Tip One: Place The Lips in their Right Place.
Convincing lips are always in a believable location on the head. (In art, “Talking through your hat”, must remain only a colorful figure of speech.) You can make this satisfactory placement with the aid of some easily determined guideposts of the face: the eyes and the nose. If the eyes, nose and lips are all mutually supportive, the desired likeness will likely follow.
First, in the size you want, roughly indicate the basic shape of the head, yours, if you are working in front of a mirror. Is it an egg shape? A basketball? Peanut? What? Second, indicate the position of the eyes with simply two small circles, whose sizes are roughly proportional relative to the head and to the distance between those two eyes. Are those eyes approximately halfway between the base of the chin and the top of the forehead, as is typical? If not, move them up or down as needed. Third, indicate a rough nose. Is the top just below a line between the two eyes? Where does the bottom of that nose end? One third (approximately) down from the eyes to the chin? If not, make the small adjustment. Drawing a small box shape, indicate how wide the nose is, using the eye-to-eye distance as a yardstick. Remember, all these are approximations; you’re not a land surveyor and it’s important to just get started, started with just your best estimations.
How does all this look, so far? If you are working from a photograph, turn both that and your sketch upside down and compare them, judge it all again. Make any needed adjustments. Now that you have your main benchmarks in place, now that your eyes and nose are indicated roughly, what next? The next thing to do is to establish a very few further guidelines from these eyes and that nose. That is, the next step is to establish vertical reference lines, dropping them straight down from the eyes and the nose. After determining what is straight up and down, very lightly sketch in a vertical line from the inside point of the right eye. Then do the same from the inside point of the left eye. Next, do two vertical lines from the OUTSIDE of the eyes, making now four vertical lines. Using these four lines as well as the location of the bottom of the nose, estimate where the ends of the mouth lie, left and right. Place a faint dot at each and draw a faint line between those two dots.
Tip Two: Give the Lips their Correct Shape.
The two lips usually have very different shapes. The upper lip often has a “cupid’s bow” appearance, as if seen in profile, as if it were a bow (as in “bow and arrow”) being drawn back and held, to launch an arrow straight up into the overshadowing nose! To render all this with convincing accuracy, let’s first learn some nomenclature. That structure on the upper lip, directly under the nose and that looks like the slide on a children’s playground? That is your nasal septum or philtrum. Those fleshy, pouty parts, especially on the lower lip (sometimes favorably compared to bee stings)? Each of these plumper, more pillowy structures is called a frenulum. There are two such pillows, typically a thinner one on the upper lip, and the usually larger, more puffy one on the lower lip.
Put in the philtrum; that is, draw that children’s slide. Draw two faint lines downward from the nose depicting the side rails of the slide. Use those previously dropped vertical lines from the corners of the eyes to estimate any angles to the philtrum’s sides. Next, place the angled arcs from the far corners of the mouth (those end dots you made) and terminate them on the rails of that philtrum. You’ve just made that cupid’s bow! Snuggle the little pillow of the upper frenulum underneath the bow, as if to hold it in place.
Now place the other, the lower frenulum under the top one, as if supporting it. (But, leave a dim gap between the two pillows for a faint hint of the upper teeth if the lips are parted in a slight smile.) Judge the size, the thickness, of the lower frenulum against that of the upper lip. Thicker and plumper? Does it protrude a bit?
At this point, these two major tips for painting lips should have produced an accurate mouth, a mouth without Sargent’s little something wrong with it. Finish up by using your medium’s tools (pencil, pastels or brush) to provide smooth segues from one lip feature to another. Make small adjustments. Also, soften the transitions from lips to face; you don’t want your lips to look like plastic toy face parts just pressed into a raw potato!
Lastly, I want to address a common bit of advice about lips, which may or may not be true for the case in front of you. If a face is viewed frontally and down-lighted from above, as if outdoors, then typically the upper lip appears both thinner and darker, because the light is hitting it at a large angle, unlike the lower lips whose light is head-on. So, look for this effect but don’t be surprised if it is not true in your case.
Good luck with your new painting techniques!
Tip One: Place The Lips in their Right Place.