How to Draw People with Power, Dynamism, and Accuracy
||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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
Source: Adapted from an article by Dan Gheno.