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Art Masterclass - 127

How to paint facial features with Hazel Soan

May 2017

The spaces between the facial features matter as much as the features themselves and that, once they are in position, you can adjust the shapes of the eyes, mouth and nose to determine a closer likeness. Think in terms of the light.


The eyes are positioned approximately halfway down the head and about an eye’s width apart. The sitter’s expression will affect the shape of the eye but they usually present a ‘fish’ shape, tilted downward to the inner corners. Observe the curve of the upper eyelid, the crease behind it and the position of the iris. The eye is more readily indicated via the light and shade than by linear detail. This is good news: you need not get hung up on the eyelashes, the corners of the eyes, layered lids, or multiple lines around the eyes. Just look for the general light and shadows that set the eyes in concave sockets under the brow, but allow the eyes themselves to appear slightly convex. Having established the overall form by suggestion, use the subtler lights and shades to imply details. Avoid too much information and overworking, suggestion is more appealing than avid description.

Pencil outlines may be useful to demarcate upper and lower lids but the tone of each lid is different – the top lid darker, the bottom lid paler – so just the top lid is painted with a dark line, and the iris coloured below it, reveals the position of the lower lid.


The concave nature of the eye means there is usually more shadow towards the corner/s, than in the centre, so the white of the eye may be tinted with shadow, rather than remain white. The shading obviously depends on the direction of the light.


Lit from above, the socket of the eye, shielded by the bridge of the nose and protected under the brow, is shaded to some extent. Within the eye itself, the iris ‘sitting’ on the lower lid, is shaded by the upper lid.


Highlights bring life to the eyes, and the brightest highlight reflects the predominant light source. Highlights are not only seen in the iris but also on the white of the eye. You can ignore other reflected lights to avoid confusion.


The eye is convex so the iris shows a variation in tone across its surface, lighter on the side facing towards the light, shaded under the lid.


Highlights in the eyes are not mandatory. The shaded eyes here have no bright highlights but they still exhibit a variation in tone, caused by shade under the overlap of the upper lid.


From this watercolour sequence you can see how quickly a convincing eye can be painted by paying attention to the light and shade.

The first tone laid (A) is the lightest skin colour, which is deepened with the next wash (B).

When the blue of the shadow cast by the nose is added (C) the shade on the white of the eye is also added (D).

The last stage (E) shows the dried watercolour, and therefore appears lighter in tone than the wet stages above, remember to allow for this in mixing.

I used yellow ochre, alizarin crimson, burnt sienna and ultramarine blue with brush sizes 8 and 6





From the profile and three-quarter angles the line of the nose presents a marvellous linear guide for the brush. From the front, the bridge and sides of the nose can only be indicated by light and shade and the most helpful line is the underside of the tip and the dark accents of the nostrils. To check length, compare the distance from the bridge to the tip, with something already drawn or painted, eg the width of the eyes. Find the width across the nostrils by dropping imaginary lines down from the corners of the eyes; in other words keep the features in relative proportion with each other.

Since only light and shade can define the sides of the nose it is easier to show the shape under asymmetrical lighting because it creates a useful shadow down one side and light on the other.


The nose is formed along with the eyes as it creates the bridge between them. The tip, the bridge and the line of the nose often display the lightest tones, and the shadows either side may appear greenish. I relish this cool colouration, it helps the eye sockets recede and brings the bridge of the nose forward.


Even under the shadow of a hat the tip remains the lightest part of the nose. Bluer shadow under the tip, and redder shadow above, uses colour temperature bias to bring the nose forward (red) and send it back (blue).


Sometimes sheen on the nose makes it difficult to grasp relative tones. Here the reflected light down the line of the nose appeared very light as I mapped in the tones to shape the nose. I left it the unpainted, light-toned colour of the background board.


Since the nose is turning away from the light source, it cannot be almost as light as the lit side, even if it appears bright to my eyes. So I toned down the brightness of the line and tinted the reflected light with pale blue, thus ensuring that the light and shade agreed with the prevailing light.



The shape of the mouth follows the course of the centre line between the two lips, from the indentation where the mouth splits the cheek. I usually shape the upper lip first, and then suggest the lower lip with the shadow beneath, which defines the protrusion of the mouth and the indentation of the chin. The lips present a pleasing duo of contrasting tones: under overhead light the upper lip is darker, as it tilts downward, the lower lip lighter, as it faces upward. Not all lip shapes exhibit clear modelling – adult lips rarely conform to a classic Pre-Raphaelite Cupid’s bow, and thin with age – when scant useful tonal variation is present, it rarely hurts to enhance the values with lighting, or exaggerate values to assist form.

To position the mouth, align the middle point ‘dip’ of the lips with the centre of the tip of the nose. If you find painting mouths challenging, paint a closed mouth rather than an open one, and seek a more serious, rather than smiley, expression.


The contour of the lips is clear in profile. The upper lip projects forward from under the nose, and tilts back to meet the lower lip. The lower lip curves outward, to join the chin. Bear this structure in mind, whatever the angle painted.


To find the width of the mouth, drop imaginary lines from the centre of the eye. When modelling the lips, use light and shade to fashion the curve and tilt of both lips, and to suggest the curvature of the mouth around the face in a lateral direction. The lower lip casts a useful shadow to help shape the lower lip and chin.


When lighting is considerably stronger on one side, the bi-tonal counterchange of the upper and lower lips is enhanced on the lit side and diminished on the shaded side, creating a range of entertaining tones within this already evocative facial feature.



The eyes and the mouth are the features that carry the expression of the sitter because they are more mobile than the rest of the facial features. The suggestion of detail, rather than the description of every detail, will provide a lively narrative to the face, as it implies movement and predicts change. Once you have positioned the eyes, nose and mouth, do not be afraid to blur edges and blend details, especially in the shadows around the eyes and mouth. Practise painting the individual features until you become familiar with them. They will seem far less daunting when you put them together as a whole if you already know what to expect.


Hazel SoanHazel Soan is a well-known watercolourist and has studios in London and Cape Town; she travels widely for her painting. Hazel is the author of 14 painting books, has recorded several DVDs and her work is in private and public collections, including the National Portrait Gallery and a number of embassies.The Artist June 2017


This feature is taken from the June 2017 issue of The Artist.


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