Only Human, After All: 10 Dos and Don’ts When Drawing People

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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19 Comments

  1. Joyce Melo

    May 2, 2017 at 2:11 am

    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!

    • Róisín Curé

      May 2, 2017 at 5:40 am

      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.

  2. Kate Buike

    April 30, 2017 at 1:21 pm

    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.

    • Róisín Curé

      April 30, 2017 at 6:09 pm

      Hi Kate, I use Lexington Gray by Noodlers. A lovely grey shade that’s waterproof – and I assume permanent!

  3. Barbara Nigg

    April 30, 2017 at 7:07 am

    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!

    • Róisín Curé

      April 30, 2017 at 8:33 am

      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.

  4. Viv Edwards

    April 30, 2017 at 2:54 am

    Not only a talented artist but an entertaining writer too.
    A lovely article with valuable observations.
    Thank you.

    • Róisín Curé

      April 30, 2017 at 8:30 am

      Thank you Viv, I’m delighted to hear you enjoyed it. I will have fun devising my next topic!

  5. Gabrielle Kriver

    April 26, 2017 at 2:10 pm

    Daniel Smith has a new Payne’s blue that is very tempting.

    • Róisín Curé

      April 30, 2017 at 8:30 am

      Thanks Gabrielle, that’s really good to know.

  6. Kate Buike

    April 25, 2017 at 2:26 pm

    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.

  7. Fergus O'Conchobhair

    April 25, 2017 at 7:06 am

    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.

    • Róisín Curé

      April 25, 2017 at 7:09 am

      Thanks Fergus! I spend my life jealous of someone else’s skill!!

  8. Nancy Boyle

    April 24, 2017 at 11:57 pm

    Lovely article, and inspiring. Thank you

  9. Em Hughston

    April 24, 2017 at 3:10 am

    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.

    • Róisín Curé

      April 24, 2017 at 5:56 am

      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…

  10. Geraldine Dunne

    April 23, 2017 at 10:17 pm

    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

    • Róisín Curé

      April 23, 2017 at 10:21 pm

      I’m so pleased to hear that. It’s so worth the effort!

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