the nose is displayed clearly with both nostrils unhindered.

Turning Sideways

  1. When someone is seen almost from the back, all that is visible are the jutting points of brow and cheekbone. The line of the neck overlaps that of the chin as it points to the ear. The eyelash is next to come into view as the face turns.
  2. Then part of the eyebrow appears, and the protrusion of the lower eyelid as the tip of the nose emerges from behind the curve cheek.
  3. In near-profile, the eyeball and lips appear (but the slit of the mouth is still very small), and the line of the neck merges with the line of the chin into one curve. You can still see part of the curve of the cheek hiding the nostril.

Practice Time

Apply the same method of quick sketching practiced for the body (see Learning to See and Draw Energy) to the face, roughly capturing your impression of faces you observe around you in a coffee shop or on the street.
Don't worry about detailing the features or getting things right, just do a lot of these from a lot of angles so they enter your system.
If you find visualizing and drawing the 3D "egg" challenging, take an actual egg (you may want to hard boil it first, just in case!). Draw the three midlines running all around it, and add the other divisions so that they also go all around. Observe and sketch the egg from various angles with its contour lines; this is an excellent way to get a feel for how the lines and distances behave in perspective. You can then place the features on their respective marks, and observe how they move around as the egg is rotated.


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