Drawing the human figure! At some point you will find yourself wanting to draw or paint the human figure.

It’s my nemesis to be honest.

An ambition of mine is to be able to sketch human figures quickly in my sketchbook as I do with everything else.

Where should one start learning to draw the human figure?

With this thought in mind, I’m challenging myself (as well as you!) to break down the process of drawing a human figure. I want to understand what techniques and tools I need to adopt to be able to develop my own style in order to understand this challenging subject area.

I draw great comfort that I fall in line with the great artists over the centuries who have also struggled with this area of drawing. Van Gogh, for example,  began his prolific art career drawing figures in static poses. During the first two years of his career he spent ALL of it mastering drawing. He struggled with problems of proportion as you can see from the drawing on the left below.

Van Gogh

The head is drawn overly large as are the shoes and hands (a problem I affiliate with). Compare this earlier sketching rendition of the carpenter on the left (Carpenter, 1880. Rijksmuseum Kroller-Muller, Otterlo) with a sketch, two years later of an old man sitting in a chair (Old Man Reading 1882, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) where he’d clearly mastered his proportion problems.  It took him two years of practise! Perhaps, herein lies the first lesson to take forward on consistently practising. (I love uncovering the stories of the great artists by the way as it teaches us so much about the journey they undertook to get to the famous artworks we come to know, love and respect.)

Drawing the human figure, in theory, should not be any less challenging than drawing anything else. All drawing is based on proportion. Landscapes, sketching objects or a still life, buildings and street scenes and humans! Drawing humans depends heavily on correct proportions – more so perhaps than other drawings.  For example, ever found human heads challenging to draw?! I do! Its baffling why this is so. In answer to why this is, we over emphasise the features, not the foreheads and hair because that is where our day to day focus lies when interacting with one another.  We have to re-train our brains to understand the science of proportion in an unemotive way. That is why you will often see me sketching the head last in my drawings! I need the rest of the body to gauge the size of the head.

So the first lesson for the beginner getting started drawing the human figure, has got to be a focus on simple shapes and then on proportion. The American artist, Burne Hogarth stated that “There are three kinds of forms in the human figure: Ovoid forms – egg, ball and barrel masses; Column forms – cylinder, cone; Spatulate forms – box, slab and wedge blocks.” So true!

I will be exploring how to use simple shapes to get started and then use them to build an understanding of proportion.

  1. For those of you that have followed me for a while you will have seen me advocate mark making as part of your regular sketchbook habit.  You can read more about this here. For preparing to sketch the figure I have filled a page, as Burne Hogarth advocates, with spheres, triangles, circles and lines to practise.

Simple shapes

2. Have a go simply filling a few pages with a variety of shapes.  On a new page then have a go putting some of these shapes together into a human body likeness as I have done below. Use reference photos of people. Practise drawing cylinders to support you start thinking in a 3D way. I’ve used baby squares for hands and triangles or rectangles for legs. You could even trace over magazine pictures with a marker pen to get a feel for proportion and shape.

Human shapes

3. Just to encourage you that employing this methodology works, here is a run through of a page of figures I have drawn as a time lapse. (You can see me rubbing out my second head drawing – which is something I am still practising to get right.) Notice how I draw the figures employing refined rectangles and shapes. I always find it helpful seeing the shapes in the drawing. I even employ this technique despite the challenge of foreshortening and perspective of the figure sitting on the rock. Just look beyond your literal understanding of the scene – i.e girl sitting on rock, and simply look at the size and spacing of the shapes.

When stuck always think first about the shapes that you see!

I would recommend setting aside a double page of your sketchbook and having a go sketching multiple figures. Perhaps the same person but from different angles or a mix of figures. I’ve filled an entire sketchbook full of figure drawing practise which I share in my online “Sketch from Scratch” course, drawing people which you can access here!

4. As a sketchbook artist I have learned to draw quickly. I’m a big fan of getting as much as possible down on paper. Any technique to help me do this is welcomed.  When it comes to the human figure there are a few rules that are helpful.

Use a way to measure the body. For example, the adult body consists of eight “head sizes” in length. Break down your shape sketching further by filling in detail with further shapes. Like this.

Basic Proportions

Of course you won’t go around drawing like this in reality but this is the basic first step to get you thinking about proportions. Like Van Gogh you will then need to practise.  The other benefit of this technique is that it gives you enough room on the page.

How many of us have started to draw and realise that we run out of room to complete a full figure? Most frustrating! When starting to draw try to learn to tackle the human figure in the whole.  You will then naturally be able to gauge sizing and shaping as you become more experienced. You could even start by simply drawing a stick man on the page to ensure you get everything down.  (You can see I have sketched in my stick man lines above. They help anchor the drawing further.)

A few other points to note. The limbs! Legs take up almost half the body length on average with knees half way with thighs rounder and thicker than the calves. Thank goodness most legs are covered! Arms curve inwards (again think about the mark making techniques you employed becoming confident drawing curves). I also pay attention to the hands and feet, but these I will cover in a separate blog post.

In summary. As a beginner, start by scribbling and drawing shapes applying the principles outlined above. Even keep it as basic as drawing a stickman to start with and building the layers.  Breakdown the steps to get to the final outcome. Remember too that in time you will automatically be able to gauge the figure in front of you.

I look forward to sharing more posts on the subject following this one!

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