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Anatomy of the Head for Artists

By R. R. Christensen

While pursuing my undergraduate degree, I was privileged to spend several years studying figure drawing under Michael Parker. An artist with a zeal for anatomy, he was known for going above and beyond for his students, and even persuaded the biology department to allow interested students from his advanced classes access to the cadaver lab in the Life Science building.

In a scene so reminiscent of the fabled Renaissance artist-anatomists, we carefully peeled back layers of muscle and tendon under the watchful eye of our instructor and the cadaver lab attendant, to marvel at the skeletal structure and the intricate way it all fit together. We were taught to perfectly replicate the proportions of the human skeleton, memorize the shapes of muscles and their ranges of movement, and  learn the names and functions of everything.

As anatomy is the basis of our physical beings, so too should it be the foundation of our practice. Unlike our Renaissance-era counterparts, the modern portrait artist does not have to turn exclusively to dissection or high-level biology courses to understand the human form. Thanks to the interconnectedness of our global society and the way the internet places the whole of human knowledge at our fingertips, we can each easily access expert teaching and methodologies designed to simplify the complexities of anatomy into digestible chunks and adaptable templates. For the sake of brevity, and  limited scope of this article, we’ll only touch on a few of these systems taught during the 20th century onwards: the Loomis, Reilly, and Asaro methods.

In 1956 Andrew Loomis published his quintessential work “Drawing the Head and Hands.” In it he breaks down the head into large and small geometric forms, outlines basic guides for proportions, and the development of individual likeness. Loomis expertly simplifies the anatomy for the reader and demonstrates how differences at the skeletal level result in the facial features we observe in ourselves and our subjects.

Figure 1: Basic and secondary planes of the head, Andrew Loomis, Drawing the Head and Hands, pg 33

Figure 2: Diagram of skull variations, Andrew Loomis, Drawing the Head and Hands, pg 12

Frank J. Reilly, a student of prominent educator George Brant Bridgman, taught his own method from 1933 up until his death in 1967. Although he never published any of his own writings, several of his students such as Michael Aviano, Ralph Garafola,  and Jack Faragasso wrote about his teachings and later published their own recollections of his instructions. In comparison to Loomis and Asaro, Reilly’s “template” consists of multiple overlapping round forms that represent various facial planes.

Figure 3: Diagram of Reilly method basic forms and planes, Ralph Garafola, The Elements of Painting, pg 131

In contrast to the previous two methods, John Asaro’s system offers a three-dimensional study approach. Available since 1976, the Planes of the Head mannequin provides near endless opportunities for individual practice via turning and lighting the form. It demonstrates two methods for plane simplification, a less-detailed version on the mannequin’s right and a more complex rendition on the left. 

Figure 4: John Asaro Planes of the Head mannequin

Simplified drawing systems like Loomis’, Reilly’s, and Asaro’s enable portrait and figurative artists to better analyze facial features on the fly. Understanding what lies underneath the face greatly assists the portraitist in quick sketches or studies, posthumous paintings, and reconstructive portraits. 

With any of these three systems, we begin with the skull. The mass of bone is an unchanging constant that constitutes the scaffolding of the body upon which all muscle, ligament, fat, and skin must rest. Because there is very little variance in the thickness of facial muscles and distribution of facial fat, the skeletal system is thus the largest contributor to the uniqueness of individual features. Forensic facial reconstruction– in which reliable depth markers are placed all over a human skull and the individual’s features are extrapolated manually or digitally– depends heavily upon this fact.

The portraitist must be the exact opposite of the forensic scientist. Where the latter starts with the reliable foundation of bone then builds on top of it, the artist must begin with the expanse of skin and excavate their way down to understand the plains of muscle and the core of bone that lies underneath. The Asaro head, Loomis approach, and Reilly method are all ways of simplifying the complex knot of bone, muscle, and skin into something easily digestible.  

Figure 5: Loomis’ take on feature differences based on skull variations, Andrew Loomis, Drawing the Head and Hands, pg 15

Skulls may differ slightly between gender and race but the most important differences are the individual ones. For example, while the average male skull will display a more prominent brow bone than that of a female, it’s more important to be able to identify if the particular person you’re trying to draw or paint has a more or less prominent brow bone than is depicted in the model you’ve studied. Other common points of differentiation can include nose length, cheekbone height, jaw shape, forehead width, and eye socket depth. When an artist can quickly make these assessments they can then easily modify their preferred anatomical system to deftly and accurately capture an individual likeness.

I personally relied heavily on this tactic when working on a posthumous reconstructive portrait. I was approached by a young Marine Corps officer who wanted to commission a drawing of himself alongside his grandfather as a young man during his own military service. This project was made especially tricky because all surviving pictures from the grandfather’s military service were very small, black and white, and so grainy that individual features were barely discernible. By using later photos to identify the bony landmarks of the grandfather’s face (areas where the bone is closer to the surface and therefore less affected by loss of skin tone and elasticity), I was able to more easily envision the underlying structure of his head and deliberately build the drawing rather than trying to simply feel it out. 

If art is harmony of shape, beauty of form, and the tasteful marriage of these with function, then is there anything more artistic than the human body? As you seek to deepen your understanding of anatomy, the benefits will spill over into your practice in both expected and unanticipated ways.

List of Illustrations:

Fig 1. Basic and secondary planes of the head. Format by R. R. Christensen from Andrew Loomis, Drawing the Head and Hands, pg 33, plate 9.

Fig 2. : Visualization of skull variations. Format by R. R. Christensen from Andrew Loomis, Drawing the Head and Hands, pg 12.

Fig 3. Diagram of Reilly method basic forms and planes. Format by R. R. Christensen from “Basic Planes and Forms with facial features” by Ralph Garafola, The Elements of Painting, pg 131, figure 7.

Fig 4. Planes of the Head Asaro mannequin, Photograph by John Asaro, "Original Planes of the Head," from Planes of the Head, accessed December 2023..

Fig 5. Loomis’ take on feature differences based on skull variations. Format by R. R. Christensen from Andrew Loomis, Drawing the Head and Hands, pg 15


Asaro, John. Original Planes of the Head. September 2020. Planes of the Head.

Bambach, Carmen. “Anatomy in the Renaissance: Essay: The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Anatomy in the Renaissance, October 2002.

Bridgman, George B. Constructive anatomy. 10th ed. London: John Lane The Bodley Head, 1920.

Bridgman, George Brant. Heads, features and faces. Garden City, NY: Dover Publications, 2021.

Garafola, Ralph. Frank J. Reilly The Elements of Painting. 3rd ed. Frank Reilly Art Books, 2018.

Loomis, Andrew. Drawing the head and hands. Internet Archive. New York: Viking press, 1956.

Shrimpton, Sarah, Katleen Daniels, Sven de Greef, Francoise Tilotta, Guy Willems, Dirk Vandermeulen, Paul Suetens, and Peter Claes. “A Spatially-Dense Regression Study of Facial Form and Tissue Depth: Towards an Interactive Tool for Craniofacial Reconstruction.” Forensic Science International, October 31, 2013.

Stephan, Carl  N, Lachlan Munn, and Jodi Caple. “Facial Soft Tissue Thicknesses: Noise, Signal, and p.” Forensic Science International, August 6, 2015.

Wilkinson, Caroline. “Facial Reconstruction--Anatomical Art or Artistic Anatomy?” Journal of Anatomy, February 2010.


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