My last post (you can read it here) talks about starting to draw the human figure by focusing on simple shapes and proportions. I believe, that the next step in building your drawing confidence in this area, is using a setting or an environment for your human figure.

The sketchbook format is the PERFECT medium to trial and error drawing the human figure within its environment.

If you have ever flipped through my very early sketchbooks you will see that there are practically NO humans and lots of objects. This is rightly the place to start if you are a sketchbook beginner for lots of reasons. The thought of drawing a human let alone capturing the likeness was always a daunting one. To break this down I started to explore how I could add people into my sketching. I have included a 7 minute video at the top of this article (grab a brew to watch!) talking you through my personal progress and confidence building when it has come to drawing the human figure. I have gradually built human figure sketching into the environments of my sketchbook and you can too!

Why do I think this is a good next step?

  • You keep your drawing momentum going. A sketchbook page can have many things going on within it.
  • You take the pressure of yourself to capture a perfect human character on the page.
  • Drawing the environment within which the figure moves, sits, or interacts with, supports you tell the story without needing to focus too much on the accurate detail of a human figure. The brain picks up the clues from the narrative references of your picture! The dinner plate in front of the little girl in the video is a simple circle line with fork drawn in less than a minute but immediately referencing where the subjects are.
  • You build your experience. As you can see from the first sketch I talk about in the video, I begin with shapes and proportions and then by the end have evolved into exploring human figures more confidently.
  • You can use the environment to support you gauge the proportion and dynamics of your figure.
  • You develop a distinctive figure drawing style that compliments everything else that you draw.

So taking our basic knowledge of drawing shapes and proportions on a page here are my guidance notes on how to evolve your people drawing skills within different environments.

  1. Start small and simple to begin with. 

I love how placing a person in an environment brings added credibility to your drawing! These two sketches depicting a Saturday morning were done in my small sketchbook. Watching TV and going for a bike ride. The yellow chair and bicycle help me anchor my figures.  Forget for a moment that the sketches themselves may feel or seem advanced. It helps to look for abstract shapes, the angles and curves and aspects of the person and objects surrounding them that help you get them down on paper. I used the clothes (folds of lumpy dressing gown) and angular shapes of the bicycle to help me in these two sketches but also broke down the shapes I could see. Remember too that a good place to start when sketching people is with friends and family as you are more likely to be comfortable with them. The small sketchbook format can support you draw faster than a larger piece of paper.

2. Use your sketchbook format to practise looking. Draw a stick man! 

Observation and practise is key. An exercise I run through on my Sketch from Scratch People course is a page full of human characters in different poses but drawn in the space of 30 seconds to a minute per person on the page. A sketchbook page is the best place for this type of exercise. This may very well start with stick men, which is not a bad place to start. I envy a good stick man! Look as much as you possibly can, as this will support your brain develop your hand – memory skill. Imagine the stick man as the skeleton of the figure you are drawing.  One of the earlier exercises I tried when learning, was to draw a stick man inside a photograph in a magazine. Grab a marker pen, some greaseproof paper (or tracing paper) and try it. You’ll be surprised how oddly shaped the stick man may look when you see the marker pen stickman. Limbs may look distorted because of foreshortening or the angles of body parts may look odd.

Don’t worry about any specific details. Now take that stickman principle and sketch around it whilst placing it within an environment. I know it may not seem like it but the below sketch of cartwheels was built on this premise. Even the trees are a bit stick man. Look how simple the environment was to create around the figure. A horizon line and brush strokes for trees with a splash of green colour.


3. Sketch the same person in different poses! 

Moving on from the little girl cartwheeling, I also stop to discuss drawing the same person in different poses in my video. I think that this is a great technique to employ because people never stay still! At the start of live people sketching I’d get frustrated that I couldn’t capture people quick enough so had to think how I could convey this on a page.

Taking a double page spread of your sketchbook split it into 3 sections and use the occasion to practise! A couple of things you can focus on to support you.

a) If the figure is moving, loosen up your style. Your lines should be loose and applied relatively quickly. (Remember the stick men exercise of between 30 seconds to 1 minute? This feeds into your experience of sketching quickly.) You may opt for ink as you grow in confidence which is a great medium for conveying movement.  I particular love how the artist @suhitasketch achieves fluidity in her human sketching using ink and bright colour. I also use paint too, a light wash that flows with the shape of the person sketched to emphasise movement.  Sketches will appear more dynamic, even if the subject is only playing Lego or watching TV. Simple poses can often be the most impactful.

b)Pay attention to the fold of the clothes. Observing where they fold or hang can make a big difference to the dynamic of a picture. Zig zags imply creasing or bends of a body. Skirts or dresses are more complex. Different textures ranging from wool through to cotton may enable you to use different types of pencil stroke.  You may also want to use the way light falls across figures to help you (as I have done in the sketch of the two children in chairs!) Keep it simple.

c) Practise movement by changing the gestures for the sketches.  Arm angles may change. The head may turn to different sides. Try and portray them in different poses to convey movement.

But most of all practise whenever and however you can.

My one piece of advice is that you may as well as enjoy it and build the human figure into the anatomy of your daily sketching.  Get used to going through a process that helps you uncover your style even if its a bumpy journey to get there finding it.

“Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself.” The Picture of Dorian Grey. Oscar Wilde

How right Oscar Wilde is. We can all aim to become perfectionists when sketching the human figure but its way more fun putting our individual interpretation on the people we depict.

More on sketching the human figure in “Sketch from Scratch. People” course over on my learning platform. You can find more information here. Or simply sign up to Emily’s Notebook community to access more free resources here.