Plumbing the Head

This is the eighth in a series.

The human head is potentially the most emotional subject an artist can choose. We spend our lives scanning other people’s faces to assess their relationship to us and our feelings towards them. Among the myriad expressions a face can produce we can see friendliness, attractiveness, intelligence, wariness, hostility or aggression, and we tend to credit this expressiveness mostly to the eyes and the mouth. As artists, however, we can draw the head to reveal that its personality comes not just from the features but from the character of all its forms, and from how the eyes, the nose and the mouth are sculpturally embedded in the terrain of the whole head.

To help us get past the idea of the face as a kind of flattish mask sitting in front of a vague bulbous form with ears, we need first to accentuate its spatial ins and outs in a diagrammatic drawing. This gives us a chance to really enjoy how much each of us has a particular nose jutting out at a particular angle, a particular setback from our brow to our eyes, a particular mound of muscles surrounding our mouths, particular rolling fields in our cheeks, a particular thrust to our chin and a particular mass in the shape of the back of our head.

I show here a diagrammatic drawing and a more realistic drawing of a model to demonstrate, in a two-step procedure, the possibility of simplifying the forms in a study to prepare us for doing a more naturalistic portrait.

In the first drawing, I have emphasized the steep projection of the sides of the nose from the plane of the cheek and the nose’s angle relative to the slope of the forehead, the deep setback of the eyes from the brow, the angular planes of the cheek moving down to the forward-projecting muscles around the mouth and the strong, jutting chin. Another important aspect of the drawing is that it describes the narrow depth of the back of the head and thus determines the overall proportion of this man’s skull.

As you can see by comparing the two drawings, much of the personality of the man’s head was captured in the basic shapes of the diagrammatic version, even before the more subtle details of the eyes and mouth were added in the second drawing.

Below are four more examples of diagrammatic and realistic head drawings.


The analysis of John’s head became an instinctive part of my observation as I did this oil portrait of him.

For next week’s post I have invited Edward Sorel, Robert Grossman and Tom Bachtell to lead us into another kind of head drawing: the caricature.
James McMullan, New York Times


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