Updated Jan 6, 2021
Here are 10 tips and techniques to follow when learning human form drawing:
Understand proportions of the human form.
Loosen up with warm-up drawings.
Sketch impression postures.
Capture actions with gesture drawings.
Focus on the weight and mass of the human figure.
Dive deeper with basic shape drawings.
Play with proportion.
Enhance with details.
Develop your own style.
The human form isn’t the easiest thing to draw. Sometimes the form can come out looking stiff and disproportionate. That’s exactly why it’s important to practice your human form drawing often.
If you’ve tried but still don’t know how to draw the basic human figure, here are a few tips to tighten your technique and loosen up your hands. Don’t give up and you’ll find your human form drawings much improved.
1. Understand Proportions of the Human Form
Proportions are how the height, width, and depth of each part of the human body relate to each other as a whole. To make a form seem real and convincing, it must not have any distortions that distract the observer from accepting it for what it is.
To aid in anatomic accuracy, artists throughout the ages have memorized what are historically called proportional canons (think of Leonardo da Vinci’s image of a man inside a square and circle, arms and legs reached outward).
Today, as a groundwork for an idealized human form, many artists use a technique that divides a standing body into eight equal portions.
Here are the steps to follow when learning how to draw the basic human form:
Fold a piece of paper horizontally into eight equal sections (or draw lines).
Number the bottom crease of each section from 1-8, one being the first crease at the top of the page and 8 at the bottom (representing the ground).
Section #1 is the head. Draw a slight egg shape resting on the line.
Between lines #3 and #4, draw a slightly flattened circle for the pelvis. Size it to be approximately 1 ½ -2 times the width of your head.
At the bottom corners of your pelvis on line #4, draw small circles to represent hip joints.
Draw a slightly tapered line down from the center of each hip joint to line #6.
On line #6, draw a small circle on the outside of each leg line. These represent knee caps.
From the outside of each knee cap, draw a slightly tapered shin line down to line #8.
Draw a small circle (representing the ankle bone) on the outside of each shin line.
For the ribcage, begin by drawing two dots on line #2 to represent the nipples. These should line up slightly inside the sides of the head.
Draw another dot on line #3, lined up with the center of the head. This is the navel.
Begin to draw the top of an oval that starts at the halfway point between lines #2 and #3 and peaks between lines #1 and #2. The outsides of the oval should extend a little past the sides of the head (or about the same width as the pelvis). Don’t finish the bottom third of the oval.
Connect the bottom two points of the oval with a slight upward-rounding line.
Draw a straight line down from the bottom of the head to the navel. That’s the backbone.
Draw a small circle on each side of the ribcage, up diagonally from the nipples (about halfway between lines #1 and #2 and just outside the width of the ribcage). These are the shoulder joints.
Draw a slightly upward curved line from the inside of one shoulder blade, touching the bottom of the neck, to the inside of the other shoulder blade.
On line #3, draw the elbows using small ovals placed outside the width of the shoulder blades, reaching as tall as the line where the bottom of the ribcage hits.
Connect the shoulders to the elbows with a slightly pointed outward line.
Draw small circles representing the wrists just below line #4 and straight below the elbows.
Connect the elbows and wrists with lines.
Draw simple hand shapes (like mittens) hanging down below the wrists, the tips of the stretched fingers hitting above line #5.
Memorize the proportions of body parts according to which lines they fall on, and then continue practicing until it feels natural and quick to draw.
2. Loosen Up With Warm-Up Drawings
Warm-up drawings are a great way to get started. These types of drawings are meant to be quick, rough sketches that loosen up your hand and strengthen your mind’s ability to absorb the information you see. As a result, you build and reinforce the relationship between your hand and eyes. It’s always good to set short time limits on these, though. This way you’re forced to move on to the next drawing and quickly study a new pose to sketch.
When drawing the human form, try to discover lines of action. These lines of action are meant to account for the entire form, and to lay the foundation for you to sketch and draw a pose that has energy and fluidity.
3. Sketch Impression Postures
We learn a surprising amount from simple flashes of observation. The more you sketch what you observe, the more your brain will instinctively know how to draw human forms.
An impression sketch is a simple outline of a human form in any observed pose. It’s hardly any different than drawing a stick figure, but it can leave an emotional impression because of what is conveyed.
To do this, look at someone very quickly and make a basic sketch of the impression (or emotion) their pose is saying about them. For example, is the form slouching, folding its arms, or showing confidence? Scribbling what flashed into your mind without overthinking the proportions or details can give energy to your forms without getting you stuck in the technicalities of drawing.
There is no right or wrong with sketch impressions. The point of them is to make big, sweeping lines with a bold marker so you can gain confidence as you practice.
4. Capture Action With Gesture Drawings
Gesture drawing is another excellent exercise when learning how to draw the basic human figure. These drawings are meant to be loose, imply how the form is posed, and explain what action is taking place.
To give you a pose that feels unified and fluid, continually move the pencil to capture the form while observing it. Don’t stop or pick up your pencil while drawing. Also, don’t get wrapped up in drawing too many little details of the form or worrying about what your gesture looks like.
This exercise is a great way to reinforce how our mind interprets and absorbs the proportions of the human body.
5. Focus on the Weight and Mass of the Human Figure
You can take gesture drawings further by focusing on the weight and mass of the human figure. Then, as you build upon your gestures in a continual fashion, start to bolden your gesture lines on various parts of the figure to show where the figure is heavier and more substantial. As your line work builds up, you will begin to fill in more volume.
Drawing silhouettes of the human figure is another great approach to establishing mass and volume in the right places.
6. Dive Deeper With Basic Shape Drawings
As you become more comfortable using lines of action, gestures, and silhouettes to draw the human figure, you can begin to dive deeper by breaking down each body part into a series of basic shapes.
Drawing basic shapes opens the door to visualize the human form three-dimensionally. For example, you can define the arms and legs as a series of cylindrical shapes. Or, the hands can be drawn as a series of flattened cube shapes.
As you practice, you’ll begin to gain a stronger sense of how to draw various parts of the body in different movements.
7. Play With Proportion
For greater specificity in your interpretation of the human form, play with proportion. Variations on proper proportions can tell your viewer where to focus their attention. For example, big eyes can readily show a variety of emotions. Big feet can bring out the awkwardness of a teen boy. Long legs can make a woman look taller.
Just remember that you need to have a solid understanding of proper proportion so you can know where and how far to push without the end result looking off-putting.
8. Enhance With Details
When you’re happy with your human form drawing, darken the lines and add details to bring it to life.
Examples of details you can add include:
Hair, including facial hair
Creases or wrinkles in the skin
Accessories such as glasses or jewelry
Lighting and shadowing for a three-dimensional look
Get a little original here if you want. What will make your sketch different? Is the hair growing unevenly? Does your form have a birthmark or a scar, freckles or a mole? Is their necklace broken, or are the glasses oversized? Is the light on your form shining from above, below, or the side?
These seemingly small features can completely change the mood of your drawing, so let them help tell your story.
9. Develop Your Own Style
While learning and working with different techniques is the backbone to any good drawing of the human form, once you have them down, it’s time to develop your own style.
Every artist comes to a point where they begin to settle into their own creative process, preference of drawing medium, and creative interpretation. This is good! It’s what makes your drawings unique and stand out from all the rest.
Don’t rush this or force it to happen, though. Trust and be patient. Experiment all the time, figuring out what you like and how to convey what’s in your head until it just feels right.
10. Practice Consistently
Ultimately, consistent practice of human form drawing is what will improve your abilities the most. Try to put aside at least 20-30 minutes a day to practice.