Tuesday, 29 December 2009

ON THE DIFFICULTY OF DRAWING WOMEN'S FACES

One could easily devote a long and joyful lifetime to cataloging the differences between men and women without ever pausing to consider the higher significance of those differences. That is certainly the safest approach.

But as the astute Goethe noted, "Nothing is harder to take than a succession of fair days," and every once in a while (usually at the end of a year in which one hasn't met his full quota of foolhardy behavior) a person will deliberately risk life and limb by exploring the significance of those differences out loud.

It is in that spirit that I set out today to consider why it is more difficult to draw women's faces than men's faces.

Artists quickly learn that men's faces are easier to draw because men have bone structures and muscle groupings that are more pronounced than women's. Male heads are generally more blocky and angular; they tend to have stronger jaws, square chins and prominent brows. These features provide artists with easy opportunities to employ distinctive lines, strong shadows and recognizable shapes to achieve a resemblance.


From the Famous Artists School course materials, "Constructing the Head and Hands."

Women's faces, on the other hand, tend to be smoother and softer, with rounder shapes and subtler, more delicate features which require greater restraint.

Another difference that makes men's faces easier to draw is that, "as the man matures he develops larger, deeper wrinkles while the woman develops smaller ones because her skin is finer textured and her bones and muscles are less prominent." If an artist wants to capture a likeness using lines, it is much easier if the subject has lines that were already mapped by nature.

Note in the following examples how men's sharper angles, prominent facial muscles and deeper wrinkles have provided artists with more tools for describing a form.


Here, Mort Drucker sculpts the male face, but on the woman's face he stops with just the outline. Her features can't be rendered effectively using the same kind of approach, and must be implied instead.


Here, Leonard Starr puts a strong chin, nose, cheekbones and brow on the man (while making it clear from facial expressions that the woman has the stronger mind).


Here, Norman Lindsay tries to deal with the difference between men and women by using small dots to convey the woman's features, while using lines for the man.

The special challenge of a woman's face is that it compels artists to describe subtler forms with fewer lines and less obvious shapes, depriving artists of some of the most fundamental tools in their tool kit. In the following image, Leonard Starr limits himself to little more than an outline of the face but nevertheless gives us important information about the contour of her cheek simply by leaning more heavily on his brush on portions of the right side of her face.



So what is the larger significance of these observations about the differences in drawing the faces of men and women?

Part of the magical power of drawing is that it can lead us unexpectedly to larger truths. The principles we encounter in drawing the faces of men and women often seem rooted in fundamental realities about the sexes:

Like their faces, men's personalities are more easily reduced to a line than women's personalities. Like their facial features, men tend to be more obvious than women. (Artists frequently bear witness to such triumphs of physiognomy!)

Women, on the other hand, are sometimes best understood implicitly and indirectly; the discipline of describing form without heavy reliance on lines requires subtlety, appreciation and restraint but you can sometimes achieve a far better likeness that way.

Regardless of whether these larger principles resonate with you, I am sure we can all agree that if an artist lacks the patience for the complexity of ambiguity, you can't compensate for that lack by substituting more (or more emphatic) lines of the type that you use for a man's face. In such situations, "more" will invariably turn out to be "less."