Learning how to draw figures for beginners can be something of a daunting challenge. If we are honest, it's not just beginners - I have met quite a few experienced artists that still have some reservations about drawing and painting a human figure. I have a few tips for the terrified to get you on your way, if you think you fall into this camp.
Why add people to your paintings?
Many painters love the idea of adding people to their paintings.
Why wouldn’t they?
Pop a person into a painting and you immediately draw the eye. We are fascinated by ourselves, it seems. A figure brings a sense of energy, movement, colour and scale. It is easier to imagine ourselves in a scene when the artist includes some sort of little figure to suggest that possibility.
Why is drawing people so hard?
When you ask beginners (and often the more experienced artist!) what they would most like to draw they often say people. Of course, people is also the answer you get when you ask what they think is the hardest thing to draw!
The human body is an impressively complex piece of engineering. So many parts that attach and move in specific and particular ways. Viewed simply as s a piece of machinery we are complicated. However, identical robots we are not. We are all the same, but not quite. The little nuanced differences are what make us individuals. And that is before you think of how expressive we are not just in facial features but in body language.
Of course its going to be tricky to capture all of this. And that’s why we overcomplicate it. In fact I am rather wishing I hadn’t put all those intricate ideas of anatomy into your head. As beginners, this is not helpful. And actually, we don’t need to be able to articulate it all.
I think you will be surprised at how few marks you need to suggest the idea of a person in a painting. I’ll get to that later but first I have some strategies to make the whole idea of adding a person to your artwork seem a little more approachable. (Nothing to do with the study of anatomy!)
So where to begin?
How to start learning to draw people
Draw easy people in a sketchbook
The best place to begin learning how to draw people is in a sketchbook. Before you worry about trying to incorporate them in a painting have a bit of a play in a sketchbook to build up some confidence.
The sketchbook is a place of safety. The name itself declares that you are under no pressure to produce a magnificent art piece of staggering perfection. You can try something out and if it is a disaster, merely turn the page and begin again.
Don’t choose a fancy, expensive sketchbook. In fact even some sheets of loose copier paper might be just as good.
You deserve the right to make some spectacularly terrible drawings. That in itself can be quite fun... and you never know, you might just make one or two that aren’t so bad.
Draw small people
No I don’t mean just draw children, although I have to say of all types of people to draw they are my favourite! I mean that it is wise to choose a smallish sketchbook to learn to draw people in.
A smart expensive sketchbook is intimidating to be sure, but so is a very big one. You want something you can finish easily in a short time span. Working small also has the very strong advantage of forcing you to simplify what you see. Remember what we were saying about how complicated we tend to make things? A good antidote to this is to give yourself no option but to figure out which are the most important shapes and marks.
Simplify the figure to make drawing a person easier
If you are drawing a large figure, you will be thinking about how the legs connect to the pelvis, where the knee is and how to differentiate the calf shape from the thigh shape. But on a small figure you will be more likely to be able to see shapes that combine so much of this detail.
For example, in this little fairy in the video above, I tried to see the bottom half of her body (from the waist down) as one shape - an upside down tuning fork. Now that is much more approachable than trying to piece together all the anatomical components, don’t you think?
If you are drawing a tiny face you will probably only have room for one line to suggest the mouth, for example. So what is the best line to convey a mouth? See... much easier than trying to construct plump lips and a cupids bow?
Use magic and whimsy to learn how to draw people
If you really are terrified of drawing people I prescribe a dose of whimsy.
It's a mindset thing.
If you draw a figure in your sketchbook and pop some wings on her or him, you are immediately giving yourself a little license to be a touch off.
I mean have you seen a real fairy? So if the arms are a bit short and the head is too wide, well perhaps that is what these magical creatures look like… who’s to say?
I’m not suggesting you want to slap a fairy in the middle of your serious landscape painting, but if you have drawn lots of them in your sketchbook you will have a far better chance of getting a well proportioned lively figure. And did I mention how much fun it is?
If wings are too much for you, then perhaps thinking of drawing some sort of whimsical doll, or picture book/cartoon person might be better for you. A Barbie is not anatomically correct, but if you can draw something that looks a bit like her you will feel quite pleased with yourself. Its just a mind trick to help you keep that inner critic at bay - you know, that voice that pipes up and tells you that you got the legs wrong, they don’t look human, blah blah blah….
Drawing figures that read well is about shape and proportion.
When you start out those are the things you are going to get wrong. The best way to develop a feel for them in my opinion is to keep drawing them. That’s easier if you can lighten up on yourself and embrace your inner cartoonist. We learn best in the spirit of play.
Like anything, drawing people gets easier and easier. But you do have to keep on drawing to experience that. I hope these tips about getting started in a sketchbook help you to find a fun easy practice that you can consistently keep up. If you want a little help developing your very own sketchbook figure drawing practice and discovering your own style of whimsical person you might want to check out this class.
(Psst… this link will give you a special discount or you can add the coupon code TERRIFIED at checkout!)
I took up drawing little girls in a sketchbook many years ago. I call them my Grace Girls and they are one of my longest running projects. They eventually found their way into real books of their own - it's amazing what can happen when you have a personal project that you persist with.
More recently my little whimsical girls have shrunk and grown wings. I now have a teeny sketchbook of Fairy Graces (that you saw in the videos above) as a bit of an extension of that original project. My Grace Girls are more like little dolls. Quirky, whimsical and almost never anatomically correct.
But it was because of them that I found it easier to attempt drawing a more realistic person. Take it from me, little whimsical people are a great stepping stone if you are not ready to make the leap to grand traditional figure drawing.
And you will be happily adding people to your paintings before you know it.