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Sketching and Drawing Human Faces

Tricia Deed enjoys and relaxes with her hobby of painting portraits and landscapes with acrylic paints.

Artist sketching human faces.

Artist sketching human faces.


Are you a people watcher? Do you see facial expressions during various actions at shopping malls, beaches, mountains, and sporting events? Do you see the facial expressions of youngsters at play?

Look for emotional outbursts of happiness, sadness, surprise, shock, quizzical concentration, and doubt. If possible, take a photo of the desired moment.

Do you attend these activities with a sketch notebook and pencil in hand? Be ready to sketch wonderful or interesting encounters. Be alert to record unique and spontaneous expressions. Portrait artists study a variety of faces to help refine their finished drawings and paintings.

Analyze and examine human faces and profiles in books, fashion magazines, newspapers, photographs, advertising outlets, and other print sources.

Head guideline: Capture critical outlining.

Head guideline: Capture critical outlining.

Sketching Portraits

Sketching is a visual outline drawn with a pen or pencil. It may illustrate a human being or an object. In a portrait, the artist includes facial expressions, scars, birthmarks, tattoos, and other markings. Paint with a mixture of hues. Use highlighting and shading techniques. This will add reality to the portrait.

New students will draw the head, fill in details, look at the picture, and stop. They think they have finished it. Have you done this?

Does the finished sketch capture the person’s spirit and soul? Did you edit the portrait? Take a break from your project and return refreshed to reevaluate and make essential corrections and improvements.

Illustration of drawing lines.

Illustration of drawing lines.

Practice Benefits

Practice makes perfect. Think of practicing as rehearsing to develop into a master. Allow time for the learning curve; you cannot be in a hurry while building skills. Everyone progresses at a different rate.

  1. Sketch; they are the foundation or outline before marking details.
  2. Learn what to keep and when to erase nonessential lines and errors.
  3. Learn new experiences and challenges as human faces vary from each other.
  4. Improve pencil strokes to create facial gestures.
  5. Understand and gain knowledge of line strokes.
Artist doing a quick sketch on a sheet of paper.

Artist doing a quick sketch on a sheet of paper.

A Line Adds or Subtracts from the Portrait

It has been my experience that one line added or omitted will change a facial emotion or the identity of the portrait’s face. One line change in an eye, ear, nose, and mouth will transform a person’s identity.

One line can add a smile or sadness to a face. Detailed lines illustrate age, worry, frowns, and other facial gestures or emotions. Every line you lay out on your canvas will undo or redo facial gestures. There are faces expressing happiness, sadness, loneliness, depression, doubt, fear, hate, laughter, and more.

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The goal of artists who enjoy sketching human faces is to create an exact resemblance to their model. This skill takes years to develop.

Head drawing on graph paper.

Head drawing on graph paper.

Basic Facial Measurements and Tips

There are basic measurements to learn and memorize for drawing eyes, eyebrows, noses, lips and ears. The head turns and tilts, but the measurements stay the same. The changing angles may cause confusion, and you may find the eraser handy.

Draw a circle.

  • Place a vertical line dividing the circle in half.
  • Draw a line on either side of the lower end of the circle meeting towards the end of the vertical line, which marks the end of the chin.
  • Insert a horizontal line halfway down the vertical line (eye placement).
  • A horizontal line at one-third upward from the end of the chin marks the nose tip.

Measurement Tips:

Eye width and distance between the eyes are the same.

  • I place the eyebrows above the eyes on its protruding bone.
  • The nose starts at the lower end of the eyes, and its tips end at the 1/3 horizontal mark. The nose is usually the distance between the eyes.
  • Lips are often the width distance from the middle of one eye pupil to the next eye pupil. The lips are a short distance below the nose tip.
  • Ears length is between the eyebrows and nose tip.
  • The width of the neck lies between the ears and curves at the shoulders.

Modifications will need to be made.

Do not expect each portrait to develop into a masterpiece. Studying and practicing will develop your skills.

Portrait of a young man wearing dark eye glasses.

Portrait of a young man wearing dark eye glasses.

Sketching Tips

Tips for sketching the human face:

  1. Outline the head shape
  2. Section off with light pencil strokes: the eyes, nose, lips, ears, and chin
  3. Add eyebrows, neck, and hair
  4. Shade or highlight the eyebrows, eyes, lips, ears, chin, and hair
  5. Write self notes, color choices, and any dominant or unusual features
  6. Use black pencil graphite or colored pencils

Pencil copy a face from a magazine or a photo. After which, prepare a more detailed work of art. Review and determine how familiar the completed portrait duplicates the face.

Intangible Tips

We can follow the tips and suggestions for drawing a face, but there are other factors to consider and perfect.

  1. The powers of observation. Look with an open mind and see what is truly visible because you will sketch or draw exactly what you see.
  2. Practice drawing varieties of head shapes and sizes, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and ears. Gain knowledge and understanding of how each relates to the other, along with values and shading.
  3. Become familiar with head size and face placement within the final measured space. Locate and block facial features.
  4. While in a public location, study people’s faces and their features.
  5. Review and edit your work often.

We live in a world of seemingly instant rewards. This art form, like many others, will require patience with time, knowledge, and practice. There is no instant gratification of being a sketch artist. Be prepared for months or years to accomplish your goals of duplicating real life images dependent on accurate observations.


Sample list of occupations for sketch/drawing artists as listed in the Occupational Outlook Handbook by the United States government:

  • Special effects artists and animators
  • Graphic designers
  • Fashion designers
  • Interior designers
  • Forensic science technicians
  • Tattoo artists
  • Architect and engineer designers
  • Illustrator
  • Landscape architect
  • Cartoonists
  • Textile Designers

The above list is a tiny sample of job opportunities. There are many other arts and crafts occupations listed in the Occupational Outlook Handbook. Click for more information. I have found this handbook to be an excellent guide as an arts and crafts beginner, exploring job changes and preparing for future jobs.

Questions & Answers

Question: What does the face of a 5-year-old look like?

Answer: The face of a 5-year old will look like their photo. At this age, they still have facial baby fat as the bone structure has not yet taken on a definite shape.

Use a graphite pencil when sketching the chosen photo. It is a lot of fun to have a photo of both the parent and the child. Sketch both faces. Not only will you see the difference in the sketch results, but you will learn different techniques as you do your drawing.

The 5-year-old will have a rounded face as they lack a definite chin and will still have a large forehead area. They have large eyes and button noses.

Every artist has a technique or method of sketching faces. If measurements are important, draw a circle. Draw a vertical line in the circle cutting the sphere in half. Then draw a horizontal line cutting the sphere into four quadrants.

Because children have large foreheads the eyes will be placed below the horizontal line; adults eyes are on the line. Draw a circle for the nose below the nose line and below it will be the mouth. The width of the mouth is usually the same width as the eyes.

I like starting with the eyes, then follow with the nose, mouth, head outline, and ears. When drawing with either technique the figure of the child appears flat. To give fullness or reality to the face shading, darkening areas, and introducing light will be essential.

Shading aids with the illusion of depth and darkening areas will give detail. When you smudge erase excessive shading light enters and this gives the illusion of rising or fullness to the face. As the reality of the sketched face comes to life make any final adjustments to satisfy your finest work.

Question: How can I make a quick sketch of a human face?

Answer: How to quick sketch a face

There are different reasons to quick sketch a human face. There are two methods for consideration.

The first method is to draw a circle:

1. Draw a vertical and a horizontal line in the middle of the circle creating 4 squares. This represents the top of the head to the bottom of the facial cheeks.

2. Draw a line on either side of the face at ear locations. The line serves as a guide to create the oblong pattern of the human head.

3. Add the jaw and chin shape below the lower circle.

4. Fill in the details of the face and refine.

This method is capturing the identity and the details of the individual in one sitting.

The second method is freestyle:

1. Draw the eye sockets

2. Place the eyebrows above the eye sockets.

3. Fill in the details of the eyes.

4. Add the nose, then the mouth.

5. Sketch the shape of the face and refine.

Try both methods. Either may be used depending on the situation. For example, I prefer the second method when capturing the personal identity of the individual’s eyes is important. I feel that I can fill in the rest of the face at a slower pace.

Question: What does a human face look like?

Answer: The human face is created by genes and chromosomes, recognized by the same species, and is indoctrinated by its species to identify human faces and human beings.

The human being like all other animals stays within it own kind. When land, sea, and air animals look at human beings, what do they see? How does the insect world see us? What does the human face look like to an elephant, lion, whale, grasshopper, and many other living creatures?

Each living creature is indoctrinated to be with its own kind. You never see a lion and a horse being friendly with each other. More than likely the lion which is a predator is probably looking at the horse as food.

How do aliens from outer space see humans? As we watch many of the science fiction movies we humans design the faces of aliens in a matter we think they might look like because of their geographical findings on their planet, the weather, the plants, and other clues which are used to design their faces and bodies.

We see “human faces” from our personal perspective and training. One social class may decide that the female is beautiful and the male is handsome. Another social group of humans may look at this same couple and say the female is homely and the male is ugly. “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”. Likewise, so is the human face. We see according to our indoctrination and education.

All animals are labeled. Religion is often the beginning of explaining how a universal being created all living things. Other cultures may use myths, folklore, and imaginative gods as being the inspiration and creators of the human design.

In the Christian religion we are created in his image. We assume we are patterned after God, Jesus, and Mother Mary. Where did all the other living animals and insects with their labels come from? Evolution has many of its theories.

We are all familiar with the scientist who indoctrinated us with the ideas that we evolved from apes. I do not buy this theory, if it were so there would be no apes or monkeys in existence. Then there was another scientist who tried selling the idea that we originate from alligators. I do not buy this theory either.

If you were asked what does the human face look like? What would you say? And if you designed the human face you would have to be able to identify it as human in order to reproduce it, or perhaps look in the mirror; if you are human.


Tricia Deed on January 10, 2017:


Many artists have to practice to become very skillful in their choice of art form. We are all artists, it is a matter of recognizing our specialty niche.

I too drew ugly faces when I first started. It was years later when I tried again, and it worked. I can only guess that time and perspective changes helped to release the skill sets which were necessary.

Charm Baker from Los Angeles, California on January 08, 2017:

Great article. I've always envied people who can draw. Even when I was a little bit good at it, I could NEVER do faces. They always looked deformed (no offense to deformed folks :-)

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on January 07, 2017:

You made it sound so easy--A well written and illustrated hub about drawing human faces. I like to draw and paint as well. The tricky part is to bring the desired expression on the human faces one draws so that it conveys the story we want .

Thanks for sharing your expertise!

CJ Kelly from the PNW on January 07, 2017:

I have struggled with this for years. Now I'm going to try your method. It's really easy to understand. Thx. Sharing everywhere.