How to Get Better at Drawing People

Kagan McLeod
Jun 4, 2019 7:56PM

In the new book Draw People Everyday, illustrator Kagan McLeod offers short lessons and exercises on using line, tone, and color to develop realistic depictions of people. “To contemporary artists, drawing with line may seem antiquated. It can seem like a first step toward something more substantial,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “Even if you believe this is true (I don’t), it’s still a good idea to hone your skills by drawing with line. Such work is the first step in creating most representational art.” Here, we share an excerpt from the book, on using line to create figure drawings from life.

Carefully observe important structures so you can get them right, but don’t go overboard with unnecessary detail.

Some people are better at drawing things—a still life, mechanical objects, landscapes, and so on—but have trouble when drawing people. Others are only interested in drawing people, and their indifference toward other subject matter is obvious. The best artists can draw everything with the same gusto. I lean more toward people, preferring to draw organic things and shapes where and when I can (though it is also fun for me to try to use lively strokes for more rigid subjects, like room interiors or vehicles).

Regardless, as humans, we all respond to pictures of humans. While there are many types of artists, it’s surely the ability to draw people well that’s most impressive to the widest audience. Art admirers will often chime in that they “can’t draw a stick figure.” Nobody ever complains that they can’t draw the horizon.

Drawing people live offers many advantages that can help improve your skill level much more quickly than would be possible if you just worked from reference or memory. First, you are converting three dimensions into two. Seeing the real world and deciphering it on paper is harder than copying other art or photos, but it will heighten your drawing abilities. Second, you will hone your observation skills. Last, the aspect of time is an important factor. A figure-drawing pose is never eternal, and many times the model is not completely still. You will have to learn to make approximations and quick decisions while your reference is available. Skills in these departments will translate to and improve all other areas of your artwork.

Chanelle, from life, five minutes. Most figure-drawing sessions increase the time of the poses as the session goes on. This five-minute drawing started with a dry brush underdrawing before I added thicker “final” lines.

Alex, from life, ten minutes. Note the calligraphic, split brush, and dry brush lines in this quick life study.


If you can find local figure-drawing sessions to attend, that’s a good start. Traditionally, figure drawing is done with a nude model to enable study of the human form. Clothing adds another degree of complexity and obscures the forms underneath. Drawing from a model with or without clothing is beneficial in different ways, though knowing what is underneath a garment is essential for understanding how it hangs or folds and why. By applying this knowledge, you can make your drawings more credible and grounded in reality. Seek out clothed or nude models based on your preferred area of study.

When no open session is available, hire a model yourself or ask a friend or relative to pose for you. People you know well are often more difficult to draw, as you can be harder on yourself if the likeness is not right. But if you’re interested in the appearance of your subject, you will be more enthusiastic about drawing them.

Much has been written elsewhere about human proportions, and, since the chief concern here is bringing life to your drawing, I’ll only touch on the basics of the subject. Observation will help you both to discover these fundamentals for yourself and to allow you to build upon them perpetually. For some, a structural underdrawing is helpful for planning a figure on the page and for maintaining good proportions. As mentioned before, it’s still possible to achieve this effect in ink with a dry brush, so don’t let the permanency of the medium scare you away.

Basic anatomy is important when drawing a figure. A good understanding of the structure of the body and how its muscles, bones, and fatty parts interweave can help make your drawings convincing. However, try not to get bogged down with the minutiae of memorizing countless bones and muscles, or of trying to include them all in every drawing. Excessive detail can drown out a good figure drawing. Fussing too much over anatomy is often the reason why drawings appear overworked. It’s helpful to remember the big structures and how they interlock with other body parts, and to allow time for further inspection of areas that you don’t understand.

For these two-minute gesture studies, I focused on the intricacies of the neck and shoulder muscles, which were more apparent in this model than in others. Spot things that are noveto your model and try to learn from them.

You can see a good example of the importance of recognizing crucial and superfluous detail when drawing a neck. The sternocleidomastoid muscle goes from the collarbone at the center of the neck to behind the ear, and is more apparent when a figure’s head is turned. That is important information to know (even for a quick drawing). There are many other muscles in the neck, but the more you draw (especially in line), the more your drawing will begin to resemble the Incredible Hulk mid-transformation. Consider which muscles are of primary importance in a given pose and which are secondary. Then highlight and downplay those muscles as needed.

Confusing areas are useful to study. One of the benefits of drawing a live subject is that you can inspect an area of concern from a different angle to provide additional clarity. Some structures demand greater attention than others, again depending on the pose you are drawing. For example, the pectoral muscle connects to the arm between the shoulder and bicep muscles. It is relatively simple to draw when the arms are at rest. Mistakes become more apparent, though, when the arm is raised, particularly as you must show which muscles overlap.

Back muscles are much less pronounced and usually barely visible. It is the shoulder blades that jut out in certain poses. Make decisions as to what to emphasize, given your subject. Don’t add superfluous details just because you know what’s underneath the skin. Find what interests you and what is important to the structure as a whole.

There are rules for overall proportions in figure drawing that one can follow (the figure is so many heads tall, the arms hang midway to the thigh, and so on). However, you will see that these proportions vary among individuals and often depend on the angle of the pose. In some cases, you may be inspired to distort or exaggerate features to emphasize them—throwing proportion to the wind. As you draw from life, take each part of a figure as it comes and adjust your intentions for your pictures accordingly. Many students make the mistake of going on autopilot after beginning a drawing and end up with a generic mannequin-like figure. Real people aren’t stiff, symmetrical, or flat. Try and catch yourself if you feel you’ve started to draw from your head as opposed to looking at the model, and snap yourself out of it.

Kagan McLeod
Kagan McLeod is a commercial illustrator. His clients include GQ, Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek. He creates graphic novels, exhibits at comic conventions, and teaches illustration classes.