Tips for Realistic Figures and Faces

There is a saying in the digital movie effects industry when a computer generated character sort of gives you the creeps- it’s “The uncanny valley”. The “gap” where our mind says to us that it sort of looks human, but not quite right, and that leaves us with an odd, disturbed feeling! This is because there is pretty much nothing else in the world that we as people are more used to looking at than other people. We know what people are meant to look like, and if they don’t look right… creep factor. The problem is, the closer you get to it looking real, the more in danger you are of having this problem. Stylised, cartoon and simplified people are, for some reason, easier for our mind to accept as “people” than a picture of a person that is almost real but not quite right.

Below are some general tips for drawing people and faces which I’ve found helpful in trying to create attractive figures and faces.

Using References:

A lot of people ask me questions about making faces look real, or comment on how hard hands or feet are to draw. These are both very difficult parts of the body to draw properly, however, having a reference to look at and refer to makes the process SO much easier. Using a reference means looking at a photo, picture or even live model of your subject so you can look at exactly how a face or hand, or any object will look in the position you are drawing, meaning there is less guess work. Because while in our head we know what a hand may look like, the actual exact measurements, lengths, curves and shapes are something you don’t know. Even the most experienced artists use references, experience only means you get better at filling in the gaps and remembering those exact shapes and proportions, but that can never truely replace real life models.
When I started out drawing as a kid, I was always running back and forth to a mirror in a house to see how my arm would look if I held it out like that, or how my eyes were placed when I turned my head just so, so I could get it right in the drawing I was doing. With cheap digital cameras available now, taking your own reference photos of yourself or friends is a great idea to get just the right pose you want. There are also lots of great resources on the internet for stock photos of models to use as art reference. Try, or although you must remember photos at these sites are under copyright and should be used according to the photographers and models wishes and terms of use. You can also buy books full of reference photos at art stores, or sign up to a life drawing class.

Using references- Advanced:

We all have an idea in our head of how an item should look. In reality though, this is only a very simple representation of the item. This is why when asked to draw a person or a face, most people will draw a stick figure or a smiley face… they are just simple representations. This can be a problem when working from reference, because how your mind THINKS an object should look, can overtake how it REALLY should look. You think eyes should be the same size as each other on a face, so if you let your mind take over too much, it will draw the eyes the same size… even if one should be smaller than the other because the face is turned to the side. A good technique to avoid this is to try not to look at your page to much as you sketch from the reference. Draw the subject as you see it, not as you think it should look. You can also draw your person or object upside down, looking at the reference photo also upsidedown, to trick your mind out of following it’s simplified misconceptions.
Once you’ve got a sketch down, try looking at it in the mirror as well, so you see a reversed image. This can help you see faults and errors you’ve missed looking at it normally as well.

Skin Tones:

Real skin is transparent, showing blood vessels, veins and more in layers under the surface, or lighting up bright red when lit from behind (think of how fingers look when you shine a light through them). Skin is also a wide range of colours depending on the area. Places with more transparency, or rougher use, like fingers, elbows, ears and knees are much pinker, almost red. Highlighted areas, and pale areas like wrists can be pale yellow or almost milky green.

Obviously, the colours you select for your figure’s skin will have to reflect both the colour scheme of the rest of the artwork, and the skin tone of your figure (pale, olive, tanned, brown, black).

When working in watercolour, it’s important to layer colours to create nice variation in skin tone. Here is just an example, for a fairly purply/blue colour scheme and pale skinned figure.
The one colour I almost always use no matter what, is Rose Dore (the colour names are from the Windsor and Newton colour range). With rose dore, I create the rosey areas of the skin, using it as a dark outline for fingers and toes, nose and lips, where you don’t want any dark muddy colours. Generally, I do a lot of the shading in a blue or purple, followed by the rose dore, and then followed by washes of a warm yellow. You might think that blue, red and yellow would make for an odd skin tone, but because you are layering the colours, and the watercolour layers are transparent, the rose over the blue becomes purple, and the yellow over the top of that tones it down to a more neutral brown, that is so much more glowy and beautiful than using a brown colour from the start.

Here’s a video example of painting skin tones in layers-

Using redder colours for areas such as nostrils, ears, fingers and toes that you might consider should be darker shadows brings a lot of life to the figure. Because these finer body parts are small, and skin is translucent, light shines through it, giving it a reddish golden glow. So while these areas need to be darker and defined, using blacks, greys or browns will make them look muddy and lifeless. I read that for skin tones, shadowed areas should be warm colours, and highlights should be cool colours (while the reverse is generally accepted for other shading). I wish I’d learned this earlier, because it makes a huge difference to creating life like skin tones. By “warm”, it does not have to mean read, but perhaps a warm brown, or warm blue or purple (yes, blues can be warm!). Same with the highlights, the cool colours could be a cool yellow.

Avoiding Scary Face Syndrome:

Ever seen painted faces that were just a little creepy? Here are some tips to avoid that.

The gap between the lips, or any inside of the mouth or teeth area should never be black. Try a medium red/brown instead. Never outline all the teeth, certainly not in a dark black or grey at least. Teeth are best left not clearly outlined. Try more pinks and reds and lighter colours there as well for a more natural, less “scary toothy” look.

This also goes for eyes- leaving the whites of the eye actually white will make your faces look a bit scary. Eyes are generally quite shadowed, and should be shaded as the 3 dimensional spheres they are. There will often be a strong shadow coming from the top lashes over the top half of the eyeball, and pure white should be reserved for just the finest of highlights.

6 thoughts on “Tips for Realistic Figures and Faces

  1. Gabrielle says:

    I tried looking at pictures of myself or my friends and replicating that using regular graphite and paper, but I’ve noticed that when I try to draw hands or feet they always come out either too short and stubby or they look like paper doll hands lol. It’s so hard to make hands and feet look 3D and delicate. 🙁 Oh and don’t even get me started on eyes lol Every once in a blue moon I’ll draw a fairy and her eyes will be perfect! Just the right amount of “depth” and mystery… and then….the rest of her face is dispreportioned! Her lips end up looking like she had a bad botox job and her nose is too small lol It’s always one thing after another :/

    • selinafenech says:

      Hands and faces are super tough to draw. Don’t beat yourself up though, they are both extremely complex 3D forms. We see them all the time so we take them for granted, but when you really study them, they are full of complex details, curves and shapes that are really hard to capture in 2D. Just keep practicing 🙂

  2. Rositsa 'roz' Zaharieva says:

    I’ve so far found out that even though I have mastered proportions to some degree, it takes a whole new skill level to make my human beings look realistic. Skin tones are my current nightmare 😀 Let’sjust hope that’s only a beginner artist’s trait and that I’ll overcome it with enough practice!
    Thank you for the great advice, Selina; it seems that even repeating those and similar tips on and on again won’t make them less useful – like one always needs some guidelines in order to paint decently. I, personally, never get tired of reading advice! 🙂

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