Heather Harding: How to Draw Portraits and Bodies

Heather Harding: How to Draw Portraits and Bodies

There are definite rules of thumb to follow when tackling drawing a face or body. These will help you get everything in the right place as well as the proportions correct. I’m going to go through these rules of thumb with you now, starting first with the face.

The Face

The first thing you need to get right is the shape of the head. Often people think of the head as an oval, but the top of your head is much wider than your chin, so the shape is really more like that of an egg.

Exercise: Let’s do a quick mock up of a head with features face-on. You can work from a photo of someone if you want but it needs to be quite clear and a good size (and if they have a bald head, even better!!!). If you don’t have a photo, grab a mirror and use your own. If you have long hair, tie it back out of the way.

1. Draw your “egg-shaped’ head. Get a nice curve at the top and a narrower one at the chin. When that’s done, draw a vertical line through the centre to indicate the centre of the head. This centre line runs between the eyes, through the centre of the nose, lips and chin. It will help you balance things correctly.

Now we plot where the features go………

2. Eyes: Your eyes are halfway down your head. You’re probably raising your eyebrows in surprise right now. This is the reaction I commonly get from students when I’m teaching them how to draw a head. It is true though. A lot of people draw the eyes way too high up. Look in a mirror if you’re not already. Place one hand on the top of your head and the other underneath your chin. Look how far down between your hands your eyes are and you’ll find them half way. Your eyes are not in your forehead, they’re below your forehead. Draw a horizontal line across as a marker. This will be at a 90 degree angle to your vertical line and indicates where the eyes will go.

Eyes are obviously placed either side of the centre line. An easy way to get them the right distance apart is to remember that the space between your eyes is exactly the length of one eye. In fact, the head is generally 5 eyes wide (if you’re looking at it face-on).

3. Nose: Your nose is half way between your eyes and your chin. Draw another horizontal line across as a marker. As your centre line runs through the middle of the nose, the nostrils should be placed either side. Consider is the width of the nose, which is much wider than you probably realize. Take a look in the mirror, draw an imaginary line down from the inner corner of your eye and you’ll see that it hits the outer edge of your nose. Make a note of this on your sketch and you now have an accurate marker for your nose width.

4. Lips: Your lips are half way between the bottom of your nose and your chin. Draw another horizontal marker line. To gauge the width of your lips, look in the mirror and draw an imaginary line upwards. You’ll see that you hit the centre of your eye. Go back to your drawing and mark these points each side and you’ll have your lip width. Generally the lower lip is deeper than the top lip.

5. Ears: Ears are much bigger than you think. The top of your ears is generally in line with the top of your eyes and the earlobe is generally in line with the top of your top lip. Put these markers in place and you draw in your ears.

Voila! That’s the face, neatly and accurately mapped out. It’s amazing, isn’t it, that even though we all look very different, our features are all in exactly the same place. If you always apply these rules of thumb, you should never go wrong. Remember, though, that if the head is tilted to one side, your centre line should be angled so it still runs through the centre of the head and your horizontal lines indicating the eyes, nose and mouth should still be drawn in at a 90 degree angle.

The Head in Profile

Let’s go over the head in profile as some people can find this quite tricky and it can take a bit of practice to get it right.

To begin, the head in profile is much wider than you think. It’s a kind of tilted egg shape. As it’s not possible to look at our own head in this way, have a look online and find a picture of a skull or drawing of a head in profile. You’ll see that the shape of the back of the head is quite full.

Use the same method as before to plot out the features – your halfway line for the eyes, halfway again for the nose, etc. Ears are often drawn too close to the other features and are always a lot further back than you think. When it comes to ear length, the same rules as above apply.

It’s important to remember that once you’ve plotted out all your points, you need to draw the shapes of the eyes, nose, mouth and ears as you actually see them, not as a generic kind of shape. It’s getting the shapes of the features right that will enable you to make an accurate drawing of the person you’re looking at. For instance, when drawing the eyes, look at the shapes of the eyelids as one may be droopier than the other. The eyebrows may be a slightly different shape (one of my eyebrows is a bit angular while the other is curved). Lips can be quit thin or very full. Look at the chin shape, which could be flattish underneath or small and rounded.

The Body

Now you’ve tackled the face, let’s take a look at the body……

The best way to get the body in proportion is to measure and the best unit of measure you can use is the head. Your head fits into your body 7 times. This means that when you roughly sketch out a figure, the tip of the head to the toes should measure 8 heads in length.

Take the drawing of the statue of David from my Line Drawing and Shading blog post. Use the measurement of his head to plot the points of his body and you’ll see – point 1 is his upper chest, point 2 is natural waist, 3 is the groin area, 4 is above the knee, 5 is his calf, 6 is the ankle and 7 his toes. Measure the drawing of the seated figure in red chalk below and you’ll find the same thing.

Most people find drawing hands and feet tricky and it really is a case of practice makes perfect. Try sketching your hands from different angles. Prop your feet up in front of you or draw them while looking in a mirror.

Other good tips – shoulders slope downwards, belly buttons are below the natural waistline, the inside of your elbow is roughly waist height and your arms are much longer than you think. Hang them by your side and look in the mirror. Your fingertips end roughly mid thigh. Knees are wide as we have kneecaps. They’re not narrow ‘in’ shaped points in the middle of your leg. Remember to look closely at the body you’re drawing. That person may have a long torso and short legs or vice versa.

I highly recommend going to life drawing classes if you want to tackle the body. Drawing from a life model is fabulous, as you’ll get to draw a variety of body shapes.

Books on anatomy are a real help. The more you understand what you look like underneath your skin – the shapes of muscles and the skeleton – the better your understanding will be of how to draw the face and body.

Drawing in a museum is also great. I sometimes take students to the V&A sculpture department to draw from the busts and statues. Statues and busts make very good models – they don’t move!




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Heather Harding

Heather Harding – Art, Crafts, Textiles & Fashion I love drawing, painting, printing and textiles. I’m a very instinctive person, always wanting to reach out and touch, taste or sniff things! I’m drawn to images and textures, constantly staring at colours, imagining drawing or painting things in my head when I’m out and about. I’m a terrible hoarder really, always collecting things because I like their shapes, texture or colour – pebbles, bits of wood, patterns off packets, bits of fabric, leaves when they’re changing colour, articles on art, interiors and fashion.

I’m in and out of art galleries a lot, poring over books and researching artists on the internet that I’ve just come across. I don’t have an all time favourite artist, there are far too many to like, it’s more ‘flavour of the month’ with me. My favourite drawing at the moment is “Poldi” by Egon Schiele.

My proudest moment? Making it through 6,500 amateur artists to be selected to take part in BBC1’s The Big Painting Challenge which aired earlier this year. It was a fantastic achievement, great fun and intensely nerve-wracking all at the same time. I made it through 3 episodes before going out. Painting Blenheim Palace did me in. It was too big and so many columns! I didn’t warm to it at all and had a bad painting day with that one, although my other challenges were fine. My friends and family all think I was robbed, being kicked off at that stage. Bless ’em. (I agree!!!).