Learn to Draw the Human Figure - Proportion and Body Parts

Figure Drawing Lessons

Many wood mannequins looking at one in pieces
Dimitri Otis / Getty Images

The complex human form can sometimes seem like a huge challenge for the artist. Like any task, it becomes much more manageable if you break it up into 'bite-size' chunks instead of trying to 'swallow it whole'. To tackle figure drawing - sometimes called 'life drawing' - we will sometimes take an overview looking at aspects of drawing the whole figure, and sometimes look at drawing parts of the body.

Over time, practice in all these areas will come together and you'll find yourself able to tackle any pose with confidence.

Learning to draw a nude model in a life drawing class is obviously the ideal, but if this isn't possible, don't despair. You can still learn to draw the figure very well without a model. You'll find that friends or family may be happy to model wearing close-fitting sportswear, and any drawing problem (observation, foreshortening, proportion) that you find on a nude model can equally be explored drawing arms and legs.

For best results, work consistently, practicing drawing daily. When reading, make notes in your sketchbook to remind you what to work on. When you are ready to move on, come back and tackle the next exercise. Remember, you won't learn to draw by just reading about it! You have to put it into practice.

First, let's look at the basic proportions of the head and body, and practice sketching them.​

Looking At Proportions

Find out the standard proportions of the human figure. The first page describes traditional proportions, while the second page shows you how to measure the model with the 'thumb-and-pencil' method.

Homework

Once you've read the article carefully, ask a friend to 'pose' for you - clothed is just fine!

- and do a sketch, using the thumb-and-pencil method to find how many heads tall they are and marking key points on the figure. You could use a mirror, holding your sketchbook in one arm, if everyone is too busy! Try sketching some simple stick-figures using circles and ovals, using the proportions described.

Drawing Parts of the Body

When starting out on figure drawing, artists traditionally had to draw from casts - a foot, a hand, a face - before being allowed to work on a real figure. A great deal of time was spent studying small details. You might be keen to tackle the big drama of the figure study, but spending time working on the details will make your major drawings much more successful. This is particularly useful for students who have access to a life class - time spent working on hands and feet when away from class will allow you to get maximum value out of time with your model.

Structure of the Human Head

Learn how to draw the classic proportions of the human head. Everyone is a tiny bit different, but once you need to get confident with the basic structure before you tackle detail. Just read page one of this article to start with. For more detail on the technique, take a look at the Ron Lemen tutorial link near the bottom of the text.

Homework

Practice constructing heads using the method shown. Don't get too involved in detail, just work on constructing a three-dimensional nose, and placing the eyes and mouth in correct alignment with the plane of the face.

Learn to Draw Hands

The complexity and mobility of hands can make them a daunting subject, often the most clumsily drawn part of a figure drawing. Read this lesson for a simplified approach to drawing hands. Spend plenty of time practicing hands - you have your own to practice on!

How to Draw Eyes

Apprentices in the Master's studio would spend hours (when not painstakingly grinding pigments) doing studies of eyes. Read this article, then ask a friend to pose (or use a mirror, or magazine photos) and do your own page of eyes from every angle. Practice drawing pairs of eyes, especially at an angle, being sure to align them correctly on the face.

Learn to Draw Hair

Hair is an important part of a person, and poorly handled hair diminishes an otherwise well-drawn figure. This tutorial focuses on quite detailed pencil drawing, but the principle of looking at the darks and lights works equally well when handled briskly, or when using charcoal. Try it and see.