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How to draw a face

Knowing how to draw a face and head accurately and realistically is key to developing effective characters. When it comes to drawing heads, nothing is set in stone; different characters have vastly different features. However, a grounding in head anatomy will enable you to experiment confidently, and these skills will certainly improve your drawings.

On this page I’ll show you how to draw a face, moving from initial drawings to using references, and sharing my personal techniques. Once you've mastered that, flip to page two to learn how to further your skills. I’ll offer some advice on how to draw a face with personality and how to show different expressions. Right, grab a sketchbook or your Cintiq and let’s get cracking!

01. Start with two circles

two overlapping circles

Two circles form the basis of the head

I start off by drawing two overlapping circles. Where they intersect is the eye level. From there, put a centre line down the two circles. This gives the basis of the human head. 

02. Add construction lines

overlapping circles with guidelines

Use the guidelines to position the features 

Draw two lines slightly in from either side of your circles. These will indicate where the forehead and cheekbones sit. From the centre intersection, place a triangle for the nose and mark out where you want the mouth to go. Then add two triangles for the eyes – these will also help you locate the eyebrows and eye sockets.

03. Explore different proportions

Three heads based on circles of varying proportions

Different sized circles will create different effects

You can experiment with different sized circles to give different head dimensions. The more squashed the circles, the wider and heavy the face, while the more elongated the circles, the longer the head shape.

04. Line up the features

Three heads tilted in three quarter view

Imagine the features are wrapped around a cylinder

Always remember that the eyes, nose and mouth are on the same plane on the face, otherwise things start to go a bit lopsided and weird! Imagine the facial features are wrapped around a cylinder, so they have a natural curve. 

Position the top of the eyebrow and bottom of the nose so that they’re lined up with the height of the ear. This helps the face look more natural; giving it a flow, and stopping it from feeling flat.

05. Start with the eyes

Illustration of a pair of eyes

A light source helps eyes look more alive

Your character’s eyes are crucial to conveying the right emotion. Try to keep them focused and tell a story with them. Give the top eye a thicker line to indicate a shadow from the eyelid, and add a light source to give them life. Longer and thicker eyelashes create a more feminine look.

06. Add in the nose

Several illustrations of noses

The tip of the nose is roughly diamond shaped

Noses can be pretty difficult to get right. I initially create a triangle with a diamond shape for the tip of the nose. From there I draw nostrils, remembering to add line weight and shadow to the bottom of the nose. I keep the details light, adding only what’s needed.

07. Try different lip shapes

Several drawings of lips in different expressions

Look at your own mouth to explore different lip shapes

I keep a little sketchbook to practise different lip shapes. Study films and TV programmes to see how actors exaggerate their mouths. Experiment and explore different mouth shapes. Try to convey ‘oh’, ‘ah’ and ‘esss’: this will help when you want figures to look like they’re having a conversation.

08. Consider differences between male and female faces

A sketch of a woman's face and a man's face

Male faces tend to be more angular – although this isn’t a hard and fast rule

The male face is a harder, angular shape. The female face is softer and rounder in general. For women, try to depict fuller lips, larger eyes and rounder cheeks. These are not hard and fast rules, though – just a guide.

09. Finish with some hair

Sketches of a face with hair

Remember, the hair is bigger than the scalp

When drawing a character’s hair, I first create the basic hair shape, noting that the hair is bigger than the scalp. I then add direction to the hair, remembering to draw strokes from the crown of the head. To give hair a more natural appearance, I introduce a sense of weight to the bottom of the shape. Trying drawing the hair shape with a thicker outline and thinner internal lines. This gives it direction.

Next page: more advanced techniques for drawing a face

10. Exaggerate emotions

Two sketches of a man shouting

Make your characters over-act

Once you’ve got the basics it’s time to have some fun with your figures! As a general rule, try to make the character over-act, to really convey the emotion in your drawing. I usually start with a super-quick gesture drawing to capture the emotion I’m after. Look in the mirror and exaggerate your facial features. Try to put feeling into the drawing.

11. Use photo references

Sketch of a woman with her head twisted to one side

Try out different expressions in a mirror

When drawing characters, try to get into their mindset: how they’re feeling and where they’re coming from emotionally. Then act out the expression, using a mirror or photo reference to capture the emotion. Always try to get that perfect snapshot moment, and make it look as dynamic as possible.

12. Add creases

Drawing of a woman yelling

Remember to consider the character’s age when adding facial lines

Adding facial lines to characters can emphasise an expression, but it’s important to bear in mind the age of the person. The more character lines and emotion lines you depict on a face, the older a character will look. Men usually have harsher lines and females have fewer. Younger characters will have also have fewer lines around the eyes, forehead and mouth. This is a good excuse to put together a reference library of faces young and old.

13. Make subtle tweaks

A drawing of two worried looking figures

A creased eyebrow can instantly make a character look anxious

Sometimes, though, subtlety is required. A slightly raised eyebrow or smirk can be very effective. Adding just a touch of emotion or quirkiness to the character can make them feel natural and life-like.

14. Try new facial expressions

Drawing of a woman with her cheeks puffed up

Push the boundaries with your characters’ expressions

Grab every opportunity to experiment with the expressions. Try to push what you’re used to drawing, and look at yourself in the mirror to see how the face can move. Try and be whacky with the different facial expressions, but be careful not to hold your breath for too long!

15. Explore feature close-ups

Drawing of a close up of a mouth

You don’t need to show the whole face to convey emotion

Both the eyes and mouth are expressive. A powerful technique when drawing a comic page is to use a close-up of one of them. Consider illustrating an open mouth, snarling teeth or stern lips. Using just one area of the face will really push you to convey the emotion and sell the drawing.

16. Remember body language

Two drawings of an angry looking man

It can help to draw outside the panel

While drawing heads you also have to think of the figure’s body language, which will show in the close-up. A tilt of the head or shrug of the shoulders can emphasise an emotion. I draw beyond the panel to check that the body language is working and is anatomically correct. Remember to have fun and try out new things!

This article was originally published in ImagineFX, the world's best-selling magazine for digital artists. Buy issue 160 or subscribe.

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