5 Tips for Drawing a Human Figure

Male figure drawing is definitely an interesting and fascinating activity, but there are specific challenges. The human body is very complex — there could be foreshortening, hands and feet are typically found difficult to draw, etc.

figure drawing, male Life Drawing by Sandrine Pelissier

Here are five tips to keep in mind when drawing figures.

1. Take some time to look.

The initial reflex, especially when poses are short for gesture drawing, is to rush into drawing without too much planning and try to get every detail. If you actually take a bit more time to look, you can decide what is necessary and what can be omitted in your drawing.

While you are looking at the model, you can also pay attention to the way the light is falling on the model as light and shade areas can be part of what you will choose to describe, even if it is a short pose drawing.

One of the first decisions to make while looking at the model will be the orientation of your paper (landscape or portrait) — this will depend on your figure height and width. Then you will need to make sure your drawing fits onto your paper.

2. Make sure that your drawing fits in the page.

A common and frustrating mistake when first learning how to draw figures is to start drawing the figure as a whole and then realize somewhere along the drawing process that there is not enough space to fit a hand or a foot.

Here are 2 techniques to use to ensure your drawing will fit on the paper:

  • Draw an external envelope of the figure, you can see it as a block of stone you would use if you were to carve the figure. Make it large enough for the entire figure to fit in it, and then refine it step by step.
  • Draw a quick sketch of the whole figure to help with getting the main proportions right, and then work on refining that quick sketch.
Life drawing, Sandrine Pelissier
Figure Drawing by Sandrine Pelissier

3. Get the proportions right.

Proportions can be challenging to get right, here are a few tips that can help with accuracy:

  • Imagine a line for the shoulders, the pelvis and the knees and look at the angle of those lines on your model and draw those lines on your paper. Getting these angles right helps with gesture.
  • Looking at the negative space can help, especially with complex poses.
  • The length of the body is about 7.5 to 8 heads long — you can check this to make sure the head is the right size on your drawing.
  • Instinctively, we often imagine that the hand is way smaller than the head, but actually the head is about the same length as the hand, and also about the same length as the foot without the toes.

blind drawings Therese Lydia Joseph

Life drawing quick “blind” sketches with markers by Therese Lydia Joseph

4. Make it fun!

If you become frustrated or bored with your drawings, you can try changing medium, I noticed that for some life drawing sessions if I had trouble with a medium and switched to a different one, things seemed to flow easier after that. Changing mediums can also make the life drawing process exciting again by experimenting.

Here are a few mediums to try:

  • Paint instead of drawing or add washes to describe the shadows.
  • Use colored pencils, Conté crayons, charcoal, markers.
  • Make a toned background with pencil or charcoal powder and carve out lighter areas with an eraser.
  • Draw directly with the dropper of an ink bottle.
Eddie life drawing by Anna du Bois
Eddie, Life Drawing with ink dropper by Anna du Bois

There are also simple exercises that you can try for the short poses that can actually produce very nice results:

  • Try “blind drawing,” or drawing without looking on your paper.
  • Draw with a continuous line.
  • Combine both.
Male Nude Sitting on a Pedestal

Male Nude Sitting on a Pedestal by Friedrich Overbeck

5. Ground your drawing.

If the model is sitting on a stool or leaning on something, draw at least a few lines so the figure doesn’t look like it is floating in space. Another way to ground the model is to draw his shadow. In the Friedrich Overbeck piece seen above, the pedestal and shadow are grounding the figure.

You might also enjoy our tips for finding and working with a figure model.

What is the biggest challenge you are facing with life drawing?

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