Drawing People & Faces

Drawing the head

Drawing people & faces is no different from learning how to draw other random objects. Every drawing process requires you to follow a few simple steps. These steps enable you to establish basic proportions and guides before working on details and finishes. This tutorial will skim through the overall basics of understanding how to draw people and faces using simple shapes such as circles, spheres, triangles, and blocks. Here are a few examples of shapes and forms that I would recommend practicing if you want to learn how to draw people and portraits.

Drawing toolbox

Drawing tool box David Lagesse. Basic shapes
Practice drawing some shapes in rotation on your page. Cylinders & Blocks are easy to divide into portions and make for good starting points when drawing more complex things such as faces and people.
Drawing cylinders David Lagesse
Drawing cylinders of various shapes and sizes will make it easier to draw arms, legs, hands, and fingers. If you were to simplify the limbs of the body into its most basic shape, you will notice that the human body is predominantly made up of cylindrical shapes.
Bean shape for drawing people David Lagesse
The Torso and Pelvis have a 2/3 and 1/3 ratio. You can use the rib cage and pelvic bone as your guide or something as simple as a potato shape to show the orientation of the figure. Practice drawing variations of these basic forms so that they appear to face different angles and directions.

Basic proportions when drawing people

There are so many different shapes and sizes of people that I tend to worry less about the rules of proportions, but rather the overall look of the drawing. Being comfortable with these shapes will make it easier for you to adjust to a variety of options as you practice drawing people & faces.

Basic proportions for drawing faces

Construction of a face David Lagesse

Drawing people & faces from memory is very different from drawing from observation or reference. One method requires a strong understanding of the anatomy and structure of the head, whereas the other requires a keen eye for observation. Many artists struggle with anatomy because they have not taken the time to study and practice the basic shapes that form the anatomy of the head and the body.

We are shortly going to take a look at some of the shapes that are useful to understand and practice in order to become better at drawing people & faces. Before we do so, here is a keyword that you will hear often when talking about drawing people (figures) and faces (portraits).

The foreshortening of a figure in drawing.

The word foreshortening is used in art to describe the illusion of creating depth by reducing or increasing an angle of view. This is most common when drawing people from above, below or sitting down. Foreshortening can be used in situations when there is an extreme angle of the head often giving your illustrations a more dynamic look and feel.

The easiest way to practice these angles is to draw cylinders viewed from a different viewpoint. The cylinder acts as a base for arms and legs. It is also helpful to position the rotation or angle of the torso and pelvis. Here are a few examples to illustrate the purpose of the cylinder.

Leg drawing David Lagesse
Understanding the basic shapes to draw a leg. When drawn in perspective the cylinders act as a guide to determine the overall volume and direction of your shape. In this case, the leg is shown as bent and facing away from us. The placement of the foot suggests that the leg is seen from a side angle.
Foreshortening leg drawing David Lagesse
As the cylinder rotates the illusion of depth is created by foreshortening. When put into practice to draw a leg in this example, I am able to draw the bent leg facing away from the viewer. This is also achieved by overlapping the cylindrical shapes to emphasize the orientation.
Drawing arms with cylinders David Lagesse
Using the same techniques it is possible to draw arms in a variety of directions. Having this freedom to make changes and adjustments will make your drawings more dynamic and intentional.
Drawing cylinders for people & faces David Lagesse
In order to connect two cylinders, it is important to include a joining ball or circle. This acts as the knee cap or elbow and helps for the positioning of the arm or leg. The same process can be used to draw fingers.
Drawing hands and fingers David Lagesse

Drawing the core figure with basic shapes

Drawing basic shapes David Lagesse
Try using a variety of base shapes. Any of these examples can be used in a particular context. Things such as age, sex, size, and nationality may determine how you choose to use your base shapes.

Start with a small warmup. This is generally a very loose page with drawings and sketches. Here is an example of a typical warmup.

warm up sketches for drawing David Lagesse
Warmup sketches with block shapes, cylinders, and line movement. Spending several minutes drawing on a rough paper is a good way to awaken your drawing senses. Try to focus on elements that will serve you the most depending on your subject.

Keep your options open

So for the purpose of this tutorial, we will not go into too many details of headcounts. Rather, we will focus on the overall impressions and bulk shapes of the head and figure. Keeping in mind that drawing people does not have to be a scientific experiment with extreme precision. Leaving some room for originality and individuality will make your drawings seem more lively, real and dynamic.

Drawing stick people David Lagesse
By using simple stick-like figures it is possible to establish an overall impression of the subject you are drawing. You can make adjustments to the proportions as you develop your drawing into a more finished product. The important thing to remember in this initial stage of the drawing process is that you are better off having a good base to start your drawing rather than diving into details too early and missing out on the fundamentals of scale, proportion and basic volume.

Understanding the proportions of people

Now that we have a clearer idea of the shapes and forms to draw portraits and people. Let us start with the head. The head can be used as a unit of measure to draw a person. Generally ranging from 7 1/2 heads to 8 1/2 heads depending on male or female models and in some cases the origin of the person.

This form of measurement only applies to draw portraits & people when they are standing in an upright position. Or in a classic pose where all parts of the body are drawn either from a front view or side view. Any other viewpoints will require foreshortening and thus the unit of measure will not be accurate.

Ground your subject.

The first step to drawing people is understanding how the figure is positioned in relation to the ground surface. This is how you can effectively ground your figure which will play an important effect on the end result of your drawing.

gesture drawing of people David Lagesse

In order to do this, we use what is called a gesture line. This line travels through the curves of the figure, establishing the line of action and structure of your drawing. In the case that your figure is in a unique position. It is possible to identify the general shape and space that the figure is occupying by framing your subject. This can be in the form of a rectangle or triangle for example.

The sketches below indicate some of the examples that I have mentioned. It is important to note that these drawings serve the purpose to understand the basic structure and proportions of the figure. So, for now, we are not focusing on any details. We simply want to capture a pose, gesture or general impression of the proportions of the figure in space.

Drawing people in poses David Lagesse

As you can see from the above drawings. There is no need for too many details to convey your idea and start a figure drawing. Already in some examples, you can have a sense of character and emotion. What happens when we take this a step further by adding volume to these figures.

Drawing basic people shapes David Lagesse
From left to right you will notice the transition from stick figure to cylindrical volume. By adding a small amount of volume and then creating a variety of scale, it is possible to develop a composition with very little effort. This technique serves to establish an idea before committing to any details until you are happy with the initial outcome.

Adding features and details.


Drawing ears David Lagesse


Drawing eyes David Lagesse


Drawing noses

Lips & Mouth

Drawing the mouth & lips David Lagesse

Developed drawings of people & faces

Here are a few portraits that I have experimented with using a variety of styles and mediums. The important thing to retain from this is to have some fun while you are learning. Trying new styles and techniques is a great way to keep you immersed in the process of learning.

Drawing faces mixed media David Lagesse
Drawing cartoon faces David Lagesse
Drawing people in caricature David Lagesse

Drawing people & faces from references and imagination.

Drawing people David Lagesse

To wrap this up

Drawing people & faces can seem like a difficult task when viewed from the perspective of simply copying a photo and looking for the perfect resemblance. The reality is that there is no one right or wrong way to draw. It is through practice and perseverance that you will find what works best for you in your art practice. As a beginner, I can only suggest that you focus on the simple shapes and forms until you are comfortable with the overall idea of drawing people and faces. This form of repetition will help you further down the line when you decide to attempt more complex drawings.

Using guides and basic shapes is not cheating, in fact, it is a method widely used by professionals in the world of art, illustration, design, and media. By constructing a drawing from the base up, you are making sure that you control each step of the process. So the next time you decide to draw a face or a figure, consider starting with a stick figure and work your way through the proportions to finally add the details and create a character.

Artwork and tutorial by David Lagesse