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There’s a Gary Larson cartoon that makes me laugh. It’s a scene of complete disaster, an apocalypse. Buildings are on fire, King Kong is on the rampage, emergency vehicles race past and panicking citizens run hither and thither. In the foreground, two dogs have just met. They touch noses and wag their tails. It’s the end of the world, but the dogs only have eyes for each other. It’s the same for us – we are fascinated by our fellow humans. Above all the things in the world I could choose to draw, I love drawing people.
Most of all I like to draw my family and friends, because I am a sentimental fool and looking at sketches of my loved ones makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Conversely, when I look at photos, I feel sad and nostalgic for a time that is past. I haven’t figured out why sketches make me happy and photos make me sad but I have a couple of theories. I think it’s that a sketch is the touch of a fellow human, whereas a photo is a trick of a machine, a pale imitation of life, enough to make you miss the person in the image, but not enough to conjure up their soul.
Drawing people can be hard. For one thing, they move. For another, unless you get the drawing just so, they won’t look like the person you’re trying to capture. That might not matter – it depends on your confidence and your general outlook as an artist – but most people want to capture something of the look of their subject. So here are a few tips on how to make drawing people more satisfying.
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1. DO catch your subject off guard
Wait till your subject isn’t moving…even asleep. If they’re not sleepy, ply your subject with a few glasses of wine on a sunny afternoon and watch as they soon become still (yes, drug them). Golden rule: draw one person at a time, as a complete sketch of one person is better than a half-completed sketch of two or more.
I’m so happy to have this sketch of my lovely parents after one of their legendary long lunches in their gorgeous garden.
2. DO draw people reading
A great way to make sure your subject is still is to catch them while they are reading. A young person reading will enter the “zone”. You are bound to get a good ten minutes or more out of your subject before they’ll move. Of course there are gazillions of people concentrating on their phones but it’s not as nice a pose as reading from a book…
This is my daughter reading while her puppy desperately tried to make her throw the ball. It was a cold January night and pitch dark outside, and he was competing with Percy Jackson or someone, so he was out of luck.
3. DO look out for repetitive activity
Although your subject will move if they’re engaged in an activity, they will return to the position you’ve chosen again and again. This applies to many activities such as playing an instrument or sketching.
My friends Mary and her husband Kelly along with two friends, playing in Kinvara, Co. Galway, during the first international sketching workshop that I gave. The sketch brings back great memories.
A splendid afternoon painting with an old friend. I enjoyed drawing Blaise and the light on his back every bit as much as the beautiful scenery.
Another favourite of mine, my mother doing what she loves best.
4. DO sketch a captive audience
Find moments when your subject can’t escape. While most people are used to being photographed, the scrutiny of sketching can be intimidating for some. I try to be discreet…but it’s great if they can’t get away. People on a bus or plane make an ideal captive audience.
This is my son Paddy on the bus to Dublin, sitting beside his younger sister Liv…
..and this is moments later when a fight broke out between them. I like these sketches just because I laugh whenever I see them. They still scrap but are also the best of friends.
I find drawing people on the plane makes me forget about what’s holding up the plane and whether we’re about to plummet to the earth.
So much for opportunities – but how do you actually draw a person well and in a believable way?
5. DO try to be accurate
It sounds obvious but you are far more likely to get a likeness of your subject if you draw what you see. That can be easier said than done but there are a few tried and tested ways to make seeing more clearly come more easily. Try:
– squinting to see shapes without getting bogged down in detail
– looking at the negative shapes (the shape of the air between limbs)
– comparing proportions (ask yourself if the legs, arms etc. are too big for the body)
What an image! A young girl on the cusp of womanhood. The sketch was all about the beauty of her body so it was important to get the proportions right.
6. DON’T keep rubbing out your line.
Rubbing out mistakes with pencil breaks your flow and your concentration. Embrace the fear and use permanent ink. I use grey ink to minimise the glaring awfulness of my wrong lines, but no one ever notices them anyway, especially if you just draw on top with a correct line.
Paddy on the sofa at home: lots of wobbly lines, but they’re just not noticeable.
7. DO develop a simple palette for skin tones
You are going to have to paint faces if you’re sketching people. When it comes to watercolour, faces come in a very narrow range of colours. There’s “white”: I mix yellow ochre with a hint of burnt umber, and I big up the pink for cheeks and ears, and sometimes noses, particularly if it’s an older gentleman (or me). For a darker skin tone I cut back on the pink, and maybe introduce a bit of burnt umber. For dark skin tones I use burnt umber with a tiny bit of yellow ochre and an even smaller amount of pink, if at all. But make sure your mixing surface is clean, or you won’t get the nice clarity that skin requires.
Isn’t this community orchestra lovely?
8. DO develop a simple palette overall.
I use a lot of indigo because I love the shade of dark blue it provides and because it keeps things uncomplicated. You have enough to be dealing with! Indigo (or Payne’s grey) will give you black clothes, jeans, shadows on white shirts, shadows anywhere…
These guys were all chatting about rugby. I got them all in only because I used such a simple palette, meaning I could lash colour down very fast from one man to another.
9. DON’T fret about getting all the detail in.
Your subject is the person. Don’t worry if you don’t get the background completed. It can look rather lovely to sketch a person in detail and leave the background in a nice inky line with no colour.
A sunny afternoon with the sofa cushions dragged outside made maths homework a bit more bearable.
10. DO make use of light.
Simply leaving the side of the figure blank that’s facing the light is very effective. You can make a figure glow with…literally zero effort.
Here’s my girl again. The poor thing missed her back with suncream and was more sunburnt than she has ever been, before or since.
I hope some of these tips will prove useful. Practice makes perfect. My early sketches had no people in them at all – I was too unsure of myself. But remember: just try, fail, try again, fail better. Soon, like those dogs in the Gary Larson cartoon, you’ll home in on your fellow humans, and before too long you’ll have a wonderful collection of your favourite people tucked away in your sketchbooks. You’ll get a lovely feeling of satisfaction from your efforts, and best of all, you’ll have real memories of your loved ones which will come alive every time you look at them.
What lovely sketching memories and very helpful hints on how to paint people… I have avoided people sketching but I think the time may have come to take the plunge… thanks
I’m so pleased to hear that. It’s so worth the effort!
I admire the lightness of your touch. Do you sketch in pen and ink. I am trying to master the art of a quick sketch.
Hi Em, for me is nearly always ink. This does mean making mistakes and living with them but you get used to that. I use a scratchy old pen and grey ink so my line is a little softer than it might be in black ink. But you just have to make so many drawings that you get bored of wrong lines! Practice makes perfect…
Lovely article, and inspiring. Thank you
My pleasure Nancy, I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Of course your drawing make you happy, they are full love. I can feel it just looking at them on my iphone. Meanwhile trying trying to supress my jealusy of your skill.
Thanks Fergus! I spend my life jealous of someone else’s skill!!
Wonderful tips… thanks so much!
What grey ink do you use that’s waterproof. So far I’ve only found De Atramentis Document in Grey Fog, which is darker and too blue.
Daniel Smith has a new Payne’s blue that is very tempting.
Thanks Gabrielle, that’s really good to know.
Not only a talented artist but an entertaining writer too.
A lovely article with valuable observations.
Thank you Viv, I’m delighted to hear you enjoyed it. I will have fun devising my next topic!
Brilliant article and great tips Róisín! People are my favourite subject but I find it really difficult to get a likeness! The use of grey ink and limited palette really helps!
It’s ALL about drawing what you see and not what you think is there. We think we know human faces so well, so we jump the gun and guess stuff (unconsciously). It’s not easy to override this urge to second-guess but it becomes easier with practice. We’ll talk about this in detail in September.
Lovely sketches. I appreciate all your tips. If I may, which grey ink are you using. I’ve been searching for one that is both fast drying and permanent.
Hi Kate, I use Lexington Gray by Noodlers. A lovely grey shade that’s waterproof – and I assume permanent!
Thank you so much for this post!
I’ve just started my way on urban sketching, and find drawing people much more interesting than just landscapes or architecture…
Your tips were really helpful!
I’m so glad Joyce. It’s funny, buildings and so on are easier because they don’t move…but there really is nothing to compare with drawing people! You might find it hard to come across teachers who emphasise accuracy in drawing (it’s somewhat unfashionable in certain circles) but it repays the effort tenfold.