How to Draw People

How to Draw People with Power, Dynamism, and Accuracy

Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts by Victor Ambrus, pastel drawing.
Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts by Victor Ambrus, pastel drawing.

Drawing people is one of the most rewarding as well as one of the most challenging artistic pursuits. There is a combination of skills at play—from knowing how to render body position in a way that is anatomically correct and expressively engaging, to learning how to draw character and uniqueness in a sitter. Certainly there are details to consider—drawing hands or features—but it is best to start with gesture and proportion first.

To draw people, artists must first develop their observation skills. Successful people drawings are often simply a matter of seeing what is actually in front of you, and eking out the details that make a person distinctive and appealing. Because an entire narrative of a drawing is wrapped up in the body or face of a figure, when drawing people the artist must be aware of how gesture, expressive marks, and highlights and shadow can all communicate volumes to the viewer.

There are an incredibly varied number of ways to draw people, but accuracy and control will only happen as an artist develops their muscle memory and gets comfortable with all aspects of drawing people. The best way to get comfortable can be to take life drawing classes, where you learn how to draw real people who are posing in front of you. Self-portraiture is also a reliable way for you to draw people while staying in your comfort zone. And artists can also use drawing aids like mannequins to learn proportions and rudimentary poses, as well as to concentrate on a specific feature of the human body—for example, learning how to draw hands with a life-size model of a hand. An artist can also work from photographs when learning how to draw a person though that can be challenging because of the flatness of the image. The best way to grow by leaps and bounds when drawing people is to keep a sketchbook where you can practice your people drawing skills.

Drawing People Solidly and As If They Are Evaporating

Lady in Gray by Whistler, 1883-1884, gouache on brown paper mounted on card, 7 7/8 x 10 9/16.
Lady in Gray by Whistler, 1883-1884, gouache on brown paper mounted on card, 7 7/8 x 10 9/16.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s attention to the detail of ordinary life, it turned out, was very much in keeping with some of the leading thinking of his day. Early 19th-century art had been dominated by a competition between Classicism and Romanticism. By the 1840s, however, critics such as Baudelaire in Paris and John Ruskin in London were writing about the importance of painting and drawing the world as it was, and they encouraged artists to learn how to draw people as they saw them and to get involved in the appearances of day-to-day life.

Realism was in the air. The most audacious of the artists who followed this path was Gustave Courbet, whose powerfully convincing and highly original compositions were already exerting an influence. Courbet was the hero for many young artists, including Whistler’s new friends Henri Fantin-Latour and Alphonse Legros. Whistler settled down to study in the studio of Charles Gleyre, a classical painter, and spent a good deal of time making copies in the Louvre. But he was also an indefatigable sketcher of the world around him, and dedicated himself to drawing people in a huge variety, using varying line weight and density to create a sense of depth in his drawings.

In many of Whistler’s sketches it is important to note how sensitive the artist is to the power of suggestion–his willingness to understate detail and downplay the acute description of individual faces. In many drawings of figures, he would draw attention to the abstract and self-contained nature of the work. His elaborate hatching and entirely more fluid, linear approach makes his people drawings feel at times really solid or as if the figures are evaporating into the surrounding air. Whistler also took on the difficult and somewhat grim world of dockworkers and shipping hands as they toiled along the fetid mud banks of the Thames and the crumbling, rat-infested warehouses that stretched for miles eastward of the tower. In many of these works, Whistler resolved the buildings and figures to bold graphic elements and showed a willingness to draw people in which some sections of the work were left blank or understated.

Source: Adapted from an article by John A. Parks. 

People Drawings: What You Don’t See

Contour of a Woman Relaxing by Alex Zwarenstein, 2002, graphite, 20 x 30.
Contour of a Woman Relaxing by Alex Zwarenstein, 2002, graphite, 20 x 30.

When drawing anything even mildly complex, including drawing people, it helps to sketch in the parts you can’t see. Once your hand and mind are trained, these lines won’t be as necessary, although even the most accomplished artists lightly draw construction lines for helpful reference. These lines are easily erased or covered over later.

Examination of people drawings by accomplished artists will not turn up these lines, but whether they were ever sketched is a separate question-they may have been erased. Most skilled artists don’t need to draw them, but many will, just as reference. Leonardo faintly drew the hidden lines of machines and structures in his sketchbook so he could work their structures out in his mind and with his hand. That should be more than enough license for the rest of us.

Most drawing teachers will tell you that understanding what’s beneath the skin of a human figure will help you accurately learn how to draw people based on what is visible from the outside. Clothes obscure even the skin, so it’s not surprising that artists throughout history have started their compositions by first drawing the figures naked, then redrawing them clothed in the appropriate costume. Jacques-Louis David used this method, as did Thomas Eakins. Andrew Raftery, a contemporary printmaker and art instructor, takes this further by making nude models of figures in wax, sketching the resulting diorama, and then working up to a finished drawing.

Many artists’ sketchbooks include drawings of skulls, skeletons, and muscle groups, and all are exercising this approach: Draw what you don’t see but know is there.

There is value in drawing exactly what you see instead of what you know is there. Drawing people through observation instead of relying on preconceived notions is a crucial step in an artist’s early development. But extending a line you know is there through a form that sits in front of it is not a fatal compromise of this principle. The best way to accurately render the line of the road, even as it passes behind that picturesque barn or copse of woods, is to draw it.

Similarly, if a limb or even the torso of a figure is obscuring another limb (or a part of the torso), draw through the figure or limb and complete the line. You can erase it later.
Source: Adapted from an article by Bob Bahr.\


Realistic Drawings of People

Standing Nude by Pierre-Paul Prudhon, charcoal drawing heightened with white chalk on blue paper, 24 x 13¾.
Standing Nude by Pierre-Paul Prudhon, charcoal drawing heightened with white chalk on blue paper, 24 x 13¾.

You cannot study how to draw people body part by body part. You must look at its totality. How do we arrange everything into an organized, proportionate, fluid whole? First, I begin drawing people in an improvisational manner, trusting my gut and eyes as I rough it in.

Then, like many artists, I usually employ the head as my unit of measurement for my people drawings, judging it against the entire body and each major body part. After I’ve established that the parts work with the head, I countermeasure on a larger level by evaluating the major body parts against one another. To keep the confusion to a minimum, I look for body parts that are, on average, nearly equal in their measurements. I usually follow a checklist, first comparing the upper arm against the lower arm, then the upper leg against the lower leg and eventually each separate leg section against the torso.

Don’t be surprised if you have a hard time isolating the limbs into easily measurable, equal upper and lower segments. For the arm, try to visualize it beginning at the shoulder and ending at the knuckles of the hand. On the back of the arm, you will generally find the midpoint at the elbow. On the front side of the arm, you will usually find the midpoint at that large protrusion on the inner side of the arm, called the epicondyle of the humerus (the culprit that causes the funny tingling feeling after you’ve hit it).

When learning how to draw a person’s leg, think of it beginning at the hipbone and ending at the base of the heel. You will usually find the halfway point of the leg just below the kneecap or patella (P) on a front view; and on the back, located behind at the faint flexion line (as in Prud’hon’s Standing Nude) on the back of the knee. Both of these leg segments are very similar in length to the vertical distance that spans between the iliac crest and the collarbone-a particularly useful set of measurements when drawing a seated pose. All of these body parts are well balanced with one another, as you’ve probably already noticed if you practice yoga. Many of its parts are capable of folding neatly into one another, with the arms and legs able to evenly tuck into themselves and the torso into the limbs.

As always-and I can’t emphasize it enough-this canon of measurements is only a jumping-off point for when you are learning to draw people, giving you a place to start and something specific to base your judgments against. While looking at the model, ask yourself where the figure and its parts deviate from the so-called norm to really understand how to draw realistic people.
Source: Adapted from an article by Dan Gheno.


Learn How to Draw People: 15 Expert Tips on How to Draw a Person--an Artist Daily Free eBook

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Learn How to Draw People: 15 Expert Tips on How to Draw a Person


Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.