Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Drawing heads: ethnicity

Western art books and other materials, being mostly produced by white people, tend to assume the white European as a human standard. For example the Andrew Loomis classic Drawing the Head and Hands (1956) has no illustrations of non-white people at all. To an extent it is understandable if artists prefer to draw people who look like themselves, but in reality, of course, human beings are a very diverse species. If you are going to draw them, you need to know how their characteristics change according to their ethnic heritage. I will limit myself here to variations of the head, not of the body.

It is probable that humans evolved in eastern Africa 150-200,000 years ago, and eventually began to migrate into other parts of the world. As regional populations became established, some of them thousands of miles or even continents apart, they began to develop distinct physical characteristics, generally traceable to a quality of their environment. For example, skin colours are darker in hot regions – to offer protection from the sun – than they are nearer the poles. These variations are sometimes described as different ‘races’, but in reality ‘race’ is a meaningless term. Homo sapiens is a single species, and its ethnic variations superficial. Regional populations blend into one another, and the population of a given city or area is usually diversified by migrations of varying degree and kind.

Guide to human types

The most thorough investigation of human ethnic variation I know of was created by the Lebanese artist Joumana Medlej. You can see charts of her amazing research on her website: http://cedarseed.com/tutorials/types.html.

Rather than try to compete with this, I will confine myself to a few studies and observations below, and suggest you consult Medlej’s research for more detail. Medlej demonstrates that it is possible to indicate a person’s ethnicity using only linework, and fairly simple linework at that. Discussions of ethnicity often focus on skin colour, but getting the facial features right is just as important – even more so.

Obviously you can also find a wealth of other information online, not least a vast number of photos of people from different parts of the world.

‘Average faces’ from around the world

An artist researching ethnic variation needs reference material. The blogger Collin Spears has combined faces from around the world using technology from FaceResearch.org’s ‘online face averager’ to approximate the ‘average face’ of men and women from 40 different countries. (The work is sometimes, but inaccurately, reported as being the work of the FaceResearch scientists themselves.)

A few examples from Collin Spears. Clockwise from top left: Brazil, Iran, Ethiopia, Germany

This sort of project raises plenty of issues of course, but collectively the images seem to me to offer an insight into ethnic variation around the globe, and are as comprehensive a reference as I have seen. The full sets are on Spears’ blog: here are the posts broken down by region.
Middle Eastern, Central Asian and South Asia
East-Southeast Asia & Pacific Islander

My studies

Here are some digital studies of mine of five broad types, each representing a man and woman from the indigenous or majority ethnic population of a major region: native American, sub-Saharan African, northern European, northern Indian and Chinese. These are merely meant to be individuals who could convincingly belong to those populations, and are not attempts at national ‘averages’. The notes below them are inevitably broad and incomplete, as there is huge variation within regions, let alone between them. There are plenty of other types I could paint too but as I say, I am not attempting a comprehensive study here. It’s easy to generalise about ethnic tendencies, like anything else, but obviously the world is always much more complicated than a quick survey can do justice to. I have posted a composite of the set on my DA gallery.

Native American

The forehead is receding. The nose is prominent and fairly broad, with a convex bridge. Wide, slightly prominent cheekbones create a wide face; the mouth too is wide. The hair is black and straight, and the eyes are dark. The skin is a reddish-brown. Male facial hair is sparse but pattern baldness is rare.

Sub-Saharan African

The brow ridge is not prominent and in profile the face tends to be prognathous – the mouth has very full, projecting lips. The ears are small. The nose is flat and broad with flaring wings. The skin varies from brown to black. The eyes are dark. The hair is black with a frizzy or woolly texture, growing outwards rather than down.

Northern European

The face is more narrow and the brow ridge is heavy. The nose is narrow, straight and prominent with a high bridge. The hair varies a lot, from golden blond to red to very dark, and from straight to wavy. The eyes vary too, mostly blue or brown, but green or grey also occur. Male facial hair is thick, the lips thin. Northern Europeans have the palest skin, which wrinkles more with age.

Northern Indian

The eyebrows are heavy and dark, the eyes large and almond-shaped. The nose is straight and long. The hair is black and straight, and the eyes are mostly dark. The skin is brown to dark brown.

People from northern India tend to look more Caucasian than people from the south, who are much darker and seem closer to Australian Aborigines.


Wider cheekbones make the face more round and flat. The nose is relatively flat and small, with a low bridge. Facial hair is scanty. The hair is black and straight, and the eyes are dark. The skin is fairly pale to light brown, arguably yellowish-brown.

Print by Kitagawa
Utamaro (detail)
The most obvious characteristic of East Asian ethnicity, though not unique to them, is the epicanthic or epicanthal fold, a fold of skin on the upper eyelid which covers the inner corner of the eye like an arch. (It also appears in about half of Down’s Syndrome cases.) The fold may appear in young children of any race before the nose bridge starts to rise. The degree of the fold varies, and may cover all or only part of the tear duct. Eyes with epicanthic folds look almond-shaped rather than round; their ‘slanted’ look is explicit in Asian art, such as in the Japanese print on the right.

The East Asian eye comes in two kinds. Some people have a crease in the upper eyelid, quite close to the eyelash, which is known as a double-eyelid. Others have no crease, known as a single-eyelid. There is a cultural prejudice against the latter as ‘less beautiful’ which leads some East Asians to acquire double eyelids through cosmetic surgery.

If you have difficulty drawing this or any sort of feature convincingly, the best thing to do is of course to go and find some examples, whether real life and/or photo reference, and draw lots of them.

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