Head Shapes

Part Three: The Importance of Head Shapes

When I first started drawing live caricatures I felt that the eyes were the most important part of the face, and I put a lot of emphasis and focus on them. I still think the eyes are a crucial element, but over the years I’ve come to believe that the head shape is the most important part of a caricature.

The head shape is the fulcrum upon which a caricature hinges. The heavy lifting of all exaggeration is accomplished via the shape of the head, and it is more easily accomplished that way. Considering that the head shape is a single shape, it is easier to recognize how that shape differs from “normal” and it is easier still to draw a corresponding simple shape that exaggerates those properties as opposed to the more complex multiple relationships of the features. By stretching and exaggerating the head shape, you create the framework within which your other features and their relationships are drawn to achieve your caricature.

I have spoken of the “5 Shapes” and the importance of their relationships already, but digging a little deeper it’s accurate to say that the head shape is “Shape 1″ and the other four shapes are planets to it’s sun, working within it’s all encompassing field of gravity. If a caricaturist can “see” and exaggerate the head shape, all the other features fall into place and follow along. In the last lesson I talked about the “T” shape being a focal point of the basic caricature, but it’s really the “T Shape” and the head shape together as a whole that acts are the basic foundation of a caricature. With those shapes and their relationships established, the rest of the caricature quickly follows suit.

Seeing the Head Shape

I talk endlessly about seeing shapes within the features and the face, and the importance of drawing those shapes accurately to capture likeness and to create a convincing drawing. Again, it’s difficult to teach anyone to “see”… that ability is developed over time via practice and hard work. Still, there are a few techniques and tricks I have learned that can help artists to better see what is in front of them, and better interpret it in their drawing. Many work for any feature or “shape” within the face, but some are specific for individual features. Head shapes have several of these tricks for both initial observations and exaggeration.

Classic Proportion

As with Redman’s ‘”Everyman” concept, it’s important to have an understanding of classic human proportion an anatomy to have a springboard from which observations can be made. This is important both for helping to see what makes a given face unique by comparing it to those “normal” proportions, and for helping to exaggerate those unique aspects by giving the artist a “starting point” from which to depart as much as possible.


The classic adult head is an oval, slightly flattened along the top. The head is exactly divided in half at the eyes, meaning there is equal distance from the horizontal line of the eyes to both the top and bottom of the head. The head is five eye widths wide, and the widest point is typically at the temples, but can be anywhere from the cheekbones to just above the ears. The distance, or more accurately the “mass” of the head above and below the eyes, and how those two areas relate, is a crucial part of the head shape as it relates to caricature. I will refer to it often.

Simplifying Shapes

The head shape is really made up of a lot of different features including cheekbones, cheeks, brow, jawline, chin, forehead, hair, etc. While these are all important elements of the whole, at this stage we need to treat the head as a single shape and keep it as simple as possible. Simple shapes are easier to draw, control and manipulate than ones with a lot of complex elements to them. It’s easy to get hung up on the details and not be able to see past them to the underlying foundation. Here are some tricks to help make initial observations and come up with a simple head shape:

1. Squint Your Eyes

This is an old portrait artists trick. Squint your eyes or close them so you are looking through your eyelashes at your subject. This eliminates the details and forces you to see only vague shapes and forms. That makes it easier to see the simple shapes and drawn them.

2. Points of Reference

I look for these with every feature I draw. What I mean by “points of reference” is finding a specific point or part of a feature to use as an anchor point from which you can make your observations. Each feature has unique points of reference, but in general things like horizontal or vertical dividing lines can always be used for this purpose.


With the head shape, the horizontal line create by the eyes is a good point of reference. Using this imaginary dividing line, it’s easy to see how much of the head lies above that lie, and how much below. I also will look for the widest point of the head shape, knowing that once I have found these points I need only to make sure the rest of the head shape lies in between them. I will also look for straight lines along the contour of the head shape, and draw them accordingly. Finally, I will look for points along the face contour where there is an angular change of direction. The back of the jaw and sides of the chin will often have these points. Any or all of these points of reference can help you “see” the rest of the head shape by comparing what is around it to the point of reference you have established.

3. Shape Association

This is a strange but effective way of grasping a simple head shape, and for exaggerating it at the same time. Try to associate the head shape of your subject with the shape of some inanimate object you are familiar with. Maybe this person has a head shaped like a lightbulb (small, narrow bottom of the face with a big forehead) or that person’s head shape may remind you of a peanut (squeezed at the temples). Whatever strikes you. I don’t mean you draw a light bulb with the face on it, but rather use your imagination and keep that object in mind as a template for the head shape you draw.


Of course, it’s a fun exercise to draw those objects with faces on them just for fun and practice. Doing that helps your ability to spot those associations within your subject’s head shape.

Exaggerating the Head Shape

I mentioned earlier that the head shape is a place where exaggeration is most easily applied to the greatest effect. This is because altering the head shape to any appreciable degree creates a drawing radically different than a portrait. Any change to the head shape from the “normal” shape has a very high impact to the viewer, and the features, by way of their necessary relationships within the head shape, are forced to follow suit and become exaggerated. My analogy of the head shape being a “fulcrum” is an apt one, because the slightest change in the head shape can radically change all other aspects of the face. Because the head is treated as a single shape, it is relatively easy to make those exaggeration decisions and execute them. Unlike the interior features of the face, which change with expression, the head shape is a constant that only changes with the angle of the head, and then only as any object will change when rotating in space. When exaggerating the head shape, all you really need is ONE observation about it to build your caricature upon. It could be as simple as observing that the model has a skinny face, or a large chin, or a small forehead. Multiple observations are great, but one strong one is all you need because it will create a cascading effect with your drawing to define your caricature.

Here are some methods of seeing and exaggerating the head shape:

1. Visual Weight

One key to exaggerating the head shape is to decide where the “visual weight’ of the head lies. That can be as simple as using the afore mentioned line of the eyes as a reference point and asking yourself “does more of the face lie above the eyes, or below?” That is visual weight… the placement of head mass relative to some point of reference like the line of the eyes.


We know that in a “normal” proportioned head the mass is equal. However how we perceive the face is different than it’s physical measurements. Whenever you can depart from the equal mass rule it’s important to do so. That is caricature.

2. The Law of Constant Mass

There are very few “rules” that are universal as it applies to caricature… things like expressions, posture and unique physical attributes make it almost impossible to be able to say “this is always true”. Here is one rule that never changes, however, and it’s a powerful tool to create convincing exaggerations… the law of constant mass. By using it, you can take that “one observation” about the head and follow through with the rest of the head shape.

Imagine you have sculpted a perfectly proportioned head out of wet clay. Your head is done, but you have used up all your clay. You decide you want to create a caricature rather than a realistic bust of your subject. Looking at the model you decide they have a large jaw, so you want to make the jaw bigger. With no more clay to work with, you need to get that clay from somewhere to pack on to the jaw and make it larger. Where do you get it from? You take it from the top of the head, taking away from the size of the top to make the bottom bigger. That is the law of constant mass.


The head has only so much mass. You cannot make one area bigger or smaller without affecting the other areas. A person with a big chin will automatically have a smaller top of a head. Likewise someone with a big forehead will also have a smaller bottom of a face. This serves to create exaggerations of higher impact, since the perception of a large jaw is made more pronounced when the top of the head is smaller. It’s the same concept as when a gray value appears closer to white when surrounded by a much darker value and looks darker when surrounded by white. The law of constant mass also works sideways, with respect to the width of a face… if the face is very wide you need to take mass from both the top and bottom to create that width. Of course this will also affect the relationships of the interior features, because they must now fit within he exaggerated head shape.

3. Rubber Concept

Another way to think about how the entire head shape is affected by a single observation is to imagine a head made of soft, goo filled rubber. Now if we make the observation that our subject has a narrow face, we need to squeeeeze our rubber head like a vice to make it narrower. The effect of this is that the head bulges out on the top and bottom. If we decide the head is wide, we pull the outsides out… the result is the top and bottom get sucked in. If we squeeze the forehead, the jaw bulges out.


What is good about this method is that if we imagine the features of our subject also molded into the initial rubber head, we can see how they will faithfully follow the squeezing, stretching and it’s consequences.

It’s important to trust the follow through of the cause and effect associated with the exaggeration of the head shape via the law of constant mass and/or the rubber concept when drawing a caricature. Even if that lantern jawed subject does not appear to have a small top of the head, it is important to follow through with that moving of the mass if you want to emphasize that jaw and maintain a balance in your drawing… otherwise your exaggeration will be awkward and a lot less clear.

The shape of the head is a crucial element to a good caricature… arguably THE crucial element. Accurately observing the head shape, making good decisions on where to place the visual weight and exaggerating that shape is central to an effective caricature.