Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Nose is the Spine of the Face

When you set out to draw a figure, it's often useful to choose some kind of coat rack structure. This is the structure you sketch in first. You get it right, and then you hang all your other parts off of it like so many hats, coats, and umbrellas. With that first structure done correctly, everything else tends to fall into its right place.

This is one of many methods. Others include:

1. The general swipe, in a line or two, of an "arc of power" that defines the overall figure, and then building up structure and detail from there.

2. The reduction of the figure to a series of boxes, spheres, or egg-like things, and building and refining them toward specificity.

3. measuring out the proportions of the major structures and marking them with dots or a series of simplified straight lines, before developing subregions.

Those are all legitimate techniques, but I've never used any of them because they don't really correlate with how I think.

Apart from the coat rack procedure, my other major technique works only because of my peculiar visual processing: I will often draw the edge of any bit that particularly interests me, like the curve of the hip into the waist, and then spread out to adjacent structures, and eventually - ta da - the figure emerges. This is a variant of the "for the love of god don't do that" method they teach you not to do in drawing class - starting with the details and working up to the generalities.

Be that as it may, I'd like to talk about the coat rack procedure a little bit here. I use this a lot, particularly in views of the back. For instance, the wonderful Claudia was modeling at Spring Street last night. She was really inspired too. So here's a drawing from one of her 10-minute poses:

I think this is a fairly decent drawing for a 10-minute pose. Here's how I did it: I particularly liked her right hip in this pose, so I drew that first. Then I saw what size I had made it, moved my pencil over the correct relative width to her spine, and drew its curve. I made sure I got the spine right. From there, I was able to complete her right edge, put in her left edge, figure out where her butt and feet were, and I was done with the graphite part of the drawing. That took about 90 seconds. The other 8:30 of the pose I spent building up form with my white pencil. 8:30 is 510 seconds - a world of time.

This drawing depends primarily on the coat rack procedure, using the spine as the coat rack. The spine is an excellent coat rack. It's pretty obvious where it is. Its position defines the position of the body. As any solvent chiropractor will tell you, everything in the back is related to the spine one way or another. If you can get its length and curvature right, then you're a good way to getting the ribcage and pelvis in the right sizes and places, and the rest of the shooting match is just muscles, fat, and skin. A monkey could do the last bit, if that monkey had spent a few years really applying itself in life drawing workshops.

Well, sayeth you, what about the face?

That, my friend, is a very good question. As we've likely discussed somewhere, a different part of the brain is responsible for processing faces. This is most of the reason why some people who are great at faces suck at bodies, and vice versa. Depicting faces involves completely different processes from depicting all other objects, unless you violently suppress your facial-recognition center and treat the face like a non-face object. Some artists actually do this on purpose. Others, like Chuck Close, suffer from prosopagnosia, a condition which interferes with facial recognition:


Let's assume that you're not going to choose, or be forced, to go the Oliver Sacks route, and that you're going to depict the face using your brain's functional facial-recognition apparatus.

Well, it's tough - you need to practice drawing portraits. A lot. It is as hard as fucking hell to capture not only structure (likeness), but mood, and not only mood, but character, and not only character, but soul - Mystery.

Thinking it over now, I realize I first devised that four-step ladder while trying, and failing, to draw faces when I was fifteen: structure, mood, character, soul.

Aaaaaanyway, just because you're using a different brain center to integrate and represent what you're seeing doesn't mean the same techniques don't apply. Despite the technique absolutely not working for me, I sometimes instinctively catch myself trying to use the egg-like-thing technique on faces:

I did not draw this.

It never works. Generally speaking, I use the coat rack procedure, depending on the nose to play the role the spine plays in the back. This isn't a bad choice, because the nose is in the middle of the face and if you can get it right, you can put the eyes, cheekbones, and mouth in the right places around it.

Or not. I get really mixed results. The face is a maze.

So this week, either I was on fire or I made one of those satisfying little jumps of progress. What happened was, on Monday, Vanessa was posing at Spring Street. I've tried to do portraits of Vanessa before, and it has never gone so well. Apart from that, I've been dissatisfied lately with the lack of specificity in the eyes in my portraits. So I was looking at a 40-minute pose from Vanessa with a good angle on her face, and I thought, "What the hell, I'll start with her eyes."

This is how it turned out:

Let me tell you something about this portrait. This portrait lacks certain qualities, but it looks exactly like Vanessa. Sometimes you get a likeness wrong, sometimes you get it right-enough, and sometimes you get it just so. This is a just-so case.

I didn't think anything of the starting with the eyes bit at the time. Never suffering from a shortage of self-regard, I figured I was just in the zone.

Then Claudia was at Spring Street on Tuesday, and I got another chance to do a portrait from a 40-minute pose. And I thought, "Well, starting with the eyes worked yesterday, I'll just try that again."

A fair proportion of the five readers of this blog actually know Claudia - this is pretty decent, right? It's not a perfect resemblance, but it's really not bad.

I refuse to believe I was in the zone for two days in a row. Neither Vanessa nor Claudia has an easy face to draw. (Is there such a thing as an easy face? Why yes there is.) I think this sudden increase in proficiency with faces is linked to starting with the eyes. For me at least, it looks like the eyes are a good coat rack.

Here are a couple reasons I think that:

1. There are two major keys to properly representing perspective in an upright face - the relative heights of the eyes, and the angle of the line where the lips meet, relative to the horizontal. In Vanessa's case, for instance, the eyes were at nearly the same height - the near one was a little higher, because her head was above mine:

Having gotten that right, the eyes dragged the rest of the face into proper perspective.

And for the record, the mouth is a crappy coat rack. Just look at any De Kooning painting.

2. There is a mistake I often make, which I think nearly everyone makes. This occurs in low-angle three-quarters views of the face, and it is this: the lower eyelid of the far eye tends to meet the nose way farther down the nose than you would think. Consider Claudia:

The eyelid hits the nose slightly below the bridge of the nose. Ordinarily, I would have crowded her eye upward, but because I was doing her eye first, I wasn't already invested in the length of the nose. So I got the eye right, and then I naturally got her nose length right. The reverse doesn't happen - at least not for me.

So that's the wildly esoteric thought process I wanted to share with you today. Why isn't this post called "Is the Nose the Spine of the Face?" or "The Eyes are the Spine of the Face"? Because those don't sound as cool, like maybe they could be the title of a Fassbinder film or something.

P.S. I know I have some comments to respond to from the last post. I haven't forgotten and I'm not ignoring you - those comments raise some really good points, and I haven't had a chance yet to write the serious response they merit.


  1. Daniel, Very good post! Faces are fun and challenging, hands are a nightmare... The easiest face to draw is a an old, rough, craggy face. Like Abraham Lincoln's. The hardest (for me) a little baby. They're like a beach ball with a little nose and huge eyes. By the way, since you're excellent at hands, maybe you could post on that process.

  2. Great post, I really enjoyed that!

    I don't draw anymore, I used to. And when I was young I had various art classes that always taught that blocks and spheres and cones thing if you're drawing a horse or person or whatnot. It never made even the tiniest lick of sense to me.

  3. Kevin -

    Thank you very much! I can't believe you think Abe "The Babe" Lincoln is easier than a little baby! You're a very strange guy. I wish I could write you a thing on hands, but I don't really understand what I'm doing with them. It is possible to analytically integrate the structure of The Hand and then apply it when drawing any particular hand, but I haven't really done much of that. I'm closer to an ant crawling over a complex surface and making sure it gets every bit of it. If that makes any sense at all. It's not a position from which I can offer sensible advice, apart from the usual: endless practice.

    Ed -

    Well, I try to be diplomatic in the blog posts, but I feel like nobody reads the comments, so I am free to say here that I think that technique is total bullshit. It makes sense to maybe 0.01% of the students subjected to it, and may in fact be a secret winnowing technique to reduce art class sizes. I hope you get a chance to draw some more sometime - although your woodcuts are really a fantastic creative stream these days, at least from what I've seen.

  4. I've never understood the egg-face thing either!
    I work mostly in graphite and charcoal but your subjects look so vibrant that I want to do a similar piece. What pencils, paper etc are you using for these? Medical doctor & artist

  5. Thanks for your kind words, Medical doctor & artist! I'm glad to share - the paper is Rives BFK Tan heavyweight printmaking paper, and the pencils are Prismacolor white colored pencil, and your basic Staedtler 2B. If you like your results, and have a blog or website, please send a link so I can see what you made of it. Good luck!