Proportions and Features: Eyeballing vs. Systems

November 4, 2015

151101_Roz-selfie-noshadowLeft: Selfie made while looking in the bathroom mirror. A 7 x 7 inch, approx. journal (turned on its side so I could have a vertical) I made with Niddegen. I used a fiber-tipped brush pen containing Platinum Carbon Black ink cartridges. I'm wearing my favorite T-shirt—a 25 year old Lake Street Shirt design, given to me by my friend Tom, when there were actually three bitches, and I printed a zine called, "Bitch, Bitch, and Bitch." It's a great t-shirt, with three colorful, stylized dogs on it. It has lasted more washings (hot, but always rack dried) than I can count. And it is now spattered with additional color, from sessions in the studio. But I love this shirt. And I love my friend Tom for knowing immediately I would love this shirt. (OK for some other reasons too.) I couldn't find Lake Street Shirts in Minneapolis, just something of that name at Zazzle and Cafe Press. I have no idea if they are connected. If you do find a shirt like this, give me a heads up. It's a great shirt, but it is going to wear out eventually. I’d like to have another shirt like this to last me into my seventies. 

In my "Drawing Practice: Drawing Live Subjects from Life" class in July this year, a couple students asked me things like, "How many heads to a body?" They wanted to have a sense of proportion and a key for measuring something they weren't accustomed to drawing.

I reiterated that I didn’t use such systems because on quickly moving subjects you typically didn’t have time to measure things out. You had to eyeball things. Also with quickly moving subjects—birds, dogs, people, it didn’t matter—you had to deal with foreshortening and things at odd angles and so I asked them to play a long for a little bit, let go of perfect, and look to see the relationships of the parts as we worked through things.

I also gave them a couple book titles to look at because I know that all students learn differently and for some of them a couple charts or diagrams might not be amiss.

But after I sketched this Selfie Sunday night I thought of writing a blog post about this—it shows one of the main reasons I don’t like sketching from “formulas.”

One of the common rules of thumb is that the base of the ear lobe is almost level with the base of the nose—when you look at a face straight on and that face is in the neutral, forward looking pose.

That means if you tilt the head forward the nose tip will appear way below the level of the ear lobes. You can look in the mirror and use yourself as a test case. For most of you this will work out.

But I have a really long nose and I guess that thing I heard about ears continuing to grow all your life must be really true, because it seems I also have really long ears.

When I finished this sketch I saw that my earlobes were not that far above my nose tip. In fact I thought at first this sketch must be wrong. But I checked, nope, just big nose, big ears.

So while all the proportion “rules” or guidelines you can learn from tables and charts might help you get facial features in about the right place, remember that there are always exceptions, and you need to look for what those exceptions are, and you need to be extra vigilant looking at proportions on your subject and your page, so that they match, at the angle at which they are presented. 

I did fairly well with the latter in this selfie. My forehead is shorter than normal because it’s coming forward. However, as often happens when I get near the gutter, on a sketch that is going to cross the gutter, I’ll make a visual measuring error. I think the space to the lips and below to the chin could be rethought. I’ll work on this next time.

In the meantime, I thought I would suggest a few books for folks who really want to have some guidelines to proportions when working with faces and/or figures. It isn’t wrong to want these, they can be helpful. It’s just necessary to remember that sometimes they aren’t going to be much help, or they are only going to serve as the starting point.

Don’t let any of this stop you from drawing from life, especially subjects who are moving quickly and repeatedly. Go out and sketch and enjoy yourself. Look, respond on paper, look again. Train your eye with practice. Accept that you’re learning and things won't immediately be perfect. Put your whole heart into it. If something doesn’t look right, fix it, or do another sketch. It’s an adventure. It will be great fun.

Here, in no particular order, are a few books that deal with charts on proportions of the human figure. There are many more—check your own shelf to see what you already have, or stop at the library and look up “Figure Drawing.”

Note: the majority of these books grow out of a caucasian-centric drawing tradition. They are still useful, for the information they provide, if you use them as a basis to look for feature differences. Always be looking. And always draw what you see. I recommend that you look at artworks from non-caucasian cultures as well, to see how practitioners from a particular culture capture likenesses and proportions. If you are located near the Twin Cities, now through spring 2016 you can get over to Mia and check out the Seven Masters exhibit of Japanese woodblock prints. This will help you see, well, everything.

Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth, Andrew Loomis. (©1943; ISBN 9780857680983) A classic in the field of figure drawing, Loomis’ book is full of charts and explanations. There is also information on dealing with the figure in perspective—useful if you want to place the figure in an illustration, and who doesn’t? He does deal with facial features briefly, but not as completely as in his Drawing the Head and Hands book.

Drawing the Head and Hands, Andrew Loomis. (©1943; ISBN 9780857680976) Exactly what the title suggests. Diagrams and approaches for drawing facial features and the hands.

Creative Illustration, Andrew Loomis. (©1947; ISBN 9781845769284) While the art may seem dated to current readers, it is amazing how clearly the concepts he is espousing and explaining show the illustrations to be successful. He looks at line, tone, color, storytelling, and idea generation. Every year, as more magazines die, people complain that illustration is dying. But hundreds of illustrators who understand composition and storytelling keep proving illustration is alive and kicking. (OK, thousands, but I have a few hundred favorites whom I believe are really pushing the boundaries of the field.) Many of today’s illustrators were trained by people who were trained by Loomis. If you want to understand the history of illustration you need to look at Loomis, even if you find his naked women in high heals a little "odd." (That's all I'm going to say. Artifacts of the culture we live and work in will always pop up in our work, and I'm prepared to be pretty embarrassed myself, when I look back at my blog 30 years from now. So that is all I'm going to say.)

Note: These three Loomis books and some others, are available as used books through several vendors. Recently they were re-released and you can now find new copies at a “new-book cost” that is far less than a “collectible book price.”

Complete Guide to Life Drawing, Gottfried Bammes. (©2010; ISBN 978-1-84448-690-8) This author looks at the proportion of the human figure from a variety of vantage points, and for a variety of types (male, female, young male, young female…) If you want charts this is the book for you. It’s also filled with exercises and with art from a variety of artists.

Mastering Drawing The Human Figure From Life, Memory, Imagination, by Jack Faragasso (©1998; ISBN 0-9667113-0-0) Chapter 8 is on proportions and full of charts. (He states we need these guidelines as a starting point, but should not make a drawing adhere “dogmatically to recommended proportions as they might produce a static, lifeless drawing.”

The Artist’s Complete Guide to Drawing the Head, William L. Maugham. (©2004; ISBN0-8230-0359-0) A lovely look at drawing facial features in a tonal way.

Fashion Illustration: Inspiration and Technique, Anna Kiper. (©2011; ISBN 0-7153-3618-5) People familiar with fashion illustration know that figure proportions are exaggerated by the fashion illustrator. Basically the figure is elongated to show the fashion off to better effect. The author breaks down these proportions for the female, male, child, and young figures. There’s also a short section on exploring media.

Masters of Fashion Illustration, David Downton. (©2010; ISBN 978-1-85669-839-9) This book doesn’t have charts and diagrams, but it has a lot of really lovely, artfully designed, and compositionally great figure sketches which will inspire your eye. You can use this eye-candy to decide how you want to take what you know of proportion out into the world.

Finally, if you are interested in the stylized human (and alien or superhero) form you find in comics, anime, and fantasy art, look around on Kickstarter for projects producing guides containing work by dozens and dozens of practitioners in the field. "Masters of Anatomy" and "21 Draw" are just two. It's a vibrant part of the illustration field that needs books like these.

Note: Drawing Practice: Drawing Live Subjects from Life, will be repeated in March 2016. (Please watch the blog for additional updates, or sign up for classes updates at the top of the left column of this blog.) In March 2016, I will once again offer this intensive 30-day class packed with lessons, videos, and teacher feedback. Please note that it may, after the 2016 class, be offered on a self-guided basis only, without daily teacher involvement. Updates will keep you apprised of that as well. All my classes are clearly labeled as to teacher involvement.

    • rama
    • November 4, 2015

    hi roz,

    i love this post so much because it echos so many similar discussions that i have with my students. they are always surprised when they begin a portrait with the conventional facial proportions and end up making a conventional, non-specific face.

    i find the key to capturing a likeness with portraits is to ignore the “systems.” the conventional proportions are nice to have in your back pocket. they can help you troubleshoot when something is going wrong and they are really great for helping my students to INVENT faces or people. for portraiture though, the conventions only distract my students from seeing what is really happening in front of them.

    like you, i’m a big fan of eyeballing it. for students who want a system though, i recommend building up the shapes of the face with light loose lines, measuring them quickly with their pencil to make sure they are accurate to what they are seeing, and then eyeballing the rest of the drawing on top of those light guidelines.

    anyway, thanks for the post! i am your fan even if i am usually quiet.

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