Face Truths: The Truth About Faces

We all have the same facial features: eyes, nose, mouth, ears. But there are subtle differences in these features that make us distinctively different.

The following are “face truths” that will help you draw a face truthfully. They go hand-in-hand with each other, making them less like steps to follow and more like a slide to go down.

Recently I’ve fought “familiar blindness”. What’s that? It’s what I call when I’m so familiar with someone that it’s hard to see them objectively. See the drawing at the top of the article? Using toned paper, 4B lead in my lead holder, and a white charcoal pencil, I drew a friend of mine (photographer Dan Padrick). It was a challenge to see if I could get over “familiar blindness” by practicing the objective, facial truths I’ve listed below. I hope they help you too, whether it’s in getting over a mental block or to simply in drawing realistic faces and catching the likeness.

The hardest thing to see is what is in front of our eyes. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Symmetry: It’s a good place to start. An eye on this side means an eye on that side, at the same level, agreeing with the tilt of the head. Continue on- making even brows, nose, lips, ears. Especially at the beginning of a drawing, keep things light and movable (sometimes it helps to have a kneaded eraser to dab or roll on a drawing when you see it getting too dark). At this point, think of the features as place-holders. You’re making a template. Studies have found with males and females, symmetrical faces are seen as more attractive. If you take this too far though your drawing will start looking unreal, like dolls from a mold. Especially when drawing from imagination we can go overboard with the evenness of the face; we can’t dream up all the beautiful asymmetries of nature. If you get a chance to work from life (a model in front of you) take it! Every inch of a face holds surprises.

Symbolism: You know how I just said to put the features on the face in an even, symmetrical way? Make sure you catch that I ALSO said: “think of these as place-holders”. If you get stuck in the perfection of features and carve them into your paper, you’re committing to your lines too soon and will lose the chance at finding your model’s likeness. This is called symbolic drawing when the features are drawn as symbols coming from your brain rather than observing them from the person in front of you.

Asymmetries: From your mailman to America’s top model, we are all a bit asymmetrical! And that’s a good thing. Do you know one side of the face is often larger than the other? Brad Pitt is a good example of this. And as gorgeous as Marilyn Monroe was, one eye was slightly lower than the other. Ears are always a little uneven. The distance of eyes from the middle of the face can differ between the two. Last celebrity mention: Have you seen Tom Cruise’s smile? One tooth is almost center. Most asymmetries are little. But still, I want to encourage you to put away that ruler and erase that grid on your paper.

Subtleties: It’ll sound like an oxymoron but I’m still going to say it- Subtleties are huge! You might ask “Does moving a pencil line just a smidge really make a difference in a portrait’s likeness?” Not always, but often- a lot. Same as even subtle differences from plastic surgery changes a person’s appearance enough for people to notice. I like using an eraser pen to more easily make delicate adjustments. All this to say: look for subtleties in the asymmetries. This isn’t “finding fault”… its “finding human”.

Stare. It is the way to educate your eye. Walker Evans

Bare Bones: Let’s strip it down to the bare bones. You know our bone structure gives hints to heritage/ethnicity? It’s believed that a portrait artist doesn’t really draw the model rather themselves over and over again. We can more easily draw what we know, and what do we know more than our own ­­faces? I try to get-out-of-the-way of my art so hopefully, this isn’t true with me. I would find it such a shame to transpose my bone structure onto the variety of beautiful people I’ve been blessed to draw and paint. This takes us back to symbolism. Don’t assume anything with the face, not even the skull! Be in the moment and observe with a fresh eye: the width of the forehead, the point of the chin, where the nose is rooted, the height of the cheekbones, etc. Their skull is not your skull (unless they’re a blood sibling… then it probably pretty similar to yours).

Size Relations: Always be looking at the size of the features in relation to each other. I remember drawing a young woman where the drawing looked good, but not exactly her. It looked like an older sister. I was puzzled, thinking “That’s her mouth. That’s her eyes and nose, and…” then I realized: I got the features individually right, but together wrong. I had to take a long look at my model. I finally saw that her wide-eyed look definitely took up more real-estate on her face than I had allotted. This will sound strange but when looking at your model, visualize comparing every feature with a quarter as if you were able to place them right on their face.  This’ll help you to rank their size relations to each other. Then visually on your paper judge if you have the same ranking.

Frontalization: When drawing the model from any view that’s not a frontal view, we subconsciously draw the features turning towards us. Our brains are frontalizing them.  The first step in fighting this is being aware.

 your slightest look easily will unclose me. E. E. Cummings

Micro-expressions:  (I considered whether to include this point or not since your interpretation of your model’s micro-expressions can’t count as an “objective truth”. But acknowledging that these mini traces of emotion or thought do exist is a fact…so here it is!) Even in a neutral pose, if my model has had the best day ever (or a rotten one) there are thousands of tiny notes telling of it written on their face.  It’s a “tell”, something people are unconscious of because it’s mostly involuntary. One of my greatest joys in life is trying to capture that spark of truth about the model. If you’re drawing your naughty grandson from a photo, make sure you get one that has that glint of mischief in his smiling eyes. If you love the dramatic nature of the ballerina who models for you, play their favorite opera music while they pose. I love talking with my sitters, getting a feel for who they are and something of their essence.  I drew my friend from a photograph he took of himself. He was able to stare down his camera in a raw, honest way. That was the micro-expression I wanted from him.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of these “Face Truths”, just the ones I’ve been thinking about lately. Have you faced these same truths with the portraits you’ve drawn? What’s your favorite asymmetry on your face? Love to read your thoughts in the comments below!

Artist, DNY Instructor and Author
I love painting faces, flesh, and fabric. The more tactile I can make a painting feel, the more I’m satisfied with it! I feel blessed to make art every day and look forward to the next day to continue my projects. Traveling to teach workshops is also something I can’t believe I get to do.
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Kelly Foss Author
I love painting faces, flesh, and fabric. The more tactile I can make a painting feel, the more I’m satisfied with it! I feel blessed to make art every day and look forward to the next day to continue my projects. Traveling to teach workshops is also something I can’t believe I get to do.
6 Comments
  1. Very interesting and helpful. I draw people I know well and sometimes it is imposible not to make a symbolic drawing

  2. That’s a pretty solid drawing. I was surprised to learn you did it from a photo, because it has a vitality that’s often missing from work from photos. Thanks for the tips on materials and techniques. I’ve never used an eraser pen, but am always on the lookout for new materials to try. Thank you for an informative article.

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