The Face

Monday 9 July 2018

The human face is an area which can cause confusion. The face is probably the most difficult feature to interpret because of the key role it plays in communication. When people interact in social situations, we read each others’ faces very carefully and probably unconsciously for the most elementary emotions: threat, rage, anger, compassion, tenderness, love, duplicity… the list is endless. And we do this in a few sweeping glances, searching for the most minute clues.

A twitch here, or a fleeting thought that reflects upon the face, can make all the difference, and we have been expert at recognising them. Indeed, actors and performers study such characteristics and duplicate them in their work. These clues help us to swiftly assess a stranger, and we make very rapid judgements of a person’s character in this way.

These swift character judgements are not necessarily correct. Often they can be erroneous, and may colour our relationship with an individual for the duration of our dealings with them. How many times have you heard people say “I didn’t like him at first but he grew on me”, or “I knew as soon as I saw him…”?

When we as artists, in whatever medium, try to emulate this complex subject, we simply have too much information placed before us, especially when it is a face we know well, or even love. To accurately duplicate appearance, it is necessary to look dispassionately and objectively at the face as an inanimate object, in the same way as though we were drawing or carving a vase, or a locomotive, or a table. Once this trick is gained, it will help us in our quest for anatomical accuracy and a good likeness.

Getting started

It is useful to view the human head in the most general terms and to start by imagining a standardised face. After all, we all have the same equipment: two eyes, a nose and a mouth, etc. It is quite extraordinary that we can recognise, often from a great distance, the individual characteristics and subtle differences of the faces we know so well.

To help with this, I tend to think of the human head in terms of an egg, and this egg shape may be analysed to determine the position and proportion of the features upon it. When we begin to understand this, we can compare the features of the individual we are trying to represent to the standard, and adjust their features accordingly, to achieve the best likeness in proportion.

It is this continual comparison of the features and their relationship to each other, and with the whole countenance, that leads us to a true likeness. Once this composition is achieved in a mechanical and detached way, it is time to add character and expression in order to transform that likeness into a true interpretation that reflects the individual’s personality, as well as a convincing physical likeness.


I hope this feature will help you to develop a greater understanding of this complex subject, and also to avoid the errors of proportion that can so easily trip us up and cause us to feel disappointed with our efforts. The principles described here apply to three-dimensional work, as well as to the illustrative two-dimensional studies shown here, and as a woodcarver. I apply them continually to all my three-dimensional portrait work.