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Figurative Drawing – How to Draw the Head with Adele Wagstaff

Posted on Thu 13 Dec 2018

Which landmarks of the underlying anatomy do we need to look out for when we begin to work from observation? Which medium do we select to achieve the marks and textures we desire when starting out on a particular drawing?

Line is our most expressive and immediate vehicle to explore the world around us; it is used to jot down rapid sketches and ideas or to work on longer, more detailed and observed drawing from life.

Expressive qualities of line

Many materials are available to work with: pencils in many grades of softness and hardness, graphite sticks in various sizes, charcoal, chalks and pastel, in both pencil and stick form. The marks made using a particular medium will vary considerably, depending on a number of factors including pressure, speed and scale. Lines will flow differently if we stand to work rather than sit. Does the line convey movement made through the entire arm, or only from the wrist?

Lines we make with a pencil may have less variety, as we hold one with the point downwards, but what happens if we use more weight? Can we make a broader and darker mark or what happens if the pencil is held at its very end, how will this change the type of line we make?

Conté crayon is available in rectangular sticks in black, grey and sanguine, although it is possible to get them in a wide range of colours. Unlike charcoal it is smooth. With this type of crayon it is possible to achieve very light delicate lines or much darker marks as we see in Degas’ profile drawing.

Metalpoint, most commonly seen as silverpoint, gives the most beautiful and delicate of marks. Used by Renaissance masters including Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, it is still used by artists today. A metal stylus is drawn over a prepared surface that may be coloured or white. The paper can be prepared with zinc white gouache, an acrylic drawing ground or a more traditional ground of bone ash primer. The ground provides a very fine tooth, which removes the smallest amount of metal as it moves over the surface. This is what gives metalpoint drawings their stunning delicacy and definition.

When we look at a drawing can we see how it has been executed? Was it made using very rapid marks, or has a lot of pressure been used, resulting in a slower heavier line? Or has the chalk been used on its side to make a broader mark? A drawing holds all the information as to how it was made.


Once you are ready to begin drawing and your model is in position, take time to consider where the head is going to be placed within the rectangle or square of your paper. Try making some rapid thumbnail sketches while you explore the possibilities. The head may sit much better placed off-centre, higher or lower. Looking through a small viewfinder can provide an interesting composition as you move the window around.

As you begin to draw, try to identify the underlying structures of the head, avoid focusing on the details of the face too soon. Examine how the line across the brows frames the entire face; this structure runs across the top of both orbits of the eye and is a very dominant line to pick out. Look at how the cheekbone is a meeting point of the frontal plane of the face and the side plane of the head. When drawing a head in profile compare the depth of the head to the height (the two measurements are similar). The structures of the skull and musculature of the head and neck are discussed in detail in my article ‘The head and neck’ in The Artist January 2018 issue (purchase a digital edition of this issue by clicking here).


Experimental mark making

Try experimenting with different materials in a sketchbook. Using a page for each medium, see how many contrasting and different marks you can achieve with each pencil, chalk or charcoal stick over the sheet of paper.

How does pressure affect the medium?

How do slow and quick lines differ?

Does your medium give you sharper-edged lines or do the marks made have a softer quality to their edges?

When you have exhausted the number of possibilities with one drawing tool, take something else and see what happens. You may end up with a completely different set of marks; how could this set of marks be incorporated in your next drawing?

Jean Fouquet Portrait of an Ecclesiastic, c1461, metalpoint, black chalk on white prepared paper, (20x13.5cm). Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art; image in public domain.

This drawing demonstrates how the artist used the soft lines of metalpoint carefully and slowly to build up the contours of the face. Short strokes were placed next to each other and volume described as groups of line change direction to follow the form. Metalpoint does give a huge contrast of tone, so areas have to be built up slowly as lines are overlaid.

Exercise Drawing a head

Select the most appropriate medium for you: do you wish to make a drawing that is soft and delicate that will allow you to build up the surface slowly, or one full of contrasts in scale and weight of mark?

Keep a sketchbook for any warm-ups and try to work with a good-quality cartridge paper that will hold your chosen medium well. A putty rubber will allow you to make revisions; if you are using pencil or graphite you might try using white chalk to soften any lines rather than delete fully. This will allow you to see more clearly how your drawing has progressed.


I began with the structures contained within the triangular shape running across from the eyebrows down to the nose. The head was placed high within the rectangle so that I could include the lovely line of her neck and shoulder as it sweeps downwards. The structures of the head were placed with a very faint line – later more pressure can be used to enhance areas. Very light delicate lines were used continually while searching and understanding the pose.


As the drawing progressed more information was added and lines placed in different directions as they follow the form. More of the torso was added.

Edgar Degas Portrait of Hortense Valpinçon (Mme. Jacques Fourchy), 1883, black Conté crayon on buff wove paper, (25x16.5cm). Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art; image in public domain.

Degas described the face and hair with a mix of short light lines alongside darker lines. The lines change direction depending on what they are describing in the drawing. Dark, soft lines describe the volume of her hair, while fine lines were used in varying directions for the contours of her face. Lines were used side-by-side to create tone. The lines pick out the edges of the planes of the profile drawing (along the jaw line and down under the eye) resulting in a structured feel to the drawing, although there is little other information within the large shape of the cheek.

Adele Wagstaff trained at Newcastle University and the Slade School of Fine Art. She has taught in Belgium, Germany, Italy and the UK. Adele has been shortlisted for the Jerwood Drawing Prize and the BP Portrait Award, and her work has been exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery, Discerning Eye, Royal West of England Academy and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Adele has published two books. For more details, see

This is an extract from Adele's feature in the February 2019 issue of The Artist

Click here to purchase your copy

Figurative Drawing – How to Draw the Head with Adele Wagstaff


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