How to draw people

How to draw people

By NellFrizzellIdeasTap 24/05/12

People are the trickiest of beasts, especially when it comes to drawing. But don’t despair – IdeasMag is here to deliver some brilliant tips from illustrators, designers, painters and cartoonists to help you along the way…

Draw what’s there, not what you think is there

“The most important thing is to go to life drawing classes,” says Cardiff School of Art & Design tutor and freelance illustrator Anna Bhushan. “You have to understand the structure of the figure, internally and externally. The tendency is to rely on outlines, but you almost need to look at the figure architecturally, as a structure.”

“If you take somebody like Ronald Searle or Quentin Blake, although their characters are very stylised and simplified, they have that basic understanding of the human body,” continues Anna. “It means that those figures are still convincing and still feel right.”

“We often think we know what we are looking at, but the actual shape can be completely different to the one we think we see,” says illustrator and designer Nick Scott [see his video of drawing a face below]. “Our brains fill in detail so our eyes needn't pay too much attention. We have to make our brain and eyes talk a bit more, then somehow pass that back down to our hand!”

Start with shapes, proportions and simple marks 

“I normally start by making simple marks to get proportions and see where the features fit,” says portrait painter Joe Simpson. “I mark out the top of the head and the bottom of the chin about the size I want my drawing to be, I’ll then hold my finger up in front of my eye and measure the subjects relative width of the face. I’ll make marks and roughly start to add in shapes. You can also hold up your pencil and use it as a makeshift ruler to see how the features relate to each other. For example, you might see that the nose is a similar length to the forehead.”

“If it’s a portrait I always start from the eyes and draw out from there trying to plot the space between the nose, eyebrows and mouth,” says illustrator Lisa Harker. “Eyes and hair are my two favourite bits to draw. This applies to drawing figures too. I usually start with the most interesting bit and go from there. Sometimes this leads to me going off the paper onto extra sheets but I've never been good at planning.”

Do plenty of observational drawings for practice

“The best exercise is drawing,” says Nick Scott. “It's like running.”

“People communicate their feelings, personality and relationships through their body language,” says Anna Bhushan. “Someone like Laura Carlin is brilliant at communicating character just through something like how a character stands or rummages through their bag. To capture that takes practice and lots of drawing from life.”

“I’m not remotely interested in drawing people from photographs,” says artist and psychotherapist Judith Jane. “It’s one of the nicest way to be with another person. You’re there together quietly: it’s just you, them and the picture.”

Choose an appropriate medium

“If you don’t have that fluency or confidence in drawing, then don’t use materials that are really unforgiving, like fineliner or pencil,” advises Anna Bhushan. “They reveal every little mistake. Instead, try a medium where you can be much more suggestive with the mark, like ink, charcoal or watercolour.”

Don’t expect it to all happen at once

“Don't be afraid to draw an image several times,” says cartoonist and illustrator Joe Wilkins. “By using a layout pad with previous sketches as a guide you can gradually feel your way around the drawing, without having to worry that each time the pencil touches paper the line will have to be perfect.” 

“I'll often redraw the image several times before I'm happy with it,” continues Joe. “Finally, I scan the image in and start working it up into the finished illustration using Adobe Illustrator.”

Try approaching your drawing in different ways 

“It’s sometimes useful to look at your drawing from a fresh perspective,” says Joe Simpson. “Looking at it in a mirror is a good way to judge how it’s going. Also tipping the paper upside down will let you focus on the position and placement of shapes and features without being distracted by the fact you’re looking at a face.”

“Drawing with your eyes shut is fun and yields demented results,” advises artist Justyna Burzynska. “Also drawing with the hand you don't normally draw with. These are art school classics, but great exercises to loosen up and just start producing imagery.”


So there you have it: Look hard, get your proportions right, try lots of different techniques and don’t sweat the details. Happy drawing!


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Illustration by Narcsville.

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