How to draw figures by drawing a stick man

StickmanWalkingYou drew them when you were a child: stick people that lept, danced, fought, or just stood around in the landscape of your childhood art. And if you learn how to draw them again, they’ll help you enormously when you are sketching in public places.


Things to look for when drawing a stick man

  • Angle for position Pay attention to the angle of the head, shoulders, and the hips. I often draw those lines first, lightly, to help me capture the pose. I also make quick lines for the angles of the feet so that I know how they are positioned and if I have time, I add the knees and elbows using little circles. Getting these landmarks down on paper will help you remember the position of your subject, even after they’ve moved. Everything after that becomes a connect-the-dots game.
  • Measure! Stick your pencil out and verify that your brain is really seeing what’s there. I can’t stress that enough. You don’t have to get too detailed; if you’re rapidly sketching kids on a soccer field, or people in a park, you don’t have time for a lot of measurements. I look for the vertical halfway point and mark that quickly so I can go on to the torso. When I draw the torso, I eyeball the center line so that I can get the right perspective.
  • Torso comes first My life drawing teacher, Rob Anderson, used to say, “if you can draw the torso correctly, you can hang the rest of the body from it.” I always try to get the torso and hips first; they are the structure. All the rest is decoration. If you add lobes to represent the rib cage, it can help you see the center line.
  • Draw cubicley Think of the upper body as a box with two lobes (the ribs). The tummy is a soft ball; how much of that do you see? The pelvis/hips can be a tube, although some people use a box for the hips. I like using a butterfly shaped tube because I can see how the ball of the tummy fits into the pelvis area.
  • Transparent thinking Try to imaging the shoulder blades on the back, which will give you the correct position of the arms. Draw your stickman as though he were a ghost so you can see your construction lines.




Once you have the stickman posed correctly, you can start adding flesh to him. In the figure below, I drew him in black ink, then built his form up using blue lines. When I’m sketching in the field, I draw the construction lines lightly, and often don’t erase them when I’m finished because they can make the figure more solid and dimensional. They are also great for later reference when I’m trying to construct a new drawing, because all this public sketching, besides being fun, is fodder for future work. Stickmanslouching

Drawing exercise Get thee to a public place and draw the people in it. Concentrate on drawing only stickmen. Afterwards at home, draw other stickmen (from your imagination) interacting with the first drawings. Challenge yourself by drawing them in overlapping positions, some farther away, some closer to the picture plane. Then let me know how it goes. I’d love to see your drawing.

Monday life drawing at the last minute

5 minute gesture drawings with Micron Pigma pens on card stock
5-minute gesture drawings with Pigma pens on card stock

On Monday night I had planned on attending the local life drawing session after work. But when the demands of the day job made me late, I almost bagged it. I didn’t have time to go home to get my charcoal and Biggie pad of paper, and I wanted my dinner (like an army , I travel–and draw–on my stomach).

I had a little pouch full of Pigma pens, and a sketchbook too, but I didn’t want to fill the sketchbook with millions of gesture drawings. I’m fussy about that kind of thing. It takes me a long time to warm up, so that my first 1- and 2- minute gesture drawings are big messes. I like to use cheap paper I can throw away. I’m less precious when I use crummy paper for warm up sketches, and I don’t feel bad about all the mistakes.

I didn’t have cheap newsprint with me Monday night, but I did have a calendar made from cardstock and bound with wire. Cheap. Temporary (I’ll throw it away at the end of the year). So I did my quick sketches on the back of the calendar pages.

Wow! What a pleasure it was to draw those Pigma pens across that cheap card stock. I loved the graceful line and delicate shading that was possible on the semi-smooth surface, and the ink dried quickly, so I didn’t smudge.

And the model, when he saw that I was drawing on my calendar said, “Cool, I always wanted to be on a calendar. What month am I?”


Mr. February

Dancing the charcoal fantastique

A few years ago I studied briefly with a life-drawing teacher who made me stand arm length from the paper, take up a hand-size piece of charcoal, and dance while I drew.

“Keep your arm straight, he directed. “Draw from the shoulder, not the wrist. Move your body!”

He turned on some jazzy music, and insisted that I dance throughout the whole 20-minute set of short poses.

“You already know how to find proportions,” the teacher said. “You know how to draw the parts of the body. You’ve got a good eye. Now you have to find some life, some joy in your drawings.”

You must understand. I’m not a cheeky, dancing-on-the-table party-girl kind of person; I’m a focused, earnest, git-r-done kind of person. Generally, I don’t dance; I plod.

And I was deadly serious about learning to draw. I had been studying with Rob Anderson for a couple of years, and was used to doing slow, careful, accurate work. I was strict with myself.

Doing a dance step and shaking my hips while trying to capture on paper the motion of a model? It was a little weird. Okay, so it was a lot weird. And I was afraid I’d let go of the drafting skills I’d worked so hard to gain. I was afraid the outcome would be terrible.

But you know what? The dancing didn’t destroy my hard-won knowledge of proportions, comparative drawing, and anatomy. All the practice I’d done previously was lodged in my subconscious, and when the music started and I started moving, the knowledge and skill bubbled up and gave form to my dancing.

I wasn’t just head banging in a papery mosh pit; I was floating around gracefully on a dance floor sprung with newsprint and chalk. And the drawings were something entirely different from anything I’d done before.

All that dancing had helped set me free from precious scratchy little marks and awkward figures. Those dance-infused drawings marked a huge leap of progress for me.

I normally work in a silent studio, but these days, when my drawings start to seize up into crabbed little wads of chalk-snot, I put on my headphones, spin my Ipod dial to music, and do a little shimmy at the easel.

A meditation on gesture drawing

1-minute gesture drawing
Charcoal on newsprint

Last month I spent a brilliant morning drawing at a model guild benefit, and it reignited my love of life drawing, and especially the gesture. And since I get an disproportionate number of hits for “gesture drawing,”  I thought I’d scratch out some thoughts on gesture drawing from life.

Gesture drawing is often described as capturing the action of a pose, the feeling of a thing, the “inner essence”. It’s quick, it’s forceful, it’s to-the-point. It captures an active moment in time. A frozen glimpse of a model balancing on one leg; a dog loping along the beach; a bank of clouds blowing like boulders across the horizon.

At it’s most academic, gesture drawing is about studying. It’s about drawing—a lot of—poses, or people, or animals, or landscapes, in a short amount of time. It’s a rapid and deep immersion into a multiplicity of form and line. It’s an exploration of media and mind. A flick of the wrist and the arc of the arm discover new shapes and spaces, new angles and elements, new ideas  to build upon later when drawing time has once again slowed to a careful crawl.

But at it’s most basic level, gesture drawing is simply and awfully darn fun.

4 1-minute gesture drawings
Charcoal on newsprint

Sketching at the airport

These are some gesture drawings from my Chicago journal. They were done quickly, because people in airports tend to wiggle around.

I was trying to capture the gesture of  light across the faces. Airports are great for studying the effects of light on faces; those gigantic windows are every artists’ dream, especially when the airport wing faces north. And there are herds of free models available for quick sketches!

Finding the gesture of the light means quickly figuring out the basic value pattern—the simple lights and darks—and the shapes of those lights and darks. If you can get those things down correctly, you can get some kind of likeness.

They were drawn and painted throughout our travel day on 140# Arches hot press. using a Pigma Micron #08 (it’s waterproof), a Pentel Aquash pen and a little travel kit of watercolors.