Drawing the Human Figure: Getting the Proportions Right

Drawing the human figure has been part of artists classical training since antiquity, and for good reasons: It is an excellent way to improve your hand-eye coordination, and it is believed that if you are able to accurately draw the human figure, you will be able to draw almost everything.

But, if you have already been to a life drawing class, you have certainly noticed that one of the most challenging parts of figure drawing is getting all the proportions right.

Check out these tips on how to draw human proportions to improve not only your figure drawing skills, but also your overall artistic abilities.

Vitruvian Man

Leonardo Da Vinci Vitruvian Man via Wikimedia

The Vitruvian Man & classic proportions

This Leonardo Da Vinci drawing is accompanied by notes that give a series of ideal measurements for the human body, based on the Roman architect Vitruvius works. For example:

  • The length of the outspread arms is equal to the height of a man, hence the square that surrounds the figure.
  • The length of the hand is one-tenth of the height of a man.
When drawing the figure, it is easier to refer to a unit of measurment that allows you to compare the length of the different parts. The most convenient measurement unit, that begin in classic proportions, is the height of the head: from top to chin.

The classic proportions guidelines date back to the Roman-Greek era and were also used again during the Renaissance period. These proportions were based on an height of 8 “heads tall” for the figure — this is an idealized model. In reality, very few people are 8 heads tall: An average adult is likely closer to 7 to 7 1/2 “heads tall.” Anyway, this measurement of the height gives a good starting point. Take note of variations from these classic proportions to help make your drawing closer to the model likeness.

One of the first thing you can try, if your model is standing, is determine how many heads tall the model is. This can be done by holding your pencil at arm’s length. Many people will differ quite a bit from the ideal proportions, so you will notice, if you are practicing life drawing, that there is a great deal of variations in body shapes. Also, human proportions will change with age, as children have a much larger head to body ratio than adults. These differences in body shapes and types are what makes figure drawing both interesting and useful!

Proportions of the nude male by Michelangelo Buonarroti

Proportions of the nude male by Michelangelo Buonarroti via Wikimedia

Note: The classical proportions of the male with an height of 8 heads is an idealized proportion.

These proportions are a basic guideline to place keys elements on your drawing:

  • As you can see on Michelangelo drawing, the pelvic bone, attaching the legs is situated on line number 4.
  • The knees are situated on line number 6.
  • The arms are three head long and if they are hanging down, the tip of the finger will be situated at about the middle of the upper leg. and the elbow is situated more or less at the waistline.
  • The navel is at an equal distance from the nipples and the crotch.
  • The shoulders are three heads wide for the male and a bit narrower for the female. 

Difference between male and female:

There are a few differences between male and female bodies. In particular, the female body has a higher ratio of fat/muscle, which is why female bodies are usually a bit more curvy. The hips are also wider in the female than in the male model, and the chest is slightly lower in the female. The thighs will be wider in the female body and feet will be proportionally smaller than on the male model.

Human body proportions by Ingeborg Bernhard

Human body proportions by Ingeborg Bernhard via Wikimedia

A word about foreshortening:

You can try to draw the 8 heads divisions before drawing your figure and place a few strategic marks, like placing the waist in section 3 and the knees in section 6, but this will only work if the model is standing. If you are drawing a more complicated pose with foreshortening, then it will change the relative proportions of the figure. Every part that is closer to you will appear larger.

Foreshortening can be intimidating at first but you might come to enjoy it, as it sometimes makes you draw more accurate drawings because you don’t have a preconception of what the body should look like.

Drawing of a reclining figure with foreshortening

Drawing of a reclining figure with foreshortening by Sandrine Pelissier

Learn more techniques on drawing the human form by joining the Craftsy class Expressive Figure Drawing: Conveying Mood & Emotion. Or, discover how to draw the most eloquent, expressive aspect of a person, the face, with the FREE downloadable guide: Drawing the Human Face: A Primer.

What do you find most challenging when drawing the figure?