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Drawing the Head for Artists: Techniques for Mastering Expressive Portraiture

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Drawing the Head for Artists is the definitive modern guide to drawing the human head and portrait, featuring the classic mediums and methods of the Old Masters.

Written by celebrated portrait artist and veteran studio instructor Oliver Sin, this richly informative and beautifully illustrated volume leads readers step-by-step through his method, from establishing a point of view to applying the timeless principles for creating an accurate and expressive likeness.

Among the topics covered:

  • Essential Materials & Techniques:Learn about necessary supplies and basic drawing techniques, including hatching, various stroke styles, and blending.
  • Applying the Essentials: Explore how the concepts of sight-sizing, value, negative space/shapes, and plane changes factor into a portrait’s underlying structure.
  • Techniques for Creating Depth & Dimension:Investigate how contrasting shapes, overlapping forms, and linear and atmospheric perspective are used to enhance depth.
  • Creating the Illusion of Three Dimensions: Examine how edges—contours as well as changes in value—are used to convey three-dimensional form.

Brimming with striking images that document all the phases and details of the author’s process, Drawing the Head for Artists inspires and informs all artists, from aspiring to accomplished, on how to successfully portray the physical subtleties and emotional eloquence of the human face.

The For Artists series expertly guides and instructs artists at all skill levels who want to develop their classical drawing and painting skills and create realistic and representational art.

From the Publisher


There is a difference between head drawing and portrait drawing. Head drawing focuses on shapes, plane changes, anatomy, form, and perspective. Portrait drawing is an artistic representation of a person’s spirit—their expression, likeness, personality, and mood.


I use vine and willow charcoal sticks for my portrait drawings to achieve the chiaroscuro technique. Chiaroscuro, an Italian term meaning light (chiaro) and dark (oscuro), is used to enhance the dimensionality of drawings by creating smooth, subtle transitions among values.


The possibilities for using drawing materials are limitless, but there are some traditional methods of application you should know.


Artists use a standard set of measurements to create accurate proportions when constructing a head drawing. The following serve as general guidelines. All faces are different, and individuals have varying proportions. Use these guidelines as a starting point, but stay true to the actual proportions of your subject.


It’s best to use a single light source to light the head for portraiture. The position of the light source should ideally be above and slightly to the front left or right of your model. This lighting setup, called “three quarter lighting,” produced light and shadow not only from top to bottom, but also from side to side on the model’s head, a crucial factor in creating the illusion three-dimensionality.


The position of the head and the neck establishes the attitude of the portrait and hints at the emotion of the sitter. Besides the angle of the head, look for stretch and compression in the neck that reinforces the gesture.


Children have distinctive characters and personalities. They register as many feelings and emotions as adults, but much more freely and obviously. As we age, we learn to hide our real emotions, sometimes too deeply. Most children are much more truly themselves than adults are.


The faces of elderly people give the artist more to study and capture in the way of forms and lines. Wrinkling is a normal part of aging, but you can achieve the impression of age with minimal rendering of wrinkles by working the main lines and forms of the emaciating muscles and the creases between them. The cheekbones, the corners of the jaw, and the bone of the chin all become more evident in the aging process.


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