(John Singer Sargent – 'Study for Madame X')
The nose is a surprisingly challenging feature to draw, despite not moving like the lips and eyes. The challenge comes from the lack of sharp edges, as everything is rounded, and its forms vary from person to person. It is easy to be heavy handed when drawing this feature, with firm lines and shadows, so we will look at how artists handle this, alongside learning about its structure and anatomy.
Placement of the Nose
The nose is fairly straight forward in its placement, sitting on the vertical centreline, in the central third of the face.
(To get these proportions, first find the hairline, and then split the rest of the face into thirds, for the eyebrows, base of the nose, and chin. This works for small tilts of the head, but as the head tilts forwards or backwards more, you need to account for foreshortening)
The nose doesn't start to rise out from the face until about a quarter of the way down from the eyebrows. A small plane of space sits above the nose in this top quarter – this is really important for getting the nose to 'fit' properly with the eyes.
Lining up the nostrils can be tricky, as they can vary in size from person to person, and even a small tilt of the head can throw off standard proportions, so it is better to reference their placement relative to other features. Often I will imagine a vertical line to the eye from the edge of the nostril and compare how far left or right of the tearduct (or any useful landmark) it is.
Structure and Anatomy of the Nose
Whilst the nose is made of many small structures, it is easy to simplify into one large structure.
I like to simplify the nose to a pinched bar shape, with a little keystone shape on top for the flat plane between the eyebrows. This is a useful way of handling the nose in tilted angles as we get a clear view of the plane underneath, where the nostrils sit. Most portraits have a light source that is higher, or at least level to the sitter, so this plane tends to be in shadow. As we start to work on the details, we need to consider the structure of the nostrils.
( The nasal bone is quite short, and the nose is mostly comprised the cartilage and fatty padding. I have simplified these structures here to make them easier to remember)
When you draw the nose, think about how these structures are overlapping each other, and look for indicators in your subject.
It is also useful to remember that the nostrils have a thickness. This creates a shadow plane underneath. They also fit to the structure of the mouth they attach to, creating a sense of curvature, and tend to tilt a little from the septum.
Putting It Together: Drawing the Nose
The nose can be challenging for beginners to draw, because it can easily end up with heavy lines and problematic nostrils. It is almost entirely comprised of curves and soft edges, so we need to take care.
(Tonal representations of the nose (Left to right): Käthe Kollwitz, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Nikolai Blokhin)
When drawing tonally, we need to use soft edges to capture curvature of the rounded surfaces of the nose. Even the bridge of the nose is rounded, catching highlights but lacking a flat top. We can see these soft transitions in these tonal drawings. Another common feature is the shadow on the bottom plane of the nose, extending past the nostrils to indicate their thickness.
The example from Greuze shows clear structure to the nose as well; his hatching lines show the outside of the nostril sweeping up whilst the edge on the inside, almost lost in shadow, curls in on itself.
(Details from ink drawings of the nose (Left to Right): Jospeh Clement Coll, Charles Dana Gibson, Rembrandt)
Noses can be tricky in ink, or line based drawing styles, because we cannot make tonal transitions, but at the same time, outlining the nose can look odd. There are a few ways around this. The first option is to use hatching lines to block in shadow shapes, such as the example by Gibson. He also shows edges and changes in form direction with broken lines.
The other route is to block in shadow shapes, like the ink and wash example by Rembrandt, where the entire underside and far side of the nose is one blob of ink. There is a midground between these approaches as well, as Coll's example uses a mixture of dynamic form lines and blocked in shadows to show form and shape.
(Versions of nostrils by different artists. (Left to Right): John Singer Sargent, Federico Barocci, Adolph Menzel)
Finally, the nostrils, which often frustrate artists when drawing the head in a tilted pose. In many drawings, the nostrils can be hidden in the shadows under the nose, such as with Sargent's example. Each if you can see them, try to let the shadow overwhelm them, or use a soft edge to transition into the deeper shadow of the nostril, such as the example by Barocci.
When the nostrils are more obvious, there is no way to use shadows to hide them. The nostril itself does not have a hard edge all the way round – look for the balance between soft and sharp. In the example by Menzel, the bottom side of the nostril has a soft transition to the upper lip.
Over to You
One of the biggest things to help with drawing the nose is to practise a lot of different angles. The more variety you can get to these, the better! In particular, seek out angles you know are challenging – like the nostril views – to get used to drawing them, and learn new ways of tackling them. The idea behind this is that you will be equipped to tackle any eventuality.
Again, it is a good idea to draw from different faces as well; this is particularly relevant to the nose as it is a very variable facial feature.