Composition Drawing Fundamentals : How to Draw a Realistic Face

Composition drawing is the arrangement or placement of visual elements in an artwork. Sounds too complicated? Here’s an analogy to break it down for beginners who are learning the steps on how to draw a realistic face.

As the name suggests, a composition drawing (portrait) is putting different elements of a portrait together, just like writing an essay. In an essay, the writeup consists of the Introduction, body paragraphs (usually 2 – 3) and lastly a conclusion.

In this case, we will be dissecting the elements (eyes, ears, nose and facial features) into a more detailed sketch before piecing them together to form the complete portrait.

For the purpose of this article, we will be doing a composition sketch of a realistic human face.
The main elements of a human face consists of the eyes, nose, mouth and ears. The materials needed are essentially just a pencil (HB & 2B), you may use a wider range (i.e 2H, 3B, 4B etc.) of drawing pencils for the shading, and A4 paper.

In this article, Artist Celine Chia will be guiding us on how to draw a realistic face.

Realistic Left Eye Composition Drawing

Composition Drawing: How to Draw a Realistic Left Eye

Here, we divide the eyes into 2, starting with the left eye. 

Firstly, sketch out the shape of the eyebrows. Fill the eyebrows by drawing the strands of hair using a stroking method in the direction of the hair. By observation, add more pressure when stroking to the darker parts of the brows, and vice versa. 

Secondly, sketch out the rough shape/contour line of the eye (without eyelids/double eyelids). Here,we notice that the tip of the eye nearer to the nose is slightly more rounded than the other end (tapers off with the upper lid, and is slightly longer than the lower lid.)

Thirdly, give the eye its 3D shape by adding another layer inside the rough contour line that we drew previously. We do some slight shading at the edges to bring out the 3D effect further. One additional point to note is that the upper eyelid is of a darker shade than the lower lid. 

Next, we proceed with the drawing of the eyeball. Notice that we only draw that middle part of the circle (eyeball), as the top and bottom half is covered by the eyelids. Thereafter, we continue to draw the pupil and shade it. (It should be the darkest shade, alongside the circumference of the eyeball). 

As for the cornea, we shade it such that the strokes are radiating outwards from the pupil, towards the circumference of the eyeball. Leave some highlights (the reflection) within the cornea. In this particular case, the highlights are on the left of the pupil.

Lastly, we add some contours by shading the area around the double eyelids, the bottom and side of the eye. This will bring out the definition of the double eyelid as well as the eyebag.

Realistic Nose Composition Drawing

Composition Drawing: How to Draw a Realistic Nose

Firstly, draw three ovals (with the middle oval being the biggest) to mark out the rough shape of the nose. Using the two side circles as a guide, add the contour lines at the side of the nose by drawing (    ) shape. Add contour lines for the columella (middle part) of the nose and follow up by drawing a U. 

Secondly, shade the nostril such that the top of the semi-circle-like shape is the darkest. When shading, ensure that the sides of the nose do not touch the nostrils. 

Thirdly, add the contour lines of the nose bridge. Do take note that to avoid drawing two distinct lines for the nose bridge. This is because the 3D shape of the nose is emphasised through the tones when shading, and not by distinct solid lines.  (The solid lines will end up making the nose look weird).

The highlights (lightest shade) of the nose are the parts that protrude the most.
These are the tip of the nose, the nose bridge and the part between the nostrils and the edge of the sides.

The shadows (darker shade) of the nose are the nostrils, tear trough and supra alar crease.
To achieve a smooth gradient, shade according to the shape of the nose and blend by rubbing the edge of the pencil lines with a soft eraser.

Realistic Right Eye Composition Drawing

Composition Drawing: How to Draw a Realistic Right Eye

The steps to draw the right eye are similar to that of the left eye. 

Firstly, we sketch the shape of the eyebrow and fill the brow. This time, the stroking direction should be the opposite of the left eye.
Secondly, sketch the rough shape of the eye and include in another layer within it for the 3D effect. Follow up with the shading.

Thirdly, add the eyeball, together with the pupils. Shade the eyeball using the same method as the left eye and add the highlights afterwards.

Fourthly, add the contour line for the double eyelid and shade the crease area for the 3D effect. We follow up by shading the area around the eyes and eyebags (same as the last step for the left eye) to make the eye more realistic.

Realistic Mouth Composition Drawing
Composition Drawing: How to Draw a Realistic Mouth

The mouth would be a tricky feature in this case since we are not drawing a symmetrical lip. 
We will split the lip into 4 sections — top left, top right, bottom left and bottom right.

Firstly, we start with drawing 4 ovals as a rough guide, one for each section. Sketch out the Cupid’s Bow at the point where the two ovals (for top left and right) intersect.

Next, we sketch the small opening of the mouth. The position for this area should be roughly around the space where by the 4 ovals do not intersect each other.
Do note that the contour lines can still be edited along the way as we add the details. Try to observe the reference image as closely as you can when drawing the contour lines.

Thereafter, we shade and mark out the commissures. They should be at the point where the two ovals (for upper left and lower left  / upper right and lower right) meet. We then proceed to complete the overall shape of the lips by adding the upper and lower vermilion border.

When shading the lips, do add some crease lines to make the lips more realistic. The shape of the crease lines should be a curve from the centre of the mouth to the lower/upper lip body. The highlights of the lip should be at the centre of the lower/upper lip body, as well as right below the two arcs of the Cupid’s Bow.

The shadows are mostly at the commissures and the vermillion borders.
Remember to shade the oral cavity and include the teeths that are visible through the mouth opening.

Realistic Ear Composition Drawing
Composition Drawing: How to Draw a Realistic Ear

Observe and sketch the rough shape of the ear. To ensure that the proportion of the ear is accurate, we can take reference to the position of the lower eyelid for the tip/highest point of the ear, and refer to the upper lip for the bottom of the ear lobe. We are also drawing a detached earlobe in this drawing, so make sure that the earlobe drawn is more rounded. 

Add an additional layer and shade accordingly while observing the reference image to show the helix and the anti-tragus. Sketch and shade the tragus (flap nearest to the face) as well. Add more depth to the ear by shading the inner part of the ear. This helps to bring out the definition of the antihelix and the concha of the ear. 

Realistic Mustache Composition Drawing

Composition Drawing: How to Draw a Realistic Mustache

Sketch out the rough shape of the moustache. Fill in the moustache with facial hair by stroking in the direction where it grows. Try to avoid overly distinct pencil marks at the roots of the hair (which can make the hair look unnatural) by blending/erasing slightly at the roots. Shade darker for the areas with more facial hair.

If you’ve read this far, have you managed to guess who this is? Here’s the full time lapse on how to draw the realistic face of the youtuber @Rishirkz! Do check out his channel for his amusing content.

Composition Drawing: How to Draw a Realistic Face

Benefits of a Composition Drawing/Sketch

  1. By scrutinising all the details, we will be able to make our portrait more realistic. E.g. By observing the anatomy of the eyes, we can notice the texture of the pupil and the reflective areas. This gives us a gauge on how much shadows and highlights to consider before we do up our sketch.
  2. It’s a good practice to start from the basics. Instead of bombarding with a full portrait, beginners can start with one small feature and place more focus and emphasis on perfecting the minute details. One can ignore the overall proportions and angles and prioritise learning a specific facial feature first.
  3. Composition drawing trains your patience and observational skills which are applicable in your daily lives. Especially when shading, one needs to apply the right pressure at the right angle to add a more realistic touch to your sketch. To get the best results, we would usually need to nitpick on our own sketch, so as to pick out the imperfections and brush up on them.
  4. Applicable in a real world context. For example, there’s usually a forensics sketch artist who does the composition sketch of potential suspects. Another example is in the use of a moodboard (product design/interior design) Composition sketch is also used in engineering assembly drawings, design blueprints and fashion designs.

Learning to draw a realistic face takes practice and exposure to varying objects and people.
To start off with composition drawing, take a photograph and observe the subject first.
You can choose to start off with what you’re comfortable with and progress from there. The best advice that we can provide is to get started.

Love our guide on how to draw a realistic face? Be sure to check out our article on line drawing and stay tuned to our socials for the latest updates!

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