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Faces are one of the most common things we encounter on a daily basis. We see them everywhere—at work, at home, online, and on TV. And in fact, the human brain is wired to process and identify faces (1). Even if you forget important details about someone, like their name or job, it’s likely that you would recognize their face.
Despite that familiarity, however, faces are notoriously difficult to draw. Research shows that the vast majority of people have a hard time drawing realistic and detailed faces (2). From the proportions of the face to individual facial features like eyes or lips, artists of all levels can be challenged by drawing line art faces.
And yet, faces are a popular subject for artists. “People love to draw faces,” says Yuko Shimizu, an illustrator based in New York City and a veteran instructor at the School of Visual Arts. “People are interested and curious about people, so it is natural.”
If you are interested in drawing faces, don’t be intimidated; you simply need a better understanding of how to capture those faces on paper. In this guide, we’ll lead you through the process of drawing a line art face—from initial exercises to help you practice drawing faces to some of the finer points of facial proportions.
Line art is a drawing style that uses lines and strokes of different weights and angles, without using shading or gradient. Artists who use this technique may choose to create a drawing with a single, continuous line (and this type of one line drawing face can be a great way for new artists to start). But others will choose to use a variety of line types, including actual and implied lines, organic and geometric lines, and lines of different widths, weights, and textures.
Many famous artists have used line art to draw portraits. While Pablo Picasso is perhaps most well known for his colorful, abstract paintings, he also produced many contour line drawings. His minimalist face line art titled “Portrait of Igor Stravinsky,” for example, was created using just clean, simple lines.
- A mechanical pencil or pen
- Several other pencils in varying grades
- Inexpensive paper
- Ruler (optional)
- Kleenex for smudging (optional)
Line art face drawing requires very simple materials. To get started, you’ll just need a few writing utensils and “stacks and stacks of paper,” says Shimizu. Inexpensive paper (like standard printer or photocopy paper) is fine—and actually, even preferred.
“When you have expensive paper, you may get nervous because you don’t want to ruin the good paper, and then your drawing will not come out great,” she adds. “Cheap paper prevents you from feeling nervous about drawing, and that’s the whole point.”
While you can use a writing tool of any kind, Shimizu recommends a pen or a pencil with no eraser. “Erasers prevent you from being confident with your drawings,” she explains. Knowing you don’t have the possibility of erasing can give you confidence to make bolder movements and lines. (Also, who needs an eraser when you’re creating a continuous line drawing face?)
To get better at drawing line art faces (and drawing in general), Shimizu suggests starting with a blind contour exercise. To complete this exercise, you will sit knee-to-knee with a partner and draw his or her face—without looking at your paper.
According to Shimizu, this is a great way to learn how to really see your subject.
“A common mistake people make—especially those who think they know how to draw—is that they think they are drawing what they are seeing, but in fact, they are just drawing what they think they see,” she explains. “There’s a big difference.”
The best way to learn how to truly see is by not looking at the paper, but rather, by focusing on your subject. She suggests the following tips to make the exercise as effective as possible:
Tips for Blind Contour Drawing of Face
- Set a time limit: Try five minutes to start. This may feel like a long time, but that will allow you to focus on capturing every detail and facial feature.
- Draw slowly: With a five-minute time limit, you will have ample time to complete your drawing—so go slowly. “Draw like an ant is crawling on the paper,” she says.
- Look at your subject as much as possible: This shouldn’t be hard, since the point of the exercise is to not look at your paper. Instead, study your subject’s face as you draw your line art face.
- Focus on the details: With a full five minutes to draw, take the time to incorporate even small details. “Try to draw every single strand of hair,” suggests Shimizu. That includes eyebrows, eyelashes, and facial hair.
Your end result may not look very realistic at all. In fact, it may look a little crazy or “Picasso-like,” adds Shimizu. But the point isn’t to create a masterpiece from your line drawing face. Rather, consider it an exercise to learn how to see.
“When you learn how to see things correctly, it will dramatically advance your drawing skill,” she explains. “Once you know how to see, it doesn’t matter if it is a face, a car, or a building—you will draw them with the same love.”
Even as you continue to get better at drawing line art faces, consider incorporating blind contour drawings into your regular routine. Many artists use this exercise as a way to “warm up” before attempting a more detailed, involved drawing. It can also be interesting to give yourself more or less time (try a short, 30-second exercise, or a lengthy 10-minute exercise) to see how your results change.
Blind contour drawings are a great first step to drawing line art faces, but at some point, you may want to learn how to draw more realistic and detailed faces. Here’s how to get started:
1. Draw an Oval
To help you position facial features correctly, start by drawing an oval. Heads aren’t perfectly circular, so you will want to start with an oval or egg shape. Then, using a ruler if you’d like, add in dividing lines. First, draw a vertical line down the center of the oval. Then, draw a horizontal line, also across the center of the oval.
2. Understand the Correct Proportions
Even though you’ve been looking at your own face for your whole lifetime, this can be tricky for new artists. Take the eyes for example: Research has found that nearly 95 percent of amateur artists position the eyes too high when drawing a face (3).
There are several rules of proportions you can follow to generate a realistic line art drawing of a face:
- Eyes should be placed halfway down the head, on the horizontal line that you drew. This may seem strange at first; most people want to place them higher. Some research has found that this is because people tend to focus more on the bottom half of the face, which contains the main features of the eyes, nose, and mouth, while overlooking the length of the forehead area. If you take a close look at your subject, however, you’ll see that this is the correct placement.
- The space between the eyes is approximately the same width as one eye. In total, the head is about five “eyes” wide.
- The width of the nose (at the widest part—the nostrils) should be about as wide as the space between the eyes.
- The width of the mouth should be about as wide as the space from pupil to pupil.
- Hair doesn’t only belong on the very top of the head. In general, a person’s hairline falls about a quarter to a third of the way from the top of the head to the eyebrows (4).
3. Customize as Needed
Keep in mind that all faces are different, and these proportions simply serve as guidelines. If you want to create a realistic drawing, you should look at your subject and determine if these proportions are true for that person. Your model, for instance, may have wider-set eyes or a narrower nose than these standard proportions. However, these guidelines can be a good place to start, especially if you are drawing a face from memory or without a model.
Once you understand the basics of how to draw a line art face, you can expand your technique and practice drawing faces with different types of features. For example, there are subtle differences between male and female faces. Male faces tend to have a more angular shape, while female faces are softer and rounder. Women may also have fuller lips, larger eyes, and rounder cheeks.
Then, continue thinking of other types of defining features that you can incorporate into your line art face drawings. Maybe you incorporate different face shapes—experts say there are nine main face shapes (5)—as well as a variety of ethnicities or new hair styles and types.
“Challenging yourself to draw more and different types of faces is the key to improving. “If you want to get really good at drawing, just keep practicing,” recommends Shimizu. “Don’t worry about perfection or what others may think.”
As you practice, you’ll become more familiar with proportions of the face and individual facial features, and eventually, you’ll be able to create a realistic line drawing face even if you don’t have a subject in front of you.
“The more you draw, the more visual memory you create,” Shimizu explains. “And the more visual memory you create, the easier it will be to draw from your head.”
While there are plenty of ways to get better at drawing line art faces, you shouldn’t worry about achieving perfection.
“We often think we are not good enough, because we don’t draw like those photo realists on the internet. We try to make our drawings a masterpiece, get intimidated, get stressed, and then fail,” says Shimizu. “The best art happens when you freely express yourself—when you have fun, don’t worry about mistakes, and draw with confidence.”
As an artist, you should always strive to get better—but that could mean something different for every individual. The most important thing is to practice, to learn how to see, and to develop your own unique line drawing face techniques that you enjoy.
Want to Learn More About Face Line Art? Read This Next:
A Guide to Line Art: History, Techniques, and How To Improve
- Ben Panko, Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-does-your-brain-recognize-faces-180963583/
- Erika Engelhaupt, ScienceNews, https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/gory-details/why-every-face-you-draw-looks-little-neandertal
- Bahar Gholipour, HuffPost, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/drawing-human-faces-eyes_n_5762fd6ee4b0df4d586f9b85
- Paul Heaston, Bluprint, https://www.mybluprint.com/article/drawing-heads-and-faces-that-look-totally-real-just-dont-do-this-to-the-hair
- Marielle Simon, Daily Mail, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2795014/scientists-identified-nine-distinct-face-shapes-five-new-groups-traditional-oval-round-heart-square.html