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The Road Map to a Proportional Face for Portrait Artists

Updated on May 10, 2012
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I am Diane Brown (dbro), an artist and illustrator living in Texas. I enjoy all phases of the creative process. Enjoy and comment!


The human head is an extremely complex and intricate structure made up of many layers of bone, muscle, skin and hair that all work together to create the endless variety of faces we see everyday. This huge variety is created by many factors: age, gender, race, ethnicity; not to mention the styles that impact the individual's appearance.

When an artist decides to create a portrait of an individual, this complexity can be intimidating at best and paralyzing at worst! However, this complicated structure can be simplified, analyzed, and rendered in a way that will bring believability and sense of reality to the portrait you create.

In this hub I will present some "schematics," some simplified drawings - a "road map" if you will, to help the artist render a convincing drawing of a human head. As with all forms of art, practice and study will increase the artist's ability. Along with practice, careful observation will greatly improve the quality of your drawings.

The "road maps" in this hub represent the generic "norm" of the proportions and relationships among the features of the face and head. These relationships represent what is usual or expected. The way a specific individual varies from this norm (and we all do) is where the skilled artist discerns and captures the "likeness" of the subject.

In the drawing below, you will see the head with its features in their "classic" positions and proportions. For this discussion, I will limit my descriptions to the head as it is seen facing directly at the viewer.

Facial Road Map - Facing Front

Example Face
Example Face


The head itself is a tapered oval, wider at the top than at the bottom. The eyes are set within the skull in the middle (from top to bottom) of this oval. A frequent mistake artists make is to place the eyes too near the top of the head. It can be deceiving, because frequently the hair line will make the eyes seem nearer the top of the head than they really are.

When I begin drawing a face, I like to begin by rendering the eyes to the extent that I get their placement and basic shapes captured. I don't want to invest too much time in great detail at this point in case I need to make adjustments or corrections. Remember, drawing is nothing more than a series of corrections.

As you can see on the "road map," the eyes are placed side to side such that there is one eye's width from the side of the head to the outer corner of the eye and one eye's width between the eyes (when the face is seen from the front). A word should be said about the shape of the eye. Many inexperienced artists portray the eye as a pointed oval or "football" shape. Careful observation will show more subtle tapering and rounding. Remember the muscles and skin around the eye house a spherical eyeball and, therefore, protrude slightly.

When you have drawn the eyes, you can place the eyebrows above them. Refer to the "map" to determine how far above the eyes the brows should go. You'll notice on the example face that the brow begins directly above the inside corner of the eye. As you can see, the brow arches slightly with its apex immediately above the outside corner of the eye. From this point the brow curves back down to the level of its inside end and tapers to a point.

Once the eyes and brows are roughed in, it's a good idea to map out the basic placement of the nose and mouth. As you refer back to the road map you will see that the bottom of the nose divides the space between the eyebrows and the bottom of the chin. It's advisable to lightly indicate this placement with a pencil mark. Refer to the example face to see the simplified shape of the nose. You will see that the outer flares of the nostrils fall directly below the inside corners of the eyes. Again, remember these placements and proportions are the average. Use these guides for practice and/or your initial stages of a portrait of an individual. In the latter case, once your portrait is roughed in, begin observing and recording how your particular subject varies from this norm.

You can see by the schematic that the parting of the lips corresponds with the first one-third distance down from the bottom of the nose. Study and render the basic shape of the mouth. Notice that the corners of the mouth fall (more or less) directly down from the pupils of the eye when the subject is looking straight ahead. Generally the lower lip is slightly fuller than the upper.

Placement and size of the ears is a simple case of extending the guide lines from the bottom of the nose and the brow line. These will be the lower and upper edges of the ears. Unfortunately on my example face I drew hair over the tops of her ears. I guess you'll just have to take my word on this, or you can verify it for yourself by looking in the mirror!

At this point you have created a basic head with its features in their "normal" positions and proportions. Once you have a drawing you are pleased with, you can then suggest a hairstyle. Here you should loosely render the shape and growth pattern of the hair with just a few pencil strokes. Do NOT try to draw each individual hair! The same holds true for eyelashes - a heavier line along the upper eyelid will suffice. Drawing each individual eyelash makes the eye appear cartoonish.

Granny, acrylic 10x10"
Granny, acrylic 10x10"


Following these guidelines and road map will help you practice your drawing skills and gain confidence as you learn to portray the incredibly varied but always meaningful and beautiful human face!

I hope you've enjoyed this hub and found it useful. Please take a moment to leave a comment. I'd love to hear what you have to say!


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