Monday Morning Art School: how to draw teeth and other anatomical details

Work big shapes to little shapes, and don’t perseverate on the details.
Skeleton, by Carol L. Douglas. Most of the time, our teeth are concealed behind our lips.
I’ve been in Buffalo this weekend. My son-in-law—the one who discovered Line-of-Action, the online figure-drawing class—showed me his sketchbook. One page was of human mouths.
“How do you draw teeth?” he asked me. The question points up one of the differences between working from a model and working from photos. People grin into photographs, but when painted from life, their mouths are almost always closed. It’s hard to hold a smile for any length of time. It rapidly degenerates into a rictus of pain.
I have a lot of old figure drawings and paintings on my laptop. I went through them looking for any teeth drawings. The only one I have is of the skeleton above. In fact, the only toothy paintings I can think of are those of Frans Hals, who made a specialty of laughing people. I don’t know his working method, but I assume he spent lots of time sketching people as they got smashed.
Michelle and I talking about polygamy, by Carol L. Douglas. Most of the time, we don’t show our teeth. This was a sketch I did while my model and I were chatting; as you can see, her hands are more important than her teeth.
The answer to Aaron’s question is the same for hands, ears, feet and other anatomical parts we generally skip right over: work from big shapes to little shapes. The hands, for example, have four very individual fingers, but they tend to fold and move in unison. You can always draw a rudimentary hand by thinking of it as a large folding shape with an appendage (the thumb) attached. Toes move in even closer coordination. Once you’ve established the big flipper shapes, break them down into smaller ones.
We perceive the human face as flat, because that’s the way it looks when we’re talking to another person. The face, however, isn’t flat, cylindrical, or even round. It’s a complex shape that can only be described by drawing.
Feet, by Carol L. Douglas. As individual as our toes are, they still tend to move in unison.
The front part of our teeth, however, form a cylinder. The visible edge of the biting surface of our teeth, then, is not a straight line, but part of the ellipsethat’s made by any round thing in space. In other words, it curves very slightly. Our top teeth close neatly over the bottom ones, making the lower ones essentially unseen.
You could draw each tooth individually, but teeth are very light in value compared to anything else on the human body. Because of this, we don’t pay much attention to their contours. Focus on cast shadows instead, and do not overstate the teeth.
Boy sleeping in church, by Carol L. Douglas. I miss those somnambulant teenagers every Sunday. Fingers fold as a unit, and the ear’s all-important.
Ears are far more important. Getting their position right is more than half the battle. The ear is behind the farthest attachment of the jaw. Immediately behind the ear is the mastoid process, where the muscles of your neck attach. The top of the ear lines up (more or less) with the brow, and the bottom with the bottom of the nose.
In fact, our ears are just about centered on the skull, and they’re pivotal, both figuratively and literally. We understand the movement of the head from the position of the ears as much as from anything else. When the model looks up, the ears seem to drop. When the model looks down, the ears are higher.