Category Archives: Drawing Techniques

How to Draw Figures – technique # 5 – Stick Figures

Stick figures, you cry! Stick figures! I didn’t come to this site to learn how to draw stick figures! Hold on, maybe these stick figures can help. One of the most difficult challenges when learning how to draw figures is how to get the proportions of the figure right. It is frustrating to complete a drawing, even if this only takes you five or twenty minutes, only to find that the leg is too long, or that the figure has a pin-head, or an arm that is too short.

The stick figure can help you overcome this problem by forcing you to consider the stance, gesture and proportions of the figure very quickly, and early in your drawing.

Use twelve (yes, just 12) lines to capture the figure.

  1. Draw a line to represent the spine. But don’t just draw a vertical line, look at where the figures back is, look at the angle, the curves, and draw that line. But draw it quickly.
  2. Now draw a second line to represent the shoulders. Again aim to capture the angle and curve, but also consider the size of the line – it needs to be in proportion to the spine as you see the figure.
  3. The third line should represent the width of the hips. And by now you know to watch the angle, curve and proportion.
  4. You can draw a circle or ellipse for the head. Don’t just draw it on top of the shoulder line. Draw the line where the head is on the figure, is it lifted from the shoulder by a neck, crossing the shoulder line?
  5. Arms – two lines each. One shoulder to elbow, the second elbow to wrist or hand. Think about the proportion. Use the other lines as anchor points – hang the upper arm from the end of the shoulder line. Use the other lines as guides: where is that elbow – halfway down the spine line, below the shoulder, out to the side?
  6. Legs – same deal, two lines each. Hang the upper legs from the ends of the hip-line.

There, twelve lines, that you can complete in 15 seconds. You can use this an exercise to help you observe and capture poses. Or, you can use this stick figure as a framework on which to draw the figure more fully.

Why does this work? Drawing the stick figure forces attention on the whole figure. We should never focus on a single part of the figure, as it can become overworked, and can lead us to neglect the overall pose. But when you are trying to capture the light and tone and colour and shape of that arm it is easy to neglect the direction and size.

Drawing the stick figure first works because it helps you break down the drawing exercise and get size and overall pose down straight away.

A couple of other points to help you along:

  • Don’t allow your preconceived notions of what a stick figure looks like to get in the way of what goes on paper. If the pose is such that the spine line will be short (maybe the model is leaning forward, towards you), then draw it that way. If the shoulder line is short because it is parallel with your line of sight then draw it that way.
  • I often add four more lines, small ellipses, or even squiggles, to capture the hands and feet. Sometimes I will use tiny circles to capture the knees and elbows, so my stick figure looks more like a small maquette. But the principal is the same.

Practise this next time you have a model, and I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how well it helps you to consider and capture the proportion and gesture of the pose. Twelve lines, fifteen seconds.

Figure Drawing Tools # 2 – Shading your Paper

When learning how to draw figures we often start with a blank sheet of white paper, and something to draw with.  That approach will take your drawings in a particular direction, perhaps making you focus more on line, than tone.

The figures you draw will be in differing surroundings and in differing lighting arrangements.  The model may be well lit, or have a lot of shadow.  You may wish to emphasise the shadows on the model, or a dark background.

Preparing your paper with a background of tone can help you take your drawing in a different direction, helping you to focus on tone first, rather than as an afterthought.  The darker tones can become a more integral part of your drawing – before you even start drawing the model.

To do this, use the side of a piece of charcoal to scrub tone all over your paper. Try using willow charcoal to do this.  Willow charcoal has a lighter tone than compressed charcoal.  This will allow you to use compressed charcoal to create line and darker tone on your drawing as it develops.  You can also use your kneadable eraser to pull the light willow charcoal off the page to reveal highlights.

Your aim here is provide a background on which you can build other tones.

Preparing your paper this way will not be right for all drawings, but it is one of the tools in your artists toolbox you can call on when needed.

Figure Drawing Tools # 1 – Kneadable Eraser

The kneadable eraser was something of a mystery to me until I attended my first life drawing class and learnt how to use it.

The kneadable eraser works exceptionally well with charcoal. It operates in a different way to the kind of rubber pencil eraser we have probably all used. The pencil eraser abrades away the pencil marks, and perhaps some of the underlying paper, and some of the eraser itself. The kneadable eraser operates by absorbing the charcoal – the particles of charcoal are lifted from the paper, and stick to and become embedded within the eraser.

Over time the pristine white eraser will become black with the charcoal it has lifted. But you can continue to use the eraser for a surprisingly long time. I tend to use some of my older, grubbier pieces for any heavy duty work, and use a newer, cleaner piece for cleaning up lighter areas.

Why kneadable? Because you squash and re-squash the eraser in your fingers until it is soft and the shape you want it to be. When you have used it to clean an area of your drawing, knead the eraser to absorb the charcoal, and re-use.

Because the eraser is malleable you can shape it as you please – for example you can shape a fine point to clean a small area.

And the eraser is not just there to correct mistakes. (I hope you’re not correcting mistakes in your drawings anyway!). Use the eraser as a drawing tool. It is perfect for cleaning up areas of highlight on your figures, revealing the clean paper underneath. Used this way you can create stark contrasts.

Here is an example where a kneadable eraser has been used to clean up any stray charcoal to create clean white highlights:

So, if you haven’t used your beautiful, square, mint-condition eraser, now is the time to have fun tearing it up, squishing it, kneading it, and getting it dirty!

The Natural Way to Draw – Kimon Nicolaide

I was immensely impressed with this very readable book.  Nicolaides clearly presents a series of exercises which build one on another to improve our understanding of how to draw figures.

He describes each exercise with passion and with an authoritative understanding.  He describes in detail and illustrates how each exercise will help the student of drawing to see and understand the figure better, and using that understanding be able to represent the figure better on paper.  He also includes schedules for practise, which can be used in life classes or home practice, to get the best results from each exercise.  And each exercise has a list of recommended materials appropriate for that type of drawing.

Some examples of the kinds of exercise he covers include:

  • drawing lines which represent the visible or interior contours, edges or surfaces of the figure
  • quick gesture or continuous line drawings to capture the essence of what the figure is doing
  • memory or speed exercises to help improve the way we see the figures we draw
  • exercises which consider and emphasise the weight of the model or the depth of field

The list of subject matter goes on to cover different media and papers, the figure’s surroundings, light and shade, anatomy and more.

The book is full of pictures which illustrate each concept and exercise.  The pictures are from students and great masters of art alike, and these black and white images help to make this a book which is open and easy to read.  It shows you what to do with clear illustrations as well as describing what to do and why with the words of a passionate teacher.

It seems a tragedy that the book was published after the author’s death but I feel he would have been pleased that the circulation (more than 250 000 hard cover copies sold) would stand as a testament to the value of his teaching method.

The book’s epigraph captures Nicolaides’ focus on practise: “The supreme misfortune is when theory outstrips performance” Leonardo da Vinci.

This is a beautiful book that reflects the author’s passion for drawing figures and teaching these skills to his students.  It has refreshed my interest in learning how to draw figures, and I think I will be dipping into it for years to come.

The Natural Way to Draw: A Working Plan for Art Study

How to draw figures – technique # 5 – draw the tone first

How to draw figures – technique # 5 – draw the tone first

This technique was the one that had the most impact for me.  It changed the way I approached drawing – giving me an option that was the complete reverse of the way I had approached every other drawing I had ever attempted.

I picked the technique up in a life drawing class that I attended.  I had already started using charcoal on large sheets of butcher’s paper rather than using a pencil on an A4 sketch pad.  The size of the paper and the boldness of the charcoal line had already inspired me to approach drawing differently, and more confidently.

Then the tutor said that for the next drawing we were not going to use line.  Excuse me?  How does that work?  The answer: put your charcoal on its side and use its edge.  There was no way to use line.  I had always, always approached drawing by putting together lines first.  Often faint construction lines to begin with, then lines to highlight the figure or object, then maybe finishing off the drawing with some shading.  The drawings often seemed a little flat, lifeless.  Now I was being asked to provide the tone and shade of the drawing first.

This drawing started as blocks of tone created with a charcoal edge. Line has been added later, and a kneadable eraser used to clean up line and negative space, and to create contrast.

A good way to do this is to half close your eyes.  This takes away some of the detail and allows you to focus more on the tone.  You will find that some areas are the darkest, some areas will have half-tones and some areas will be light.  Now try putting that on paper.  Using the side of charcoal is a great way to represent tone, so you might like to try using that for this exercise.  Use as many shades of grey and black as it takes to get down your subject.

Once you have this exercise completed, you have a great foundation for your complete drawing.  You can now use line to pull out the shape of the figure.  You might also use a kneadable eraser to lift some of the tone to highlight some of the more lit areas.

If you, like me, tend to use line first then I thoroughly recommend this technique to give your drawings greater depth, and to help you explore tone which is one of the key elements of a successful drawing.


Anywhere where you have some thing or some person, and a light source, you will see a shadow. You will see shadows every day, everywhere, and so it is easy to become so used to them that you no longer register them. If someone asked you to point out the shadow you could do it, but if asked to describe a scene you might not think to mention the shadows.

Don’t forget this when you are thinking about how to draw figures. You might see the person modelling, but not register their shadow. But if you neglect to draw the shadow, then the drawing could look incomplete, as if there is something missing. Although we take shadows for granted, it can still look odd when they are not there.

The example picture is a quick drawing from a life-drawing class. I think the bold shadow of the figure gives the picture a depth it would not otherwise have.

Shadows also help to give the figure context, in a similar way to showing the figures surroundings can give context. It makes the drawing look more expressive of a real person, in a real situation, with a real light source.

You might see shadows on the figure itself, and you are likely to see shadows around the figure as well. If you really want to go to town with this you might even want to know that there are two main parts to a shadow. First, the umbra the darkest part, which is completely hidden from the light source. Then, the penumbra, a lighter part of the shadow, which may not be completely hidden from the light source. I don’t want to make this a physics lesson, but look at a few shadows. Try to find some shadows where you can see a lighter edge round a dark middle.

When you are drawing figures look for the shadow and include it in your drawing.

How to draw figures – technique # 4 – negative space

How to draw figures – technique # 4 – negative space

When you are figure drawing, that figure is the positive element of the drawing.  The figure is what you are focussing on and trying to

represent on the page.  But look around that figure and you will see negative space – the part of what you can see that is not the figure.

Negative space could be the surroundings of the figure.  You could imagine this by thinking of a cookie-cutter that takes away the shape of the figure, and whatever is left is negative space.

Negative space could also be a shape held within the confines of the body.  Imagine a figure with a hand on one hip, and the elbow held out akimbo from the body.  Can you imagine the triangular shape that out-turned elbow might make, with the arm forming two sides of the triangle, and the line of the body forming the third?

there is shaded negative space between the model's arms and body. Additional negative space has been created because the drawing has a drawn frame.

Why should you care about negative space?  Well, when learning how to draw figures, one of our main aims is to get the proportions of the figure right.  To get the shape and attitude on your page, close to what you can see in the figure.  Negative space helps you to compose the shape of the body on your page.  In the example of the triangular negative space formed by an out-turned elbow, you can check the triangular shape on your page with the triangle you see in reality.  If the angles are similar, and the lengths of the line are similar then perhaps your drawing is a good representation of the model. If the lines and angles are out then this might be a cue to re-check your drawing – something is not right.

You might be thinking that you could just check the arm you have drawn, against the arm of the model, and not worry about negative space.  You could.  But it is easy to become so involved with your drawing that you cannot see it clearly.  Using negative space is a way of seeing your drawing with fresh eyes for a moment.

You can generate more negative space by using a frame around your drawing.  The negative space can become an integral part of your picture, informing how you place the figure on the page.

Learn How to Draw Figures at a Life Class

The number one strategy for learning how to draw figures is to actually draw figures.  There really is no substitute for this.  Figure drawing is best learnt by drawing figures, in the same way that learning to drive a car is best served by actually driving a car.  Reading about drawing may help, as may talking to others about drawing, but none of this will make anywhere near as much difference as actually committing to paper your impression of a figure.

Just as it is no surprise that ‘practice makes perfect’, it should also be no surprise to learn that drawing figures in an optimum environment is better than drawing in less than perfect conditions. And just as learning to drive with an experienced instructor is preferable to going it solo, learning how to draw figures will be more effective if done with an experienced tutor.

Attending a life drawing class is almost certainly the best thing you can do.

In a life class conditions for practice are close to perfect.  You have space, light, an easel, somewhere to sit your drawing materials.  Everything is in reach in an environment set up for the job.  You also have access to a tutor who can direct your learning, introduce new techniques, and offer advice on you drawings  The tutor can help you to see some of the strengths in your work, and also some areas for improvement.

One other significant benefit of the life class is that it will have at least one model, a figure for you to draw.  This benefit is not one that should be dismissed lightly.  Have you ever tried to learn how to draw figures by asking a friend or spouse to sit for you?  If so, you may know that this is not an effective method.  They may not be very good at sitting still.  They may want to chat to you, which can be distracting.  They will almost certainly want to see the finished drawing which you may prefer not to show.  The life model by contrast is a professional who will adopt and keep poses suggested by the tutor.  The model will even take their clothes off so you can draw a real body, not a bunch of clothes with a head sticking out the top.

The combination of the right environment, an experienced tutor, and an experienced life model make your learning conditions ideal.  With all that taken care of, all you need to do is to draw.  Maybe try out a new technique for drawing.  Maybe try a new medium, or different paper.  All in a safe, non-distracting space.

How to draw figures – technique # 3 – Frame your drawing

How to draw figures – technique # 3 – Try putting a frame round your picture before you start drawing. Decide what you will draw and what you will leave out. The frame helps you to challenge the pose of the figure, and decide what is important to you to make a great drawing.

The frame allows you to focus on the part of the model's pose that you are most interested in capturing.

To help you do this you can prepare a ‘viewer’ out of a piece of cardboard with a rectangular hole cut out of it. Use the viewer to frame the figure: hold it close to your eye, then move it in, move it out, try landscape, try portrait. Decide on a frame that is going to look good. Once you have decided your approach to the picture, draw the frame on your paper, and draw your selected part of the figure within the frame.

This approach also provides an opportunity to create interesting negative space which can help you to compose your drawing, and help you to create a great result.

How to Draw Figures – technique # 2 – Geometric Shapes

It can be difficult when you are looking at a figure to decide where to start.  The body is a not a straightforward shape, and the figure’s pose can confuse things further.  Twists and turns, pointing and bending limbs all serve to complicate the shape of the body.

Continuous Line (or gesture) drawing is one method to help make the figure drawing less complex.  This method helps you to get the whole figure down on paper quickly, and to focus on the aspect of the whole figure, not smaller details.

Another method to help us see how to draw figures, and make figures less complex is to use geometric shapes to build a simple view of the figure.  This could become a foundation layer for a more detailed drawing, or you can use this approach for short poses to provide practise on capturing the figure.

How does this work?  An obvious start might be to use a sphere or oval for the head.  Just draw the shape, nothing more.  So, if you are using an oval, just draw the oval.  Don’t try to capture nuances of shape or the facial features, just use the shape to capture the overall shape and position of the head.

You might then consider using a cylinder to capture the shape and position of the neck or torso.  Again, just capture the overall shape and position.  Don’t worry about the kind of detail you put into other kinds of drawings, or might add to this drawing later.

You might use more cylinders for sections of arms and legs.  You might use smaller spheres for elbow and knee joints.  But don’t do this automatically.  Look at the figure, consider the pose and then decide which shape makes sense.  It might be a triangle for the shoulders, or the foot, or a square for the head.  You are trying to capture the figure in front of you – not what we consider a figure should look like.

Continue adding shapes to your figure until you have the whole thing.  Work quickly.  You should not be trying to draw your geometric shapes with trigonometrical accuracy.  Re-draw or overdraw if you like, but keep moving the same way you would with a continuous line drawing.  If you’re using this to block out the shapes for a more detailed drawing you will want to keep the lines light.

You can see in this image the geometric shapes that were used to capture this 1-minute pose.

You should end up with something that looks a little like one of those posable, wooden maquettes you can find in art shops.  Or it might look something like a robot.  But you should also be aiming to produce something that looks like the figure you are drawing.

You can use this technique to help you see how to draw hands too.  Do the same thing as with a figure: view the hand and decide which shapes you can use to build the hand.  You might use cylinders to represent sections of fingers.  Maybe spheres for the knuckles.  The back of the hand might be built with triangular panels.  The fleshy palm of the hand might best be represented by circles and ovals.

As with figures you should not focus on details.  Just capture the overall shape and position of each part of the hand.

Keep practising.  I found this technique very difficult at first, despite its seeming simplicity.  I was stuck in the habit of trying to produce a realistic drawing first off, and found the use of geometric shapes frustrating.  But stick with the technique, maybe using it for a few short poses next time you draw, and will start to see how useful it is to simplify that complex human figure.