Figure Drawing Basics

I'll share with you here the basic process of drawing a figure from life or a photograph step-by-step. Feel free to download the key image below for future reference!

  1. Place the Figure on your page.

  2. Draw the line of action

  3. Add tips and tilts

  4. Block in the figure

  5. Map deepest shadows

  6. Add form

Figure drawing key @ophanap
Figure Drawing Key - Basic steps

The above image is a summary of my notes learned from my recent studies on figure drawing, I thought they might be useful to some of you as they certainly have been for me. I'll go more in-depth with these steps below. This will help inform your future figure drawings and build a basis for portraiture or character design, using these steps as a basis for now and refine them into your own process as you master each step.

I've listed all my references at the bottom of the page, and a few other useful resources.

Before you start you'll need a HB pencil, an eraser, and a pencil sharpener. I'd recommend following along with traditional media but you can also work digitally if you'd prefer. A few general tips going forward - Use light pressure to sketch. It'll be easier to erase any mistakes without ruining your paper and drawing quality. Take your time. These steps are designed to increase the speed and accuracy of your workflow, but that doesn't mean you should rush them, take your time and you'll find much better results when you finish.

  1. Place The Figure on your page. Begin by marking the top and the bottom of the figure on the page. If you're using a photograph as a reference it can be helpful to make the drawing the same size as the photograph. Mark the halfway point of the figure, this is usually found on the hips on the average person, then draw in a centre line (Use a ruler if it's easier). These lines will help form the basic foundation for your drawing, making it easier to map out the following steps.

  2. Draw the 'line of action'. The line of action expresses the basic movement of your figure, this is what many artists consider to be the 'soul' of the drawing as it will form the basis for the movement of your figure. From top to the bottom, draw a curved line that carries your eye through the movement of the figure, this will be different for every artist and doesn't have to be perfect, use your best judgment if it feels right it probably is.

  3. Add Tips and Tilts. Now, taking a look at your reference, use straight lines to sketch out the tilts of the figure. As a general rule map out the shoulders, the chest, the hips and the pelvis. These four points will be present in almost all your figure drawings and help demonstrate the direction of each part of the form. These tilts are usually balanced in standing figures, tilted left-right-left and will help you to determine the weight-bearing leg.

  4. Block in the Figure. Again using straight lines, capture the roughly capture the outline of the figure. Don't worry about the nuance of the form just yet, just focus on the overall shape, simplifying it down to a general 'boxiness'. Try to capture the angles of the form without sketching any details just yet.

  5. Map the deepest shadows. This step will help your figure drawing feel closer to completion, almost there! During this step, it can be useful to squint your eyes to get a better feel for the areas that are deeper tonally. Start by drawing out the loose shape of the shadowed areas, typically under the chin, under the arms, or anywhere else light doesn't directly impact such as underclothing etc. Gently fill in the form using your pencil or drawing tool to create simplified shadow shapes that begin to create the illusion of a 3D form.

  6. Add form. Now for the 'tricky' bit. Begin to gently map out the half-tones (the tones between your deepest shadows and the lightest areas) gradually and carefully. Take your time on this final step, making sure to check accuracy against your reference. This final step will finish creating the illusion of a 3-Dimensional form and bring your drawing to life.

Thanks for reading! If you found this useful please let me know, and I'd love to see if you followed the process yourself! You can contact me to show your result or as always if you have any questions.

All the best, Dan O'Connell

References & Related Resources

  • Figure Drawing Atelier - An instructional sketchbook written by Juliette Aristides (Highly recommend this book, fantastic art communicator, the book that made these simple concept 'click' permanently for me.) - Buy here

  • Figure Drawing for Artists - Making every mark count written by Steve Huston - Buy Here

  • Oil Painting Techniques and Materials written by Harold Speed - Buy Here

  • Human Anatomy - Depicting the body from the renaissance to today written by Benjamin. Rifkin, et al. - Buy here

FREE resources

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