Figure drawing: A beginner's guide

figure drawing

Figure drawing is a fundamental skill for artists, but one of the hardest to truly master. In this article, I explain my personal process and offer some advice to help you improve your figure drawings.

On this page we'll walk through how to draw a female figure. Jump to page 2 for a step by step guide to drawing male figures, or page 3 for a closer look at gesture drawing.

Although having knowledge of the proportions of a human figure is important, bear in mind that these are only a guide. Trying to shoehorn every person you draw into an eight-head-high ideal is a shortcut to uninspiring figure drawing.

To achieve style we need to work with gesture, the spirit of the pose, the fluid nature in line. If we take gesture too far, though, our drawing will look wobbly. To counter that we need to also work with a solid structure, but too much structure can make for a stiff drawing. Therein lies the great balancing act of figure drawing that we will explore here.

For a more basic guide, see how to draw a person

Above you can watch one of my-depth video tutorials where I explore how to get the most from references. For step-by-step written instructions on how to draw a female figure, read the tutorial below.

After more drawing tips? Take a look at our guide to how to draw pretty much anything, or check out our essential advice on foreshortening in art or even these charcoal drawing tips. Alternatively, get yourself kitted out with the best pencils around.

With that out of the way, let's get started on how to draw the female figure…

Click the icon in the top right of each image to enlarge it.

01. Start with simple shapes

First establish your basic proportions

Start with your attention level set to high. I use a small, two-finger wide piece of charcoal for my initial sketch. Draw the basic proportions, making any adjustments required – especially if you're working from a photo.

02. Add more sophisticated lines

Use a gestural grip for this stage

Starting your figure drawing with basic shapes makes it easier to draw more sophisticated lines on top. Here, I've drawn the face using small shapes inside a big shape. This is two of my disciplines in action at once: big to small; and simple to sophisticated.

Note the gestural grip in action. Drawing with our gestural hand enables us to use the rhythm of our arm rather than our stiff wrist to make our marks. It gives us the freedom to draw long fluid lines on the paper (for more advice, see this article on how to hold a pencil correctly).

03. Exaggerate the curves

You don't need to copy exactly what you see

I'm constantly analysing the photo reference. On closer inspection, what appears to be a foot is actually the ankle twisting. I decide to draw the classic shape of a foot to make the drawing more clear. I'm improving what I observe in the photo in terms of artistic mark-making. Note how many times I exaggerate the curves to make the drawing more lively.

04. Lay in broad tones in charcoal

Time to add some depth

At this stage I step back from the art to check the drawing has solid structure. I lay in broad tones with my charcoal. Remember, our goal here is to interpret the reference. If we gauge success on how close we copy, we'll end up with a stiff drawing that looks like a distorted photo.

05. Blend tone into form

Blending the drawing means you can adjust anything you want to

Up until now I've juggled gesture with structure. It's an okay drawing, but nothing stylish. This is the journeyman stage, from which we can stamp our own style. Using tissue, I blend tone into form, this also fades the drawing and gives me a second chance to draw better on top.

06. Add more tonal gestures

Finger smudging charcoal

Make some final tweaks to your figure drawing

Here I'm making small structural adjustments and adding more tonal gestures. This second time around goes quickly – just a matter of minutes, which is a small investment for an hour-long drawing. From this point onwards, my quest is to further explore style in the drawing.

07. Remember, if it looks wrong, it is wrong!

Figure drawing with ribcage area corrected

Sometimes parts that are anatomically accurate will look incorrect

I use shadows to push the gesture, but omit the shadow of the xiphoid process (the small bone under the pointed arch of the ribcage). It looks odd here. Even though it's correct, it violates one of my art laws: If it looks wrong, it's wrong, even if it's right!

08. Use a paper stump for adjustments

Hand using a drawing stump, with paper underneath to prevent smudging

Push charcoal around rather than adding more

Using a paper stump, I push around the charcoal that's already on the paper rather than lay more charcoal down. This keeps the drawing light and fresh. I'm also mindful to always be drawing even when blending. I use a sheet of paper to prevent me smudging the drawing.

Struggling with to make the medium work for you? Check out our ten expert tips for charcoal drawing.

09. Create highlights with an eraser

Charcoal figure with highlights added

Think of the eraser as another drawing tool

I 'draw' highlights with a kneadable eraser. I think of the eraser as a drawing tool rather than a correction tool. Slowly does it, especially in the early stages. Drawing fast is a false economy – if we rush a drawing then we inevitably spend most of our time fixing mistakes.

10. Take a break

Charcoal figure

Taking a break means you'll spot inaccuracies more easily

I take a short coffee break away from the drawing and come back with a fresh eye. A break helps me see the bugbears more clearly when I return. I see the breasts are too close in shape while the lower rib cage is too smooth. I make minor changes to both bugbears and am ready for the big finish.

11. Add in a background

Charcoal being smudged using a chamois leather

A chamois leather is useful for creating abstract marks

I lay down a large swath of charcoal, then smudge it with a chamois leather cloth, playing with textures as I go. I learned of the chamois from Glenn Vilppu a few years back and it's been part of my drawing arsenal ever since. Here I use it for abstract marks to ground the figure and add style.

12. Introduce the elements of fantasy

Female figure with breastplate and jewellery added

The figure here is reimagined as a vampire

For my image, I imagined a vampire in a bloodlust trance. With large charcoal sticks I draw abstract shapes then pencil in the breast plates and jewellery using hard erasers for highlights.

Next page: How to draw a male figure

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Patrick J Jones is an artist, teacher and the author of Sci-fi & Fantasy Oil Painting Techniques, The Anatomy of Style and The Sci-fi & Fantasy Art of Patrick J Jones.