How to draw stick men?


Yes. Believe it or not stick men and drawing them form an important part of learning how to draw the human figure. Especially if you are a beginner.

In 1912 the art world was outraged by a painting called “Nude Descending a Staircase” by a surrealist artist called Marcel DuChamp.  I remember seeing this painting at the age of 19 and being equally affronted that something that looked like multiple cardboard men had become such a sensation, especially having come from studying the Renaissance painters and Masters on human shape and form. His semi abstract nude, however, had an extraordinary sense of movement. Duchamp shifted attention from art work per se and managed to capture the ideas that lay behind them. We can still tell that this is a human form and shape.

Why include this painting in this article and what does it have to do with stick men and drawing the human figure? To me this painting symbolises not only deconstructing the human anatomy but also stripping it right back to basic shapes. It is not particularly transcribed in an accurate way. The genius result, however, is that the nude descending is still recognisable as a human form.

The stick man for me is as basic as you can get. Everyone can draw a stick man and it is usually the most popular comment I hear “I can just about draw a stick man.”

Let’s start there then.

I’m going to show you how I use the stick man as my starting point and then build a representational human in the below video.


One of the first things I have noticed about drawing stick men is that you quickly define what type of human drawing you could finally produce. You could be representational with your stick man or more cartoon like.  I seem to veer between the two in my sketchbooks. I like to get as close to accurate as I can and enjoy deconstructing an image in order to capture it.

If you feel artist’s block coming on from the thought of this idea, or you are a total beginner new to all of this, then pull out a magazine and draw the stick man shape you see on the page with a marker pen over a human figure. I show you how to do this in my online Sketch from Scratch course.

The important thing to note about drawing the human figure is you need to find ways to de-mystify it. Everyone develops a different approach and I’m sharing mine.  In the video accompanying this article I run through a very basic 3 step approach. Take a human image. Use a photograph or magazine and then, looking at the picture visualise how you would draw a simple stick man shape to represent the drawing.

  1. Start with a simple stick man as I have done. Try and give them something to do. Mine is getting into the water to swim. If you have more time, practise lots and lots of stick men drawings on the page. Doodle them on a page. Keep it simple. Play with them on a page over and over again. Draw a page of different stick men in different poses. Seriously.
  2. The second step involves “fleshing” out your sketch. Remembering the article I wrote on shape and proportion, now start to fill out your stick man using shapes and blocks, remembering to add curves for the limbs and basic filled out shapes. Don’t worry that you are scribbling on or around the actual initial stick man. This exercise is all about getting you used to building layers around the stick man shape. Again as you familiarise yourself with step 2 of this process take some time simply quickly sketching shapes and form on a page. You may find that by the end of an exercise like this one you abandon needing to draw a stick man to help you.
  3. The third step is all about refining your sketch further. What started off as a stick man may now look to be a fleshed out drawing with shape and tone. Think about the context of the environment in which your figure sits. Are they clothed, are they wearing something bright or colourful, are they sitting or doing something specific? Build the layer. I’ve kept mine simple in her swim suit. Don’t be afraid to use lots of lines and marks on the paper to support you build shape, you can always rub these out later!

As you become adept at sketching the human figure understanding the anatomy that lies beneath it will become of more interest and your drawing will become more selective. Thank goodness that Leonardo did all the heavy lifting for us when it came to anatomical studies. His anatomical studies of muscles and arms is only the start of an extensive fascination of dissecting the human body on paper.  As you become more familiar with the human body your drawing practise will become easier and more fluid so as you draw make sure you really pay attention and look at the anatomy in front of you. Life drawing is an excellent activity to support you develop this knowledge!  You will instinctively be able to head to drawing directly on the paper in your own style as you get to know the subject material better.

Believe it or not basic stick men can get you started on complicated human poses too.  When you get stuck just imagine the stick man pose and build your drawing from there. You can draw lines at a slant to describe tilts of shoulders or limbs for example. This too can help you work out foreshortening and perspective by drawing lines relative to a pose.

As a sketch artist, you don’t necessarily need masses of detail to hint at a person in a sketch. A basic skeletal frame in the shape of a stick man can sometimes be all that is necessary for the brain to work out that it is a human in an environment. The human figures you may draw can simply be blocks on a page with left out details but hinted at by their clothes or gestures. This is excellent to use when you want to portray people at a distance or figures in groups for example.

I explore all of this in my online sketch course taking you from a stick man to a human figure in 3 simple steps. Check it out here if you are interested in learning how to start drawing the human figure. The course includes an hour tutorial as well as supporting pdfs to get you started.

Thanks for reading!