How to draw the figure in 3 easy steps!


Did this quickie sketch on and decided to throw it here as well.

The great James Gurney has a quote that drawing is largely about working outside in, as opposed to ‘growing’ the picture out, which only works if the artist already has in their mind the complete picture. I firmly believe that to be the case as well. So anyone’s first order of business when drawing from life, photograph or even creatively is to rough in the general thing that’s supposed to be there, before even going into any sort of detail.

The common thing to do is to start the figure with the skeletal structure, right? Well, how am I supposed to do that quickly and accurately? In my opinion, one needs to pay attention to the literal visual energies that are moving throughout the pose, as in the first step. Observe how the lines of the body flow into and obstruct each other. Where does the flow start? Where does it end? Does it flow out of the feet gracefully, in a pleasant rhythm, or does it curl back in on itself? I’ve read through Kimon Nicolaides’ book on drawing and he promotes the use of haptic sensory input (ie. touch) to further inform a drawing. While some of his exercises I feel border on irrelevance, the main idea is sound. To draw any pose, we must first feel the pose in our own bodies and in our minds– visually and bodily. Only when these visual energies have been clarified should we move on to the skeletal drawing, which then becomes a cinch once we have clarified what the pose is REALLY about.

Step 2: The skeleton. There is zero need to draw every vertebrae or bone. All that is needed is sufficient information for us to attach the muscles to. The main masses of the skeleton are a) the head, b) the chest/thoracic cage, c) the hips. I’d even say the orientation of the legs as well. Within each of these three masses, the important things to watch out for are: The head — which way is it facing? Imagine drawing a line out of the front of face, like drawing a literal line of sight from the eyes. Is it tilted up or down? The ribcage/chest — where’s the center line? On skinny people, it’s easy to see the sternum. The hips — the points of reference here are the top and bottom planes of the rectangular block, which will determine how the pelvic bowl sits in that block. Points of reference are the top two front corners of the block, or, the ASIS (Anterior Superior Iliac Spine) — that bump on your hips under the love handles. This point is where many major muscles converge; the other set of muscles converges on the AIIS (Anterior Inferior Iliac Spine) — which is about three fingers’ width below the ASIS. The advantage of using these points on the hip as a measuring point is that these landmarks will show up even on chubby people.

Step 3: Adding the muscles. Think of attachments and major muscle groups, not each individual muscle. Part of this is memory work, part of it is observing the tensed muscles and the relaxed ones. As Leonardo da Vinci says, one should always be aware of which muscles are being used when.

I cannot emphasize however that before this is even undertaken the artist should already be well-acquainted with even more rudimentary things such as proportion, line weight, direction, accuracy, and have some basic anatomical knowledge of the proportions of the skeleton. Here are some guidelines for proportion:

How many heads high is the figure?

The answer to this question can be quite complex. For me, my personal approach is that because the figure always moves in space, gets foreshortened, or the artist changes position, that the standard “measure 7 to 8 heads from the front of the figure” approach can be quite limiting in this respect because then we are only constricted to the one view of the figure. And when we are presented with anything else, our sense of proportion goes out the window. Therefore I believe that we should measure heads ON THE SKELETON, not on any contours.

General measurements

I learned these measurements not from drawing class, but from sculpting class. In sculpture there is no perspective and no foreshortening, therefore our measurements will hold true no matter what angle. We spent one entire lesson walking 360 degrees around the figure and posing our armature (which corresponds to the proportions of a human skeleton, so we are literally able to match landmark to landmark in 3D space). Just as in sculpting, if the basic mechanical armature on which the sculpture is to be built is off, then the muscles will naturally follow and be off too. Therefore the skeleton is the most basic framework on which the muscles are literally hung on.

– The ribcage is ROUGHLY 150% larger in mass than the head. Too many times students either under or over-estimate the size of the ribcage and people end up having super long torsos.

– The elbow joint corresponds to the 10th rib when held straight, close to the body.

– The space between the ribcage and the hip box is roughly the width of the palm plus thumb.

– The wrist joint corresponds to the point of the Greater Trochanter, which corresponds on the same level as the Pubic Bone. The Pubic Bone should be considered the halfway point — the bone itself, not the end of the crotch.

– Since we know the figure is divided into halves at the Pubic Bone/Greater Trochanter, we can subsequently infer the correct length of the legs. The legs are then divided roughly into halves at the knee.

– When the figure kneels, the point of the Greater Trochanter rests NOT on the heel but slightly before it. Therefore we can conclude that the length of the lower legs PLUS the height of the foot is slightly longer than the length of the Femur, or Upper leg.

It is far better in my opinion to orient the proportions of your figure according to these very observable rules rather than stick to a rather clumsy way of measuring the length of heads. In this way the figure can be proportioned according to how the skeletal structure works. One can also see, from these proportions, that already we know what landmarks to be sure to include on the figure — the head and the ribcage and the hips, definitely, because these all help proportion our figure, but also measuring in this way makes us more aware of the height of the ribcage in RELATION to the head and everything else.


3 thoughts on “How to draw the figure in 3 easy steps!

  1. I love you Maisie! This is all great info! When I see that you finish this figure drawing in less than 3 mins, I had the same sick feeling as during that time I saw Ron Lemen draw a portrait in 60 seconds on Youtube!. :-D
    This is madness.

    I do have some questions regarding your process, though.

    1) When you draw that hip box, does the top of the box include the crest of the pelvis? Currently, the top of my hip box only includes the ASIS and the box bottom ends at the pubic arch area, and I then add the crests on top of the box. Just wondering how you tackle this.

    2) When you start adding the muscles, do you draw them via contour lines based on what you see on the model (the curves, the dips, the swells etc.) or do you construct / simplify them using simple abstract volumes like the way Michael Hampton does (Rectus femoris, Brachioradialis and many muscles = long modified ellipsoid volume added on top of cylinders)?

    I’ve always been curious in the way you approach figure drawing, because I read in an old thread at that LAAFA combines both the academic and classical approach together.

    Tks Master,

    • Hi Xeon! I’m glad you found it helpful.
      1) Yes, that’s basically how I view the hip. The crests go on top of the box because the only points we’re really concerned about are the ASIS and AIIS, not the crests. The bottom of the box to me includes the bones of the ischium as well (the little loops underneath the main thing).
      2) I do both. There are always specific details on the model that need to be informed by abstract volumes, and abstract volumes that can contribute to the contours. I guess I try and first identify the general idea of what the muscle is doing: is it bulging up, is it sinking from gravity, where is the weight going? Once I know generally that oh, this muscle is going to be more concave than convex, I then look up at the model to see specifically what’s unique about this particular model’s particular curves.

      I approach figure drawing in many different ways, actually. I could go entirely visual and construct just based on a visual block in (like Bargue), or I could construct entirely abstractly (Hampton), or I could do a mixture of the two which is what I’m used to doing. Or I could be very gestural and only be concerned about capturing the character of the model. It really depends on what I’m drawing for. Honestly though, I find that knowing both (visual and constructional) just helps each other out in the end. There will always be times when I’m drawing completely visually (Bargue-like) where I’m not sure about a certain curve or perspective, then I can then take a walk around the model, find out what is really going on in 3d space, and be better informed about what I’m seeing. There will also always be times when I’m drawing abstract volumes and I remember, oh, that model’s arm looked this particular way. And then I can add that in to give the drawing more presence and solidity.

      I guess because a part of our drawing curriculum here also involves sculpture (we do cast copies not in graphite but in clay), I’ve come to the understanding that in a representational picture, the drawing or painting represents both a 2 dimensional image and a 3 dimensional object oriented in the picture space as well. I believe that’s the heart of the academic vs classical approach, so I suppose yeah, it does combine both together. :)

      • Thanks for the explanation! You never cease to impress me LOL. A lot of times I read your posts at, you always speak with the wisdom of someone who has lived a thousand years and have seen all of life, even though you’re not even 30 or close! Now, if you’ve time, perhaps you can do something like ”draw / constructing the human feet in X-steps.” :-)

        Currently, I\’m reading Hampton\’s book on feet construction and trying to fuse it with Gottfried Bammes’ method of feet drawing (since the construction examples in Hampton’s book don’t seem to take into account that the feet is wider on the medial side).

        Good day!

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