Character Design: High Eyeline is Now a Thing

Or, more to the point: high eyeline is now A Thing in character design and we olds need to just get used to it.

The Natural Proportions of the Head

If you look at a human head, you’ll see the eyeline is halfway down the head–exactly in the center between the top of the head and the bottom of the chin. Indeed, if you look up tutorials on drawing the head, often this is the very first proportional relationship they mention: “The eyes are halfway down the head.” You can see that shown here in these heads from (I believe) Burne Hogarth’s book, Drawing the Human Head.

Interestingly, though, a very very common proportional mistake that you see people make–especially beginners, students, etc.–is placing the eyeline far too high. Or, put another way: making the face way too big relative to the overall size of the head. This is such a common error that Betty Edwards devotes a section of her text Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain to the phenomenon under the heading, “The mystery of the chopped-off skull.” Here’s a student example from the text (L) and a version that she’s corrected (R).

As many people have pointed out, it’s a tendency that makes a lot of sense. Humans naturally ascribe a lot of importance to the face–it’s how we identify people, how we know what they’re thinking, etc.–so we tend to make it bigger in our drawings than it actually is. There’s a similar tendency (for similar reasons, one assumes) to diminish the area of the head behind the facial features as well. Edwards demonstrates these errors and corrects them here:

High Eyeline as a Deliberate Choice

If you look at the Edwards examples above, they clearly look “wrong.” That is: the artist was attempting to capture the naturalistic proportions of the human head but failed to do so because they placed the eyeline too high (or, again, put another way: they made the face proportionally too large relative to the overall size of the head). Indeed when I, as a teacher, would see student work that looked like this I would talk to the student about the basic proportions of the head, placing the eyeline half-way down, making sure to place the ear correctly and have sufficient mass behind it, etc. 

Several years ago, however, I began seeing a lot of student-drawn characters with high eyeline placement that was clearly not the result of mistake but part of the the overall character design idiom the student was interested in. If you look around at character designs in current North American cartooning you can see examples of this by highly accomplished artists. These aren’t errors; the eyeline is placed high deliberately. For example, here’s a character from Britt Sabo’s webcomic All Night:

Obviously the artist here is a highly accomplished cartoonist. These design choices are deliberate. Here’s another example (I can’t remember where I found this. My apologies to the artist):

Again, the proportions of the head here are deliberate design choices.

These examples of course may look odd to you if you’re mostly accustomed to the neo-realistic character designs of a lot of North American superhero books. Here, for example, is an Olivier Coipel drawing of Spider-Man. Note the placement of the eyeline and the generally naturalistic proportions of the head:

Even with superhero books, though, if you look a little bit out on the fringes you start to see some high eyeline creeping in. Here’s a panel from Javier Pulido’s run on She-Hulk:

It’s not radical in this case, but it’s there. Maybe not incidentally, but there was a very vocal subset of fans who absolutely hated Pulido’s art on this series. (I vehemently disagree. It’s amazing stuff.) 

It’s not as if no artist has ever fooled around with where to put the eyeline. It’s pretty common in cartoonier, more abstracted designs and of course in things like caricature. Here’re examples by Bruce Timm and Tom Richmond:

In both of these cases, the eyeline has been placed high in order to emphasize the mass of the chin/jaw. And, obviously, both cases are far less naturalistic than something like the Coipel drawing.

This kind of manipulation of eyeline placement has been around forever, but what I was curious about was the seemingly more recent integration of the high eyeline into otherwise more naturalistic character designs. Where was this coming from style-wise?

Origins of the Modern High Eyeline Design?

So, this is purely speculation, but I’ve got two candidates for the possible origins of the high eyeline style that seems to be gaining some traction among newer/younger cartoonists.

First: North American animation–specifically North American film animation of from 1999/2000. To give credit where it’s due, irascible animator John Kricfalusi seems to have been first to spot the “’99 eyeline.” Mid-way through this post on drawing women’s hair, he delves into “short foreheads and carved off craniums,” citing designs from The Iron Giant and The Road to El Dorado

I’d throw another 1999 film into the mix as well–one that was far more widely seen than either of those two (at the time anyway), Tarzan.

Also, though: manga.  You can see the high eyeline in evidence in some popular manga of around the same period. Someone far more knowledgeable about Manga than I will probably be able to cite an earlier origin point, but the artist who comes immediately to mind for me is Kaoru Mori–and specifically her series Emma from 2002. Do I even need to draw the parallel lines on this one?

You can see this design choice still in her most recent work A Bride’s Story (an absolutely amazing series, by the way. Highly recommended!). If anything, it’s become even more pronounced here with the face expanding horizontally as well:

I recently reread the first volume of Planetes and noted that Makoto Yukimura’s characters also have the high eyeline thing:

So, maybe this was part of some overall trend going on in manga at the time… and the animation stuff in North America was just a case of “parallel evolution.” Who knows?

So What of It?

If you think about it, diminishing the areas above and behind the face makes a lot of sense. We cartoonists are always on about “simplification and abstraction” and making every line convey information, right? Well, those non-face areas are pretty much dead weight when it comes to actually conveying information about the character. We include those areas in our characters so they look “right,” but what looks “right” to us is in a large part a function of what we’re exposed to–and how well the artist integrates things like exaggeration and playing with proportions into the overall character designs.

There are for sure examples I’ve seen where losing mass above and behind the face just looks weird. For example, this panel in Providence definitely stood out enough to me that I stopped reading and took note of it:

But when integrated into a character as a part of a well thought-through character design, it works beautifully. Here’s an example by the great Naoki Urasawa:

And if this looks “weird” to you… well, like I said, you may just have to get used to it!  

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