The Reilly Abstraction

The Reilly Abstraction: Tutorial

The Reilly Abstraction is a constructive, graphic hybrid method that focuses on creating the shape of the head from scratch using construction lines and shapes that represent the proportions of the face. This system is replicable, in that it focuses on abstract shapes first, rather than the details of the features. This makes it easy to grasp for beginners.

In the previous tutorials, we looked at The Loomis Method of drawing the head from the front, side profile and at an angle. In this one, we’re going to go over the whole process of constructing the head using the slightly more complex method developed by Frank Reilly, that’s come to be known as the Reilly Abstraction.

This method takes a similar starting point to the Loomis Method. It starts by drawing a circle split into quarters to represent the cranium, position of the brow and centre of the face. However, it develops the concept somewhat further, concentrating on the planes and rhythms of the head.

To conclude, I’ll explain more about the variations you’ll find if you want to dig further into the Reilly Abstraction. I’m sure you’re all impatient to start so without further ado, let’s get into it!

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Start with a circle

Reilly Abstraction step 1

We’ll start with the same basic construction as The Loomis Method. Draw a circle cut horizontally and vertically into quarters with the vertical line dropped further to give us the central line of the face.

Measure the proportions of the face

Reilly abstraction step 2

Draw a square inside the circle. The corners of the square should be just touching the perimeter of the circle. This square is the Reilly equivalent of the inner circle in The Loomis Method and gives us the same measurements. The square gives us the width and therefore the sides of the head. Then, the top and bottom lines give us the hair and base of the nose lines.

Now, take the measurement from the middle of the circle to the nose line. Drop that same measurement down and mark it off to give us the chin line. This shows us that the face is roughly divided into thirds, between the hair to brow, brow to nose and nose to chin.

Measure eye line

Reilly Abstraction step 3

Divide the middle section between the hairline and the nose line into thirds. Mark them off along the vertical line, marking the middle of the face. The higher of these two marks, the one just below the brow line marks the bottom of the eyes line. Use this mark to draw a horizontal line across the head below the brow line.

Draw the jaw line

draw the jaw line step 4

From this bottom of the eyes line at the sides of the head, draw, a jaw line, flaring slightly inwards and curving in at approximately the mouth line towards the chin. This will vary significantly depending on your model.

Measure the mouth line

Reilly Abstraction step 5

Divide the bottom section between the nose line and the chin line into thirds and mark them off along the vertical line in the middle of the face. The opposite of these two marks should intersect with the bottom of the circle, and will mark the mouth line. The lower of these two marks indicate the top of the chin.

Measure the eye width

Measure eye width step 6

Along the brow line, divide and mark off the head into fifths. The second and fourth fifths will give us the width of the eyes, while the third middle fifth will give us the width of the nose. Draw vertical lines down these divisions to mark off the outside of the eyes at the eye line and the edges of the nostrils at the nose line.

Indicate mouth projection

Reilly abstraction step 7

Draw a stretched out oval or egg shape between the top of the chin line and the mark above the nose line. This will represent the rounded muzzle of the face. It will also indicate the corners of the mouth where this oval intersects with the mouth line.

Measure the nasolabial section

Reilly method step 8

Draw a larger oval outside of the one above. It should fit between the centre of the eye line and the bottom of the chin. This is largely analogous to the nasolabial fat pad which can be very obvious in some individuals and almost not at all in others.

Measure the chin

Reilly Abstraction step 9

Draw an oval to indicate the chin. The bottom of the oval should touch the chin line and the top of the oval. This slightly overlaps with the muzzle oval we’d previously drawn.

Cheekbone rhythm lines

Reilly method step 10

We’ll now concentrate on the rhythm lines that indicate the cheekbones and the planes of the side of the head. First draw lines that arc down from each ear at the brow line to the outer circle, and the larger oval. These will indicate the outer ridge of the cheekbones or zygomatic arches. We’ll also extend the lines out past the side of the head to help indicate the top of the ear.

Measure the bottom of the cheekbones

Reilly method step 11

Now we’ll draw another pair of symmetrical lines, curving down like a smile towards the corner of the mouth from the sides of the head at the eye line, just below where we started the lines in the previous step. This will indicate the bottom of the cheekbones.

Indicate plane change of zygomatic arch

Reilly Abstraction step 12

This next step represents the plane change between the zygomatic arches and the temples. It also represents the malar fat pads of the front of the cheeks. Draw a looping curve, starting from the same point as in the previous step, but this time, curving in to touch the edges of the nostrils and then looping back to finish at the corner of the mouth. Draw the matching curve that mirrors this one on the other side of the head. Extend this curve out past the sides of the head to help indicate the top of the ear.

Indicate planes of the temple

Reilly Abstraction step 13

Next we’ll draw another pair of arcing lines, starting from the sides of the head and the brow line. This is represented by the top two corners of the box constrained by our outer circle. The lines pass through the first and fourth division marks on the eye line, which is the bottom side corners of the eyes. It then drops vertically down the face before curving inwards at the jaw. These lines indicate the planes of the temple and the sides of the head. Also note that they pass slightly to the outside of the first and fourth eye division marks at the brow line, indicating the bony protrusions at the top outside corners of the brow.

Mark the curvature of the cranial mass

Reilly Abstraction step 14

From the second and third eye divisions at the brown line, we’ll also draw two lines that curves outwards at the top, following the curvature of the cranial mass.

Mark outer curve of eye height

Reilly Abstraction step 15

From the point at which the first eye division meets the eye line we’ll draw an arc over to the matching point on the other side of the face at the fourth eye division. The peak of this arc will be at approximately 2/3 to 3/4 of the distance between the eye line and the brow line and will indicate the bottom edges and outer corners of the upper eyelids.

Mark inner curves of eyes

Reilly eye height step 16

We can now draw a curve from the first eye division mark on the brow line to the second eye division mark on the eye line to give us the inner corner of the left upper eyelid. We’ll also draw a curve that mirrors this one, from the fourth eye division mark on the brow line, to the third eye division mark on the eye line to give us the matching inner corner of the right upper eyelid.

Indicate the eyeballs

Reilly Abstraction step 17

At this point, we can also indicate the eyeballs by drawing circles (or spheres, as we preferably want to be thinking in 3-D!) between the points representing the inner and outer corners of the eyes, we defined in the previous two steps. It’s helpful to draw a horizontal line a little below the brow line. This helps to line up the tops of the eyeballs. The bottoms of the eyeballs should sit as if they’re resting on the upper cheekbone rhythm line and the outer muzzle.

Reilly Abstraction step 18

From the points where the temple rhythm lines pass through the brow line, we’ll draw a similar curve to the one we drew in step 15, to mark out the occipital ridge. However, this one will have a slightly shallower peak. It reaches approximately 1/4 of the distance between the brow line and the hairline.

Indicate the front plane of the forehead

Reilly Abstraction step 19

Next, we’ll represent the front plane of the forehead. Draw a circle in the middle of the forehead. With the top of the circle touching the hairline and the bottom of the circle touching the middle of the eye line.

Mark the nose

To draw the nose, we’ll start by defining the underside of the nose and the nostrils. We’ll draw a short upward arc between the two points where the two vertical lines representing the width of the nose intercept with the nose line and a slightly shallower downward arc between the same two points to indicate the bottom of the nose.

Draw the nostrils

Reilly Abstraction step 21

To delineate the nostrils and the septum, we’ll draw two curves mirroring each other, as shown, inside the nose shape we created in step 20.

Define the nose ridge

Nose ridge step 22

To define the nose ridge, we’ll start at the top of the nose curves we created in step 20. Draw lines, curving upwards and slightly inwards, running parallel to the midline. As these lines start to extend beyond the eye line, we’ll curve them back out to finish at the second and third eye division marks on the brow line. This gives us the glabella.

Draw sides of nose

Side of nose step 23

Where the nose ridge lines intersect with the eye line, draw curves that arc down and finish at the points that mark the width of the nostrils on the nose line. These indicate the sides of the nose.

Draw the mouth

Draw the mouth step 24

Define the shape of the mouth with a very stretched out “M” shape, to indicate the middle of the mouth. Another stretched “M” shape above this indicates the top of the upper lip. While a simple line with upturned ends indicates the bottom lip.

Draw the ears

To complete the ears, draw curves, arcing down from the tips of the ears to where the nose line intersects with the sides of the head.

Draw the top of the head

Top of the head step 26

To help indicate the bulge of the cranial mass Will draw a couple of shallow curves, starting from the tops of the ears, just above the brow line and meet in the top corners of the square at the brow line.

Refine the features and erase the guides

To finish, erase the guidelines to reveal the schematic of the finished Reilly head in all its glory! To continue to add depth and realism to the head, you will need to add features, then establish a lightsource and start shading. The appearance of features will depend on the model you’ve chosen to draw, but the Reilly Abstraction acts as a framework for you to place features accurately. Once you have drawn the features, choose your favourite shading technique. Then add light and shadow to the face to establish the highlights, midtones and shadow tones.

Limitations of the Reilly Abstraction and further reading

Now, a few caveats; unlike Loomis, Reilly didn’t write any books documenting his methods. It was largely left to his students to do it for him. This has meant that there are several variations of The Reilly Abstraction out there as his material has been handed down through the years.

Jack Faragasso was a direct student of Reilly’s. His book, “Mastering Drawing the Human Figure: From Life, Memory and Imagination” appears to be the nearest to the source material that I can find. However, even he seems to have veered off to develop his own variation.

A number of notable artists today use the Reilly Abstraction to inform their own working practices. Although they generally seem to have it in their heads as a mental construct and simplify the process to what they need. Nathan Fowkes’ book “How to Draw Portraits in Charcoal” quite closely follows the Reilly Abstraction. So it’s particularly worth reading in this regard.

Steve Huston and Chris Legaspi also appear to be influenced by the Reilly Abstraction in their respective books; “Figure Drawing For Artists: Making Every Mark Count” and “Life Drawing For Artists” although they clearly have their own distinct methods which are worth studying.


There you have it! The Reilly Abstraction is quite intimidating at first glance but once you’ve internalised it, it makes a lot of sense. So stick with it! However, just remember that at the end of the day, these are just guidelines, not rules and you will have to play about with the proportions to capture the likeness of your model.