Figure drawing techniques

In this article I’ll share with you tips, techniques and advice on figure drawing, and drawing the human form.

Drawing the human form is a complex endeavour. As such,
this article is by no means a complete guide; it is meant more as an introduction to the core concepts which I feel are the most essential.

Count your heads

An invaluable figure drawing technique is the use of heads to measure the proportions of the body.

A lot of artists like to use eight heads to measure the human form. Considering how varied each human body is, there are no hard and fast rules as to how to divide the body up; it’s completely arbitrary. However, to keep things simple, we’ve used eight heads to divide up the pair above.

  1. The first head is the actual height of the head. It starts at the top of the head and ends at the chin.
  2. The second head starts at the chin and ends at the nipple area.
  3. The third head starts at the nipples and ends around the naval
    or solar plexus area.
  4. The fourth head starts at the naval and ends around the genitals.
  5. The fifth head starts at the genitals and ends mid-thigh.
  6. The sixth head starts mid-thigh and ends at the lower knee.
  7. The seventh head starts at the lower knee and ends mid-shin.
  8. The eighth and final head starts mid-shin and ends at the bottom of the foot.

As you may have gathered, dividing the body up into heads is a useful method of measuring bodily proportions. If you’re drawing someone from imagination, it’s especially useful, so that you can confirm certain parts aren’t disproportionate compared to other parts.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. For instance, you can increase the number of heads to create a tall person. Conversely, you can reduce the number of heads if you wish to draw a shorter person. It’s also a good idea to reduce the number of heads when drawing children. Drawing children is however beyond the scope of this article.

Stick figures

How to draw the human form - stick figures
Drawing stick figures allows us to build a simple skeleton without getting bogged down in the details.

Drawing stick figures may seem like a childish activity, but if you can draw them well, you’re already half-way to drawing an actual human.

You can draw several stick figures to experiment with and work out different poses, and you can use a stick figure as a preliminary sketch before you start adding more detail.

I see a lot of beginners want to rush into the details immediately, without any preliminary sketching to work out the proportions and composition of the picture. They start drawing the face before they even know where the rest of the body will be. If you’re good, you might get away with this, but if you’re not as experienced, better to have some guidelines to work with.

Know your anatomy

You’ll likely find it useful to understand muscle and bone anatomy. As you take the time to study anatomy, you’ll learn to identify the shape and form of the underlying structure of the body, which will inform your figure drawing. For instance, consider the bicep muscle, and the way it appears to increase in size as it’s flexed (when curling a dumbbell for example). It’s useful to know how the muscle looks and acts in both its flexed and relaxed modes.

Figure drawing techniques - A quick muscle study.
A quick muscle study.

My favourite way to learn anatomy is to study anatomy diagrams, and by study, I mean copy!

Gender differences

The physical difference between men and women is worthy of a whole topic in itself. Again, these differences aren’t strict rules, but more of a guideline to help you determine how feminine or masculine you wish to make your subject. Below, I list a few of the most common differences.

Curvy vs angular

Generally speaking, women tend to be curvy, while men tend to be angular. Biologically, this makes sense, since women naturally have a higher fat percentage than men. A lower percentage of fat means muscles and bones are going to be more obvious and outstanding. Muscles look and feel much harder than soft fat. The way this can be translated into figure drawing is by using harder angular lines for men while using curvier lines for women.

Shoulder, waist, and hip ratios

Figure drawing techniques - different hip to waist ratios
Different hip-to-waist ratios. Here, we measure only width, but circumference measurements may differ to width measurements.

One obvious difference between men and women, is the shape and size of their shoulders, waists, and hips. Men tend to have wider shoulders than women, while women tend to have wider hips than men. Not only are their sizes different, but the ratios between them are also different. According to Wikipedia, a healthy hip-to-waist ratio is 0.7 for women and 0.9 for men. For women, you could even take it a step further by using the golden ratio, which is about 0.618 in terms of the hip-to-waist ratio. The golden ratio is seen throughout nature and is supposedly the most aesthetically pleasing ratio. Try experimenting with the effects of it in your figure drawing.

Lines of action and gesture

Gesture lines are a more advanced technique than the ones discussed so far. What are gesture lines? Typically, drawing gesture lines is similar to drawing stick figures, but they are not so much a structural guide as an guide to the ‘action’. It’s these lines that show the flow, movement, or gesture of the figure. It’s useful to lead the drawing with a single gesture line, or ‘line of action’, which everything else can follow.

Figure drawing techniques - A dancer drawn with gesture lines, lead by a single line of action
A dancer drawn with gesture lines, led by a single line of action.

Try looking at the real people around you throughout your day and mentally drawing a single line of action through their body. For instance, notice the difference between someone who is slouching, versus someone who is sitting up perfectly straight.

Gesture may or may not be used in conjunction with the stick figure technique discussed above.

Models and references

Use references constantly! As the saying goes, “No man is an island.” The same goes for artists. No artist’s brain contains an exhaustive encyclopedia of imagery to draw from. Here are a few ways you can find figure drawing references:

  • Draw yourself in the mirror, or take photos of yourself.
  • Use your friends or family as models.
  • Find reference images using search engines. (Be sure to use Google’s ‘Usage rights’ filter, depending on how you plan to use the image.)
  • Get a mannequin doll.
  • Use a 3D modelling app such as blender to create the perfect pose.

Summary

To summarise:

  • Heads are a useful measuring guide.
  • Use stick figures as your ‘base’ layer.
  • Study anatomy!
  • Know what makes people masculine or feminine.
  • Use gesture.
  • Always use references.

That about sums up some, but not all of the techniques I used to draw figures. I hope you’ve found it useful! If you do, don’t forget to share! Cheers!

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