Anime-by-Example May 15, 2000 Update

  This Page is Printer Friendly!


 This Page is Printer Friendly!



        When you meet people for the first time, what do you pay attention to?  Yes, you look at the body (guys do especially), but more importantly, you pay careful attention to the face. Come to think of it, all that TV directors emphasize of people is a whole lot of people's faces, except during those late-night hours where... uh... we won't go there.

        In anime, the way you draw a face and head may be all the difference in making your art very successful-- no, it IS the difference. All in all, body, figure, and other aspects, given they are drawn within proportional reason, are really unimportant and play less of a part in determining the identity of your character (save for clothes, which is also an expression of personality). In your standard every-day type anime character, details of the body are downplayed, and face is up-played. The face contains so many defining features that give individuals their "individuality". Oh yeah, and don't forget that except on late-night TV programming, the face is regularly one of the only exposed parts of the human figure.

        Looking back on my old drawings in horror, I realize that my quest for a perfect face is far from over. In fact, I somehow always fail to meet those ideal face proportions every time I draw. Actually, it does seem that there is a bit of leeway in which you can abuse facial porportions: eye distance can be botched, nose and mouth distance from midline can be altered a little. It's funny thing, this botching is, because some proportions I had thought would not look right, actually do work very well (examples are given below as I discuss them).

        For the purposes of keeping this discussion simple, I'm going to limit my topic to HUMAN faces. No cows. No chickens. I'm not going to tell you the discrepancies between male salamander faces and female salamander faces. Sorry. Of course, for most of you this is probably a given. Then again, I just got the crazy notion that some you out there... nevermind. 

The Elements of Face

4 Objects, Linear Symmetry

     This is really a no-brainer, but it's good to note again anyway. Four objects on the face: 2 eyes, 1 nose [yes 2 nostrils and 2 eyebrows also if you're nit-picky], and 1 mouth. The face is linearly symmetrical, ideally, with the line of symmetry going down vertically on the face. You may be asking, "hey, why the heck are you telling me this?! Stupid!!" Indeed, I might be, but I have personally found it easier to think about symmetry as my one of my guiding factors when drawing three-fourths perspective (you know, when characters are slightly facing away from the camera?). Easily said, but not easily done...

face-1.gif (14782 bytes)

    Here's a reality check for you. Though anime characters' faces can be perfectly symmetric linearly, in real life people's faces are not! If you take half of your face, and duplicate it and flip it, you almost appear like a whole new person. I just watched this program on TV that talked about the nature of beauty. What it said was that symmetry predominantly defines beauty. The more symmetrical a person's face was, the more attractive that person was. Their reason for the importance of symmetry was that symmetry evolutionarily defined fitness and good health of the person in question. Of course, I don't think this is the whole story behind beauty (nor do they for that matter). There are a slew of cultural influences that help define beauty as well. So in your quest for making photogenic anime characters, keep in mind that symmetry plays a large part, for compositional and aesthetic reasons.

The "Underline": the chin

      The chin! How you draw the lower jaw-- effectively the chin area-- ultimately is the determining factor for facial shape and volume. This is important! Oftentimes, if your character is not like Krillin from Dragon Ball Z, then the only exposed edge of skin on your character's face (when looked at from the front predominantly) is the lower jaw/chin region (see the girl from Sakura Diaries below).

      Now, if your character faces sideways, then you've got more skin "edge" to worry about, as the outline of the face now includes the whole nose area, the forehead, and the lips in addition to the chin. Oftentimes, artists discard much of the side profile detail as it is not essential detail, dropping lip detail (they put the whole mouth, lips and all, within the confines of the cheek area), as well as nose detail (they make the nose bottom continuous with the rest of the face outline underneath, and only draw the arch of the nose which ususally points upward [i.e. Ranma]). The funny thing is that at times, detail is added back onto the characters. For instance, lips are the the things most often discarded upon simplification. If an artist usually draws no lips on his or her characters, then whenever you see the artist put lips-- and even more freaky: lipstick-- on characters, it is so out of the ordinary that it makes the characters look like some sort of horrid sea bass! Okay, I'm exaggerating. They don't do that bad of a job, but if you see an artist draw nothing but lower lips, and then suddenly you see lipstick below AND above a character's mouth, you have to do a double-take.

      The discrepancy between viewing a character head on and from the side can be striking at times, especially when the character's side profile has sharper details than seen head on. Fushigi Yuugi, for example is one such anime.

miaka-headside.gif (9317 bytes)miaka-head34.gif (12540 bytes)miaka-headfront.gif (15831 bytes)

      I couldn't find better pictures, but notice as Miaka's chin moves (from the right picture to the left) from being rounded, even in the 3/4 view, to a more angular form when looked on from the side. Oftentimes, the chin juts out almost vertically in this anime! To me oftentimes the facial structure does not cohere, and in many cases, my characters' faces don't either. Unless you have a strong sense of three-dimensionality about the structure of the face, you very well may have a hard time reconciling differences in side profiles and mug shots.

Eyes are the Mid-Line

     Literally, the horizontal line that can be drawn through a person's eyes defines the middle of the person's head. More importantly, eyes are what most people look at first. There are deviations to eye level in proportion to the rest of the head. Usually, the eyes can be lower on the face such that the top of the head is bigger, making it seem as if the character has poofy hair, or has a big toddler-like head. Do note that the toddler-head does make the anime character look young, not not necessarily like a kid. Anime girls usually keep this lowered-eye form throughout their life until they old and wrinkly. Guys, on the other hand follow a different developmental path, one that makes their face more angular over time, but their eyes remain relatively center anyway.

      This is an area which I personally have a lot of trouble with, because freehand drawing, using no geometric frames, can often lead to distorted proportions, the primary one being the eye/midline placement in my case. Oftentimes I make the eyeline above the facial midline and never realize it until I get done drawing the picture. As a result, my characters look a bit like Neanderthals, as their foreheads are smaller than normal and appear to be receded and ape-like.

      Another note about offsetting the eye line from the midline: you can use offsetting to your advantange when making a character look up or down at an object, for a character who looks up will have his or her eyes higher up on the head (as you see it from the camera viewpoint), and a character who looks down will have his or her eyes low on the head as seen from the camera. Of course, there are a lot other aspects to be taken into account, such as nose and mouth placement, forehead roundness, and such.


      Remember that humans have very high foreheads. Take a look at the examples of side profiles below. Though much of the forehead is covered by hair or running off the picture, you can generally see the fate of the facial curvature up beyond the eyebrows. Rather than immediately receding back and curving to make the top of the skull, the forehead is still gradually protruding out, and in Miaka's case, it seems like it will go out past her mouth.

      If you can't draw foreheads, don't let it prevent you from drawing the rest of your picture, but do try. If you REALLY can't draw foreheads that look okay, then don't draw them at all. That what hair is for. It appears that the majority of artists that I have seen have gotten away without drawing most of a character's forehead at all.

calculator.jpg (22918 bytes) priest.jpg (16858 bytes)

      Here's a picture of the calculator job class and the white mage/priest job class from Final Fantasy Tactics. It's hard to see the forehead outlines, but you get the general picture... or not. Generally, I think that it's easier to make a forehead if you're using geometric modeling, as opposed to using freehand, because you are forced to take into account the forehead whether you like to or not. And then geometric modeling is another topic in itself...

      Do make a note, however, about the nature of anime faces. The proportions of the head are horribly skewed to fit cartoon caricature specifications, and the more you look at them, the more normal they become. Unfortunately, if you actually found a person with those head dimensions, you'd think they were a freak. And thus, there are things that many artists do not reconcile with reality, since it doesn't quite accurately portray reality. Some artists just don't draw foreheads from the side and thus cover them with hair. Oh well. The point is that if you choose to not worry about them, you will probably be able to get away with it. Sooner or later though, you'll probably want to deal with it, though.

The Rest of the Facial Details

      I won't go into too much detail here, as nose and eye forms don't really belong in this section. If the eyes cut the face in half with a horizontal line, then the nose and mouth take up even portions of the rest of the lower half of the face. There is a lot of room for variation in placement, so adjust the mouth and nose to your style. However, do note that the mouth and nose under most cases remain close together at the expense of a large chin or long face.

      The nose is most popularly represented with two simple strokes, articulating the tip of the nose and either side of it. For all intents and purposes, the nose is very simple, and remains that way. Most of the detail is omitted ususally. Nostrils are most often ignored, and side areas wholly confined to coloring and shadows rather than to hard outlines. This gets into a point I'm going to bring up later about ommission of detail. Essentially, the less detail that you depict on a character's face, the more detail the viewer will have to interpret for himself/herself. This is good for you for ususally the less the detail, the more attractive and photogenic the character becomes. Remember those nasty kindergarten pictures where you'd try to draw the nostrils as two circles, and flare out the nose, almost as if the character has a pig nose or a trident-shaped nose? Ugly. When a viewer look s at a nose with only the essential articulated forms, he will mentally fill in more detail that fits the outlines and shadows which looks best for the character.

      In terms of variability, the nose and mouth are EXTREMELY varied from artist to artist. Even the quality of a simple line can greatly differ.

utena-head.gif (9027 bytes)
Revolutionary Girl Utena

battleathlete-head.gif (8624 bytes)
Battle Athletes Victory

macross-head.gif (7249 bytes)

nadesico-2head.gif (22135 bytes)
Martian Successor Nadesico

saber-berryhead.gif (10476 bytes)
Saber Marionette

saber-limehead.gif (10356 bytes)
Saber Marionette

      Notice that in the Battle Athletes picture, there is no lower line denoting the bottom of the nose. In addition, in the Utena and Macross pictures, the girls' noses are connected all the way up to their eyes. For more noses, look at the wonderful picture from Plastic Little below, showing different types of noses. What does it take to draw like this? Practice.

      A nose or mouth can even be deleted, if need be, especially for art requiring a simpler style. All in all, it really depends on the artist's willingness to draw noses and mouths. Keep in mind the nose and the mouth are also three-dimensional objects, and fit on a likewise three dimensional face.


      One thing to remember when you're drawing is that the face has 1 definite shape in a three dimensional world. The mug shot and the profile view are just a sample of that shape from different angles. As a character turns his or her head, the general articulated head shape should be coherent and consistent. It really helps to imagine three dimensional aspects of a character's head, though this is quite hard at times. However, it is really rewarding, as you can visualize what characters will look like if they move their heads up or down, and at odd angles.

Faces of the Two Genders

       Okay, if it's anything I'm going to get right on this site it's this: there are only 2 genders! Right. That being said, I move on. I suggest that you consult a real artist's how-to-sketch human faces book for more details. In a nutshell, men have sharper features on their faces than women do. Consequently, men's faces vary much more than women's, as men have harsher characteristics to change and combine giving them unique appearances: protruding chins, deep set eyes, prominent cheek bones, etc. all lend themselves to unique facial characters.

      The cartooning industry has really picked on men the most in terms of a variety of caricature work, maybe because men have predominantly been in positions of criticism, or because they have more memorable facial features, or both. Recall the ever-present political cartoon. If you're in some type of politically oppressive nation reading this, then don't worry about recalling, just imagine. In America there's all those caricatures in Newsweek, Time, USNews, New Yorker, etc. (the political magazines). Over the years artists cranked out cartoon portraits such as the pointy-nosed Richard Nixon, the huge chinned Jay Leno, and the buck-toothed David Letterman (why buck teeth?!). Caricatures of women usually have exaggerated hair styles (much like anime characters!), and a LOT of make-up.

      Here are some example of facial differences from Plastic Little:

plasticlittle-heads.gif (30603 bytes)

     Just some notes on the picture: For those of you who haven't watched this anime or don't know anything about it, the only woman in this picture is the second from the left. All the rest of the people are guys. Do notice that Balboa's (leftmost person) facial features are very severe compared to the female next to him. Second from right, as you have deduced by now is a guy. Yes, he has pink hair. Nevertheless, he has the same facial structure as a woman, and first time that I saw the anime, I thought he was a girl. The anime girl facial structure is very much the embodiment of youth, as their facial structure does not vary much from an anime kid's facial feature. This goes for the "pretty-boys" too. I have once of twice heard that some of the better-looking guys look a bit like girls. Here you go. The second guy from the right, the girly-man is testament to this, I suppose (I won't comment on him. I'm a guy.).

      To cut a long story short, woman can be drawn as children are drawn: soft facial features and round form. Men can be drawn a many number of ways, soft or hard, and at this point I won't tell you how to draw them. You can even draw men ugly if you want. No one would really care, except that some stranger may think that your character design is a little shoddy ^_^. For us guys, men more importantly look "cool" to us-- you know-- that "Don't mess with me or I'll kick your a$$" look. This "cool" can take on many, many forms of expression, and is very open to interpretation.

For those of you who are worried that your women characters look pervasively like men, keep working at it and ignore Moral 3. Try softening and rounding facial detail. Use curves to define the chin, not straight lines and sharp angles. For women, I recommend looking at asian women faces. They're generally rounder than Western faces, and have less severe characteristics (though Western women are just as pretty as Asian women, in my humble 3-4 page opinion).

Ethnic Faces in Anime

      Okay, I'm about to tread on a really sensitive area, which no one has much written about. The anime you see here in the states contains characters of more Western appearance than Asian. Moreover, Caucasian faces are the ones that are mostly ("mostly" meaning "98%") represented. This means that Blacks are rarely represented, as seen in the Plastic Little picture above. There are a lot of cultural and political reasons behind why this is, events just led to other events, and I'd rather not discuss it because it's long, it's complicated, I'm not majoring in history, and it contains topics I'd be uneasy writing about and most people would be uneasy reading about. In a few years, maybe it'll be the right time to discuss that.

      So why does anime contain only White [Western] people? I'll address this from a practical perspective as I see it... Practically speaking from the Japanese artists point of view, drawing a heck of a lot of Asian people (depicting Asian people as Asian in appearance I mean) is hard on the readers as even artists can make Asians look the same as a consequence of drawing bias. Now think if people in Asia have a hard time discerning Asians apart in comics, think about how Westerners feel! Do note, that there are a multitude of Asians portrayed as Asian in Japanese art we don't see much of in America and abroad (I'm writing this tutorial for those anime-deprived extra-Japan-bound souls out there, if you haven't noticed). These artists (and old Asian print makers) were quite good at it too, and the art is really cool. Anyway, varying facial feature, clothes, and hair color all contributed to variety in anime, so now you have men with sharper, more defined Western features, people of both genders sporting hair a punk rocker would be in awe of both style-wise and color-wise (by the way, it is said that blue in hair has been attributed to blue-tinted black ink in Asian art). So now it is easy to tell characters apart, as details stand out more. Western culture afforded the Japanese with added variety that they could use to draw and build off of. As for how the interest in Western society and fashion came about, go to a course in Japanese history. The topic of Westen influence in Japanese culture is something best explained by a native or a memeber of the accomplished academia. That's the way I see the whole thing anyway.

     "Now what about Black people?" you ask me anxiously. Right. Er... Sorry to say, but although Japanese culture loves Blacks very much, the only positions that I have seen them portrayed in anime are threefold and so far ONLY threefold: the fro-toting/karate "pimpmaster", the minor-role character, and the whimsical idiot/goon. Moreover, the blacks that are drawn in anime have a very Caucasian look to them. Someone like Michael Jordan just isn't drawn in anime. More than this, I don't know. Blacks should fit more roles in anime, that's for sure, but they currently don't. It is true that practically speaking, most of Asia can be considered "light-skinned", and blacks are prevalent less in Asia than in Western nations, so artists can get away with it, or so that's what I am led to believe. The anime we like so much is JAPANESE. THEY WERE MEANT FOR JAPANESE SCHOOL KIDS AND NATIVE OTAKU, NOT US DEPRIVED SOULS ABROAD.

sakura-side.gif (9053 bytes)face-1.gif (14782 bytes)

Generally, the eyes are in the middle of the head profile, seen straight-on. Well, sometimes that's not so, as illustrated in this picture from Sakura Tsuushin.

The eyes-in-the-middle rule is usually broken when

  1. An artist wants to convey youth, making the face smaller in comparison to forehead
  2. Bigger eyes are used (also indicative of youth)
  3. An artist likes drawing poofy hair, which can blur proportions a little

ranma-headside.gif (17642 bytes)ranma-headfront.gif (6123 bytes)

Here's some pictures of Ranma. Notice that again, the eyes stay vertically in the middle of the head. Compare the side profiles of Ranma to the example above. Notice that Ranma's contour is simple, but as effective. In this way, youth is also portayed with the exclusion of line detail and roundness of forms. Notice also that the the structure of both the male and female faces are the same.

miaka-headside.gif (9317 bytes)miaka-headfront.gif (15831 bytes)

Here's Miaka from Fushigi Yuugi again. I just put this here so that you could compare. Notice how the chin angle varies from artist to artist. Moreover, compare the Miaka's nose angle to Sakura's nose angle. Simplicity may vary. Keep in mind that practicality plays an important role in drawing these outlines-- speed at which animators can pump out cels or manga artists can pump out issues is essential. Usually, for more detailed work from Illustrators, detail is much greater.

Elements of Face II: What you don't see

Invisible features are just as important as visible ones

     The features on the face you can't see still add feature anyway. Oftentimes, the intersection of lines remove the outline altogether, strengthening the visibility of the intersection. For instance, take a look at Spike's mouth from Cowboy Bebop:

bebop-spike1.gif (13707 bytes)bebop-spike2.gif (22211 bytes)

       The exclusion of the connecting line between the two sides of Spike's mouth seems to add to the roundness of his lips, giving the work a less flat appearance. Notice as I had mentioned earlier, the only elements of Spike's nose that are drawn are the shadow on the back side and one nostril, the the bulk of the nose is articulated in shadow, not in simple outline. If it weren't for the shadow you wouldn't even see the nose at all... Here's Ed from the same series:

bebop-ed1.gif (12894 bytes)bebop-ed2.gif (18736 bytes)bebop-ed3.gif (16327 bytes)

      Notice that at times, the nose is there, and at time the nose is completely gone, and then at times, the nose only exists as a shadow. Lips, too, as you can see exist in shadows or completely disappear. You know the nose is there, but with it gone, the excusion gives a character his or her own uniqueness. Exclusion of noses and sometimes mouths give a sense of brevity and energy in a character (especially if an animator had significantly less to draw per frame!). Eyes also have varied outline exclusions, but not as a result of intersection. They are just varied in order to change a character's look. This exclusion applies to all aspects in anime as well as other forms of art.

      In this way, elements of the face are selectively excluded but give an artist power over the illusion of depth even in ink outline drawings as well as another tool to prodive character diversity.

      Here's another picture from the same series:

bebop-ein1.gif (10998 bytes)

      There is absolutely no point to putting this picture here. I just wanted a break. This is taking me days to write. Hee,hee! Don't they look like little loaves of bread?

The Face is Three Dimensional

      I can't stress this concept enough: the face has depth! The whole idea of drawing the face is to give the illusion of spatiality in a 2D world. When the head turns and moves, the eyes slide along a round surface, so THEY DON'T STAY IN THE SAME PLACE WHEN THE NOSE STARTS TURNING OUTWARD!!! A dog's head isn't flat either, and you wouldn't draw a dog's head like a breadboard either (mmm... loaves of bread... I'm hungry), so don't do it. Try getting a feel for imagining 3D space defined by 2D shapes. I'm not saying that this is an easy process, but in the long run, it will make your faces look good, and it will let you do a lot more with 2D shapes.

Notes on Drawing Faces

Geometric Modeling

     Geometric modeling is powerful, and affords a great degree of spatial organization and coherence. It's particularly good for drawing bodies and figures. However, I have personally jumped in and out of using geometry to draw my characters, partially because my characters aren's quite as easily definable by geometry. Geometry is good for getting a knack of spatiality, but it can be somewhat confining, for until you can think of new shapes to form your character's heads out of, you're stuck with certain geometric frameworks, and can only create variation by chaging the dimensions of that frame. That's another reason I keep not using frames.


      Freehand is quite a wonderful thing. Your hand moves and draws as you think of new ideas. Freehand lends itself to more creativity, but only really good and adept artists can use this by itself to draw characters. The problem with freehand should be immediately obvious: drawing without a scaffold is like building a house without written blueprints. Different proportions can be easily skewed, which can be a good thing, but often it's bad. The head, in particular is often distorted, and all the proportions I've talked about up to now can be distorted. Moreover, freehand drawing affords less consistency of results... again unless an artist knows what he or she is doing. I don't want to knock freehand too much, as it is the basis of any type of sketching and calligraphy (Western OR Asian-- especially Asian tough). Freehand is an inportant thing to learn, and recently I've been improving my artistic strokes using a Wacom Tablet, which without I would have been quite stilted. The Wacom Tablet wholly let me doodle around with strokes until I got strokes that fit shapes well.

      If you've got enough money or can save up for an art tablet, I suggest you do. They're especially more prevalent these days. For me, it was very beneficial and now I can't do without one.

My Verdict

      Learn both geometric modeling and freehand. use modeling to refine your skill at spatiality, then use freehand to add that artistic non-formulaic touch to your works. Both are good up to a certain point, and both can be used simultaneously to a certain degree without problems of inconsistency. Try it out and see.

Keep working at it. The face is an important part of drawing anime. You don't really want to skimp on this one. It's true that faces can sell.

Good luck.


If there are any comments, questions or requests for addition, please feel free to e-mail me at

Back to Top | Back to Anime By Example

Main | My Art | Your Art | Anime by Example | ADIDR | Amp Skins | Gnostic UK | Links | Send Mail

All characters and icons are copyright to their respective company/author,
and use of these images are intended to be used solely for analysis and
educational purposes, and should not be distributed.

Animex / Anime by Example is the work of Manhattan.