Portrait Prep Series: Lesson 3, Planes and Head Construction


Lesson 3 - Planes and Head Construction

In lesson three of the portrait prep series, I'm going to give an overview of Planes and Head Construction. We’ll be using the Asaro head, the Reilly method, and the Loomis method. (No clue what that means? No problem! I’ll explain in a second.)

Head construction is so important because it in involves the entire head -- not just an isolated look at the face, or the sides of the face, or just features.  It provides you with a framework which you can build upon.  This as the final puzzle piece that enables you to begin your journey in drawing portraits!

The Asaro Head

The first method to discuss is the Asaro head.  I know of no better way to understand the shading of the head than this model.  This is a 3-D model of the head created by John Asaro and helps our overall understanding of how light is reflected on the surfaces of the head.

When we study portraiture, we are learning the exaggerated planes and angles of an object that we often think of as round or spherical.  Together we can practice looking at the model head (even if we’re just using a reference photo of the head) and draw it from our point of view.

Asaro Head Exercise

Study the images in the graphic below and notice how the light in reflected on each plane of the head. 

Key things to look for in this challenge:

1. How many light sources are there?

2. Where is the light source?

3. Can you determine (and label) the value of each plane from 1 to 10?

4. How many planes are represented within each feature?



Head Construction Methods

There are two methods that are most popular for constructing the head: the Loomis method, and the Reilly abstraction method. 

Someone may ask the question: Why should I learn methods for how to construct the head? Can’t I just copy from a photo instead? 

Head drawing methods are giving you two essential benefits a photo can never provide:
1. The relationship of the features.  (All the features are interconnected and have a relationship to each other.)
2. A way to label what you see.  We're talking about a vocabulary and a language for something otherwise undefined.  If something is undefined, then it’s abstract and can remain elusive.  As realists, we can’t draw something we can’t see or define.

The best ways to learn head construction is to keep practicing it.  Practice the things you learn often and keep pushing yourself and you WILL see results.

So with that backdrop, let's dig in!

Practicing the Loomis Method

The Loomis method is explained in detail in Andrew Loomis’s book, “Drawing The Head and the Hands”.  It’s a free ebook and can be found on google easily  (you can go here: Loomis Book).  Refer to the images below the steps from the Loomis book.

These are the basic steps that we want to keep in mind for our purposes in portraiture:



  1. Draw a round ball.   
  2. Draw a vertical middle line (middle of the nose).
  3. Draw a horizontal middle line (middle of the brow).
  4. With an imaginary knife cut off the sides of each of the ball to represent the side plane of the head.  (The top part of the circle is 2/3 of the height from the middle of the circle. This is also where the hairline should be.  The bottom part of the circle represents the bottom of the ear and is the same plane for the bottom of the nose.)  You will also have to determine where the circle curves at the side plane of the face.
  5. Determine the angle of the side plane by making the line from the ear to the brow.
  6. Then extend the line to the front plane.
  7. Then render the lower and upper lines parallel to the middle line.  This will give you the thirds of the face: hairline to brow line, brow line to base of the nose, base of the nose to bottom of the chin.  
  8. So next draw the bottom of the chin line.  Extend the line (create a box like shape) and draw the jawline.
  9. Find the eyes by placing your mark half way between the top of the head and the bottom of the chin.
  10. The bottom of the bottom lip is halfway between the base of the nose and the bottom of the chin.

The Reilly Head Abstraction

Nothing is written down from Frank Reilly.  We have very few writings from his students.  I think that there are things we can learn from the Riley method. But mostly we're relying on what his students wrote about this method and what these students and then students of the students were able to communicate about the method.

 One thing the Riley method incorporates well is a rhythmical relationship of the features in the head and face. So every feature has a relationship with the rest of the features.  You could almost use one continuous line without Ever Lifting your pencil from the paper to create all of the rhythms in the face.

So really the best way to explain this particular method is to show you in a video I've prepared and you can look at the reference that I'm picturing here below.

For those in the Portrait Prep Course, refer to the video in your email, but it's also on Youtube now if you'd like to take a look. If you’d like to sign up for the course, go here to sign up!

To begin the Riley method you need to have the outline of the head complete. So it doesn't really matter what method you use to create the head you just need to have the top of the head bottom of the chin in order to fill in the Reilly abstraction Rhythm lines.

1.  Start with creating a round circle with the vertical and horizontal line in the frontal view.



2.  Next move down one-third of the way from the middle of the circle that you created to create the bottom of the chin. This establishes the 3 divisions of the head.



3.  Once you have the head outlined and know where the eyes are in relation to the brow line, you can move to the nose.



4.  The nose is the width of the eyes.

5.  Make the upper line to establish the ball of the nose.

6. Make the line where the keystone is, then add the curved line on each side to connect the keystone to the ball of the nose.

7. Add 2 curved lines from the keystone, to the base of the nose.

8.  Create the muzzle of the mouth line by starting at where the intersection of the side plane crosses the vertical lines that were extended from the corners of the eyes.


9.  Create the band of the face, or laugh line area, by starting at the keystone again and completing that curve with the jaw line.

10.  The chin line extends from the bottom of the chin and intersects with the muzzle.

11.  The mouth is identified by the intersection that just happened with the chin and muzzle.

12.  Establish the cheek bone area (which should already be showing from our circle earlier).


13.  Draw the rhythm line from corner of the mouth, pass by the corner of the nose to the side plane of the head where the brow ridge is.  This is the helps establish the upper cheek area.

14.  Start from the top of that rhythm that you just created and fill in the underside of the cheek.

15.  Next, connect the ears from the cheek line that you just created to the base of the nose plane.

16.  Draw the side plane of the face on the forehead using the placement of outer area for the eyes and cheek as a guide for connecting this line.

17.  Now you can add the curved brow line.

18.  And finally, the eye curved line.

19.  You could also add the eye placement as more detail.

Bonus: The John Middick Method

Okay, okay, so I’m not presumptuous enough to think that anyone is going to name an entire method after me. But I do think it’s beneficial to share some of the steps I take when doing my own head constructions!

I like to always consider where the head tilt is with each portrait I do. To do this, I think of 3 axes for the direction and location of the head in space:

1.  The x-axes is measured by a line across the pupils.  If the line isn’t level then the head is tilted.  This is a better measurement than slant of eyes or eyelids.
2.  The centerline down the nose, mouth, and chin.  If this line is not perfectly centered in that y axis area then the head is angled or rotated to the right or left.  Questions to ask:  Do I see more of one nostril than the other? More of one ear? Is one of the corners of the eye behind the nose?  
3.  The position of the chin.  Where is your eye level position: up or down?  Is the bottom plane of the jaw seen?  Do I see the underside of the plane of the nose or the hairline?  These are all clues about the head rotation.

If you can answer these questions then you can begin to understand the tilt of your portrait subject better.  You’ll know how to think about the subject more in a 3 dimensional way.

Remember: Don't overcomplicate it!  Just do the construction very simply in the way that feels most comfortable to you. As you progress in your sketching with practice, you'll add more and more detail. The bottom line is to always keep practicing and practicing and practicing. 

And there you have it! You’ve completed the Portrait Prep series. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to portraiture, but mastering the skills discussed in these blog posts will give you the foundation you need to start drawing the realistic portraits you’ve always hoped for.


PORTRAIT PREP SERIES: Lesson 2 The Skull, Muscle and Skin



Welcome back to Portrait Prep! (If you missed the previous lessons, you can find them here: IntroLesson 1, Lesson 1.2).


In this section, we're going to talk about the skull, the facial muscles, and the skin. These parts work together to form what we see as a complete face, so it’s important to get to know what’s going on under the surface to know how each part affects what we see.

The Skull

If you're using graphite and you're new to drawing the skull, remember to be patient with yourself and take it slow. Think more about the proportions of each of the areas you're drawing.

I typically start any drawing in the top left corner, move downward through the drawing, and end at the bottom of my subject and over to the right. I'm right-handed and I don't want to impair my ability to see what I've already drawn or smudge anything, so this method is effective for me.

To begin, draw a curve on the top right side to represent the major side plane of the skull in the cranium area. Next, make the same identical mark on the left side.

Once you have those two marks down pretty accurately, connect them at the top by another curved line which will serve as the top of the head.

The rest of the skull should be proportionate to the top part of the head.  Ultimately there is no right or wrong way to draw the skull, but everything needs to be relative in proportion to what you've drawn prior to your current marks.  If you find that your proportions are becoming out of scale to the rest of the drawing, simply erase and start that portion over.  (I’d like you to attempt to draw it just by eyeballing the proportions for now. In a later lesson, we will go over the measurements of the skull to make it even more proportionate.)

Pay careful attention to the zygomatic area in the frontal view and make sure that you don't overemphasize it. You might be tempted to make it stick out further than it already does, so be careful!  

Another cautionary area when drawing the skull is making the orbitals too circular and too close together.

You may also discover that you have a tendency to elongate the face area and make it seem much more vertical than it really is.

But remember: this part of the course is intended to be a series of exercises. You’re not creating fine art renderings to be entered into a contest or gallery.  This is simply sketching with a goal of improvement and training your eyes to recognize accuracy. 

Check out the reference that I've provided here as a guide for creating your skull drawing.

Skull Proportions.png

You can also look at the quick sketch that I've done in the picture below.

 It doesn't need to be elaborate at this point.  Just have a basic understanding of where these anatomical landmarks are.

It doesn't need to be elaborate at this point.  Just have a basic understanding of where these anatomical landmarks are.

Portrait Prep Course students- please refer to the "Drawing the Skull" video that was emailed to you.

Muscles of the Face and Head

Now that we have a bit more background about the skull, let's move on to the muscles of the face and head.

If you're overly ambitious and have a lot of time on your hands, this would be an excellent time to learn all the muscles names that make up the face and head. If you’re like me and don’t have that much time to invest, don’t sweat it. All you really need is an understanding of where they are and how they relate to one another. 

There are a couple of areas that have some interesting formations in the face that you will want to notice, outlined in the pictures below. There are some rounded muscles in the eyes, for example. The mouth areas also have some curved types of muscles that affect the way the skin appears in the nose and in the forehead. And then there are some muscles that overlap each other and come together in separate places of the face: the corners of the mouth and some areas in the neck. 

Use the reference below to create a line drawing of the muscles of the head. This will help you gain a better grasp of where these muscles are and how they're positioned in the face. 

 Original image can be found at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facial_muscles

Original image can be found at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facial_muscles



The last part of this section is a very brief look at the outer layer of the skin. That layer is affected by certain landmark areas in relationship to the skull and muscles underneath.


Some of the most important areas to study skin positioning are the eyes, the mouth, and the nose.


The eyes:

The eyeball itself is positioned higher up inside the eye socket. The eyelid actually closes over the upper part of the eye where the top lid will meet the lower lid and produce most of the movement. This is the reason why there are often shadows on the lower portion of the eyeball (the sclera). 

The mouth:

The mouth is more of a cylinder shape and is heavily influenced by the muscles that surround it immediately under the surface.  The muscles get their overall contour from the skull (particularly the teeth, maxilla, and glabella).

The nose:

The nose has a curved area that covers the cartilage.  While the length and side planes of the nose may not seem all that difficult to draw, the underlying structure and make-up of its anatomy is anything but simple.

In conclusion, I hope that this lesson has helped you become more aware of the underlying anatomy of the head and face. When we start to draw a more serious rendering with colored pencil (or another medium of your choice), this knowledge should come back to you and inform your decisions.

We want the knowledge to be sub-conscious and automatic so that we don’t have to think about it when we draw.  We are working towards understanding WHAT we draw so that we can draw what we know.  So we're trying to get past drawing what we see. 

Have a question or discussion point about this info? Sound off in the comments!

Portrait Prep Series: Beyond Basic Shapes


Welcome to the final portion of Lesson 1!  

Lesson 1.2

Last time we talked about drawing edges instead of lines and the importance of training our eye to see relative size and proportions. We also touched on value scales and spoke about how to look at a sphere. If you missed it or need a refresher, click here to review.  

This time we’ll begin by creating a few more shapes:  first a triangle and a circle, then a cylinder to begin to see more depth.

We’ll use what we learned about a value scale to shade these objects and turn them into three-dimensional objects that can represent something in real life.


Let’s start today with a triangle:

Draw your first vertical line….  


...and then your horizontal line.  

Be sure that your second line (which should be horizontal) is the same exact length as the vertical line. These equal lines should form a 90° angle.

You should be able to identify where the diagonal line ought to go.


You'll also start to notice the degree for the diagonal line. If your vertical and horizontal lines are 90° then your diagonal line should be around 45°.

If, however, the horizontal line is only half the width of your vertical line then your diagonal line will form a 30° angle. (See the examples below for a visual representation of what I mean.)

Create your own triangles and identify how the lines are related to one another!


Note:   How does this relate to portraiture? Good question! Consider the diagram below. I've drawn the lines for the mask of the face, the curvature of the head, and the outlines we would use to develop the entire head. See the triangle? What we're doing with this exercise is learning how to think about our subject matter in a very three-dimensional way.


The line is from above the brow ridge to the ear hole (the external auditory meatus) next to the mastoid process.


Now let’s move on to a circle. Drawing a circle is actually not quite as difficult as you may think.  If you think about having four equal sides and then curve lines in between these points you should be able to draw a circle that is adequate enough to represent something that is circular in your portrait drawings.

Look at my diagram below and see if you can draw your own circle using the same method.

Create four dots evenly spaced apart, then add curved lines to complete the circle.


Note:  We will never escape the need to identify shapes in drawing portraits or anything that we draw. Seeing the shapes and being able to recognize the relationships between one edge and another edge, or from one object to another, is an integral part of being able to draw proportions correctly.


Finally, let’s add more visual interest by creating a cylinder.  

Step 1

Create an ellipse:  Draw two target dots the width you want the cylinder to be, then draw a curved line between them.


Then repeat in the opposite direction to create a mirror image of the first curve.


Step 3

Create the final curved line at the bottom. You should notice that it's parallel to the lower half of your ellipse at the top.


Step 4 - Optional Shading

You could shade in the cylinder at this point, but this is optional.  The most important part of this exercise is to be able to see all of these lines in relationship to the whole object, and to create the curved lines to appear realistic and three dimensional.

Shading a Circle into a Sphere

Remember the discussion of light and shading with the Styrofoam ball in the last part of Lesson 1? We’re going to use those same concepts when we talk about shading a circle into a sphere. Don’t forget: we'll have a hard edge, a soft edge, a cast shadow, and a highlight.

Step 1

Loosely sketch a circle.  

Create an imperfect circle to fill in with value. Don't worry that the circle may not represent a flawless ball shape--you can refine the edges of the circle to make it appear more round as you go.


Step 2

Keep adding value very lightly so that you ensure everything is in balance. As you progress, refine the shape of the circle to be more complete.   You CAN do this!


Step 3

Determine the light source and begin diagramming.  

Diagramming is simply a fancy term for labeling the elements of a drawing so you can think about the names of those elements in the drawing process. This is a fantastic way to learn the subtleties involved! Your mind will begin to identify these things as being different from the other elements in your drawing.


Follow this checklist to diagram your sphere:

  • Draw a light source icon

  • Label the highlight

  • Label the soft edge

  • Label the hard edge

  • Label the reflected light

  • Label the cast shadow

Step 4

The last elements to label are the values from the value scale that you created.  This is a highly effective way to determine if you’ve created a full range of values with very soft transitions.  You don’t want a hard edge where it doesn’t belong--like in the middle of the sphere!

Simply draw lines and label 1 through 10.  (I’ve grouped some of my numbers together to make it simpler, for example a 5 and 6 together and a 3 and 4 together.)  The point is to create a sphere that makes sense--NOT to make the most beautiful-looking sphere anyone has ever seen!


We’re getting so close to our skull lesson where much of this will all be coming together!

Any questions about these exercises? Ask in the comment section!