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How to Sketch People I: The Boater

Updated on August 20, 2009

The Boater

"The Boater" 9B graphite pencil on Moleskine sketchbook, Robert A. Sloan
"The Boater" 9B graphite pencil on Moleskine sketchbook, Robert A. Sloan

Sketching People in Scenes...

If you've read some of my other art lesson Hubs, you might wonder if I ever draw people. I like doing cats, landscapes, other wildlife and flowers. That's a current passion. Yet human figures enhance many landscapes and the one type of drawing that will always sell is portraits.

This article begins a series on figure drawing, most of it clothed figures from photos or from life. Developing the skill of drawing people fast and well gives you the freedom to grab a sketchbook and pencil instead of a phone camera, or to turn your phone camera snapshots into preliminary sketches for serious paintings in oils, acrylics, pastels, oil pastels, colored pencil realism or anything else you want to do. We'll get into skin tones later. The basis of any good painting is a good drawing.

For that, you need a black and white value drawing to know where the dark areas are and where the light falls. In a way you're not drawing the subject. Whether it's a bearded guy steering his yacht, your beloved cat or a back yard tree, the subject is only visible because light is falling on it. If you draw the light accurately without paying attention to what the subject is, you will get a much more accurate sketch of the subject.

People think in symbols. If I were to draw a cartoon of this man, you'd read it accurately in an instant even though it's simplified and could be stylized to the point of being way outside normal proportions. Let's see how he looks as a cartoon.

Cartoon Boater

Cartoon Boater, 9B pencil on Moleskine sketchbook, Robert A. Sloan
Cartoon Boater, 9B pencil on Moleskine sketchbook, Robert A. Sloan


My funnybone goes off when I draw cartoons. I had to put in the shark fins cruising close to the yacht because he looked so oblivious with the exrpession I put on him. Cartoons are symbolic. Features are simplified to show expression more than accurately sized or placed.

His head's a lot rounder in the cartoon. I could have made it seriously oversized like a child's and it would still read true. His beard crosses his smile, I drew his mouth way out of proportion. Getting some perspective on the way he's standing was possible partly because I had the finished Boater sketch next to him on the facing page.

If I wanted to refine this cartoon, I'd go from this pencil sketch to doodling him again lightly and inking it, then erasing the pencil.

When you are drawing something to scan in pencil, use the softest pencil you have!

I used a 9B Cretacolor graphite pencil for these drawings. 6B is good enough, or even 4B, but if you use a normal HB pencil, all but your darkest lines won't show up. On the earlier stages I still had to adjust the scan in Gimp to reduce contrast in order to show any of the light values (how light or dark things are is value in artist jargon), and the very lightest ones still don't show. But if your drawing shows up well when it loses the light values, you're on the right track.

When you're planning to ink a sketch or color over it with colored pencils, use a hard H range pencil. F is a harder pencil than HB, it's between HB and H in hardness. The normal No. 2 pencil is an HB, dead middle of the graphite pencils range. You can also get watersoluble graphite pencils, where if you slosh water on the drawing it'll dissolve like watercolor pencils to make a graphite wash. This can be gorgeous. They also tend to be soft B range pencils anyway, so if you get one of those it's good for both wet and dry work.

You will also need a kneaded eraser. Sometimes called a putty eraser, a kneaded eraser is the best thing for grownup artists since Silly Putty. It works as the best eraser for gently removing graphite, either all of it or slightly lightening it, without ripping up the paper. It also becomes a fiddle thing like silly putty and you have an excuse to play with it because that's how to clean it. It costs under a dollar at an art or hobby store. Get one. Get several. Keep one in your pencil box at all times.

You can also use a White Vinyl eraser. Don't use the pink erasers on the butt end of normal HB pencils if you can help it, those streak pink on drawings. Inevitably, that happens on the best drawing you've ever done when just creating a highlight or correcting a detail and the smear will go where it does the most harm. So stick to the white plastic erasers or kneaded erasers. I use the kneaded eraser more since it's more versatile. The ones that come in pen shaped stick form with a click to extend them are good white vinyl erasers suitable for lightening tiny details or heavy erasing, those are handy too.

You'll also want paper to draw on. For portability, I love my somewhat expensive tiny Moleskine journal. I just got the standard journal without lines in 3 1/2" x 5 1/2". It has a lot more pages than you'd think. It fits in my pocket and it's got a cool leather cover, yet it lays flat on the scanner. So that's something to treat yourself to if you're serious about drawing. Otherwise just get a cheap sketchbook or pad.

Sketchbooks can be anything down to and including backs of envelopes and old print mail. If it's blank, you can sketch on it. Sketching is practice and it's also preliminary to doing good serious art, whether that's drawing or painting. Don't worry about having to redo a sketch if it came out good.

Seriously, if you try to draw the same thing again after doing it well, you will probably draw it even better the second time around. If not, keep redrawing it until you do. It helps a lot for beginners and experts to draw the same thing more than once, because you will see things in the subject on later drawings that you didn't notice at first and make corrections. When you make corrections you'll remember them in the later drawing and discover new things about the subject.

When you draw something a dozen times it starts getting easier. If you draw that same thing a hundred times, it gets so easy that you can draw it without looking at it. This is why it's getting so easy for me to draw my cat -- I love him and have been sketching him since his Home Day nine years ago when he was six weeks old. But let's get back to drawing people.

They're around all the time, so you can start with people that you know. Work from photos at first, since beginners take longer to complete a drawing than most people will put up with posing. Or try gesture sketches, try to draw someone in just two minutes. It's easier to persuade friends and family to pose for two or five minutes with a timer than to get them to sit half an hour for a portrait.

Snapshots will get more active poses like this boater. I used a photo reference from the Classical forum Photo Paint-Along posted by WC member azulparsnip on If you are interested in learning to draw well -- which is perhaps the most important aspect of learning to paint well too -- then join WetCanvas. It's free and offers both a huge Reference Image Library for members and free classes in drawing and painting in a wide variety of media. The drawing classes are organized in a long thorough course where moderators and volunteer teachers will comment and critique your work on the class projects. WC offers the best online free art class that I have ever found, at all levels.

If you're great at it already and up in the high paid professional category, WC will still offer critique and advanced classes in anything art. So enjoy the site, it's incredibly stimulating.

Back to the art lesson.

My cartoon came out well because I sketched the serious drawing first. I didn't stylize his proportions as much as I could, because I had already gotten them right working from the photo and blocking in.

Most beginners will draw details first, trying hard to get them accurate. The problem with that is that details are easy. If you get the basic proportions right, the details fall into place almost without effort. But you can waste a lot of time getting one eye perfect and then do another perfect eye that's too small next to it, resulting in spending hours on a drawing that looks wrong and may make you cringe without even understanding why. Looking close at the details won't even reveal what's wrong, it usually takes someone else to say "That eye is too small and it's too high on the face."

So most artists begin a drawing by reducing what they're drawing to simple geometric shapes. These sketch lines get erased or drawn over. Don't worry about them going outside the real outlines of the figure, you can remove them or just put the blocking-in sketch on a light box and draw the real sketch over them without erasing anything. Get used to doing them lightly so that you can erase easily though.

Here's the first stage blocking in my boater:

Blocking In -- Proportions Simplified

Blocking In -- this stage is essential to save time and get accurate proportions.
Blocking In -- this stage is essential to save time and get accurate proportions.

Blocking In

The stage of blocking in is so fast and easy that even a beginner doesn't need to spend more than a few minutes at it. Try drawing this way. Don't put any features. Don't shade it. Just sketch blocks and oblongs and ovals. Simplify everything and try to draw it in under five minutes.

Then check the proportions against the photo.

This is the only way to do accurate drawings of human beings. Human proportions are counter intuitive. Heads aren't shaped like any other creature in nature. Foreheads are enormous. Noses are weird. Hands are hard to draw because in a small drawing your line width could be wider than the guy's fingers. Arms look too long or too short, same with legs.

So you can get proportions right for a particular pose best by "rule of thumb" measuring. If the head's about the size of one joint on your thumb, you can measure off how many heads long the back of his jacket is -- about 2 and a bit heads -- by using your thumb. On the real drawing his head's about as long as the width of my thumb, so I moved it down his back to see it's two and a bit long. Somewhere between a third and a fourth of a thumb.

You can also use a ruler, metric or inches, to do the measuring. Nothing in the art of drawing says you have to use thumbs or assorted fingers. It's just easier if you happen to be out somewhere sketching from life and don't have a ruler handy. If you prefer a ruler, keep a short one tucked into your sketchbook all the time so that you're prepared. Some artists will also use a pencil or paint brush, holding it so that their finger tip measures off between the tip and the measurement for unique measurements like a head length or hand length.

Check measurements in both directions. Whatever feature you use to measure with, it should be small -- and consistent. If you measure by head length, then don't measure the arm by hand length and the body by heads. Heads are convenient and traditional but you could measure everything including the head by "section of ship's wheel" and get just as good results. His head is one section of ship's wheel long from under the brim of his hat to the tip of his beard.

If your measurements are wrong, correct them. If they're so far off that you'd have to erase the whole thing, skip that and sketch it again till you get all the proportions right.

Pay attention to angles. He is not standing straight up and down. He's leaning back to compensate for a tilting boat. His arm is going down at an angle from his shoulder to the wheel. Many beginners will unconsciously straighten angles, turning everything into uprights. Or take the slant of his body and make every upright line parallel to it when it's not.

That's one of those counter intuitive things about drawing. If you get the angles of the shapes right then they'll look a lot more real and three dimensional even in that simple a blocking-in sketch. Notice that when I blocked in, I didn't even show his hand on the lever for the motor. It was a small detail and I didn't notice it.

In the cartoon version, once I knew it was there, I exaggerated it to show more of his action. He's bringing his boat up to higher speed and steering happily while sharks circle the boat. But in the serious drawing, that hand is a minor detail and mostly doesn't show. That arm looks much shorter because of the angle we're seeing it at. 

Draw what's there, not what you think or know is there. We know his arms are the same length. But foreshortening makes the one in front look much longer. So measure the photo and check it against your blocking-in sketch, then adjust it. Anything that's small like that hand on the lever, leave it out until you have the major shapes established.

The line of the front and back of the jacket aren't the same either. It bells out in front at an angle, probably because of wind. I hinted at some of the folds in the sleeve in the blocking in partly because I got the line of his sleeve wrong and corrected it. The old bad line looked like one of the shadows, so I left it in and added a couple more.

So if you goof and add a detail or two at this stage, don't worry about it. If they're right, keep them. If not, erase them. 

This is a line drawing. It could be developed by more accurately drawing the contours and doing contour lines for the shadows, which is what I'd do if I wanted to paint it. Instead, we'll move to stage two -- the tone drawing, a value sketch that could be a good preliminary drawing for a painting.

Shading the Boater

Body, clothing and some details on the yacht shaded.
Body, clothing and some details on the yacht shaded.

Tone Drawing and Shading

This is how I used to draw before I finally learned to block in my drawings first. I'd measure off the proportions and put small dots, tick marks, at the points and ends of areas I knew were dark. I often used shadows for these coordinates because they were weird shapes that I wouldn't exaggerate or change because I knew it was an eye or something. I could work upside down putting in the tick marks.

Tick Marks is still a perfectly good way to do realistic drawing. It's slow. When I started out, I used several hundred tick marks to get a realistic portrait rendering and then started connecting dots with areas of shadow in different values. I'd shade all the deepest darks first, then the middle darks, then the medium tones, then the light tones and just leave the rest white. I also tried to create accurate textures and shade things gradually where they were rounded and looked like a gradient.

This is time consuming, meticulous, perfectionist and can produce glorious results if you have the patience for it. Blocking In is a much faster way to get started. I learned to draw before I learned to sketch, so I was selling art before I learned the most basic skill that any professional artist gets around the first day of drawing class. 

That really boils down to my hating erasing blocking-in lines. I couldn't make myself do a bad line and keep it, that was horrible. But the process does work and the result is that this drawing did not take me all day to finish. I did it in twenty minutes because I blocked it in and then started sketching the smaller areas of shadow.

Work dark to light. Get the shapes of the darkest areas in the picture right by looking back at it, but don't pay attention to what those are. The folds on his jacket show a lot of the motion of the figure. They define the tension of his arms and imply everything about the wind and the way he's balancing. They add sweeping diagonal curves to the composition.

Try to avoid things that are flat horizontal lines all the way across the picture or flat vertical lines all the way across. They will tend to make the drawing look mechanical and stiff. An active, interesting drawing will have motion that zig zags or swoops, curves around here and there, has a sense of motion to it. 

Practice drawing things in swooping curves. You can doodle a lot around things like this too. Also practice shading by using very short overlapping lines or circles rather than trying to fill an area with long heavy strokes that go all the way across it. For one thing, those are hard to control. They zig out of it, leave lighter areas between them and break up the shape they're describing by going in other directions. 

If you do all your shading either with light strokes that go in the direction of the fold or shape, or if the shape's too wide or long to do in one stroke, use short ones that overlap, then your pencil strokes aren't a distraction. A "calligraphic" stroke is when you vary the pressure in a stroke and change its shape and angle in a curve or zigzag that can describe something in just one stroke. I have used some calligraphic strokes for things like the shadow under the rail, some of the shadows on his jacket, other areas. 

On some of his pants folds or within the deep darks, I used little short strokes that overlapped to keep the entire area solid dark or medium. Controlling pressure is a big thing in pencil drawing that can help with colored pencil drawing too. Practice doing strokes that are heavy in the middle and light at the ends, start heavy and feather off gradually lifting them from the page or start and end abruptly but are light in the middle.

These are all useful types of strokes. Do them straight or curved. Doodle whatever's in front of you when practicing strokes or make designs out of them, it's fun and you're more likely to practice if you're having fun. Draw some outlines and try filling them with different shades of graphite getting it as smooth as you can -- super dark, medium, light, medium dark and medium light. If you can get five different values of graphite drawing then you can do great tonal drawing that accurately describes forms by drawing their shadows.

You draw the light by leaving it blank.

If you draw the shadows accurately, then you have drawn the light. Your drawing will look real and rounded. The light in it has to come from one consistent direction. If you combine two or more reference photos, make sure the light is coming from the same direction in both of them. If it's exactly the opposite, try flipping one of them to make them the same. 

I didn't do the face yet on the second stage because it was a little complicated and I wanted to show the difference between the tonal drawing and the blocked-in outlines. I drew two lines to describe the white ropes coming down at the far right in the background. They add to the motion of the yacht and I decided to keep them white, so I outlined them. That means in the finish, I had to draw some value between them. 

When I shaded between them I created a gradient from right to left, darker water and sky to the right and lighter to the left. This is opposite what the light's doing but it could be caused by clouds, it's okay to do something like that. In a recent oil pastels painting I had shadows in the foreground, sunlight in the middle ground and shadowy storm clouds in the distance. Clouds can do that. 

Think it through if the light is doing something interesting and try to sketch it. You can use it later to good effects in a painting. This is another time when sketching comes in handy, because if you notice someone doing something interesting and the light is odd, shade in both. Pay attention to the things about the scene that interest you and then later on you can deliberately make them more important in the painting.

The Boater -- Final Stage

The Boater, 9B graphite on Moleskine journal paper, by Robert A. Sloan
The Boater, 9B graphite on Moleskine journal paper, by Robert A. Sloan

#23 for 30 in 30 days!

#23 for my challenge. I started on July 25th so now I need seven more by the end of August 24th! Getting there... catching up...
#23 for my challenge. I started on July 25th so now I need seven more by the end of August 24th! Getting there... catching up...

Final Details

His head is much smaller in relation to his body than I made it in the cartoon version. The cartoon reflects the intuitive proportions that people naturally see when they think in symbolism. Faces say the most about emotion and interaction, so they get drawn bigger than life. It's also narrower than the cartoon -- any cartoon head can be reduced to a circle without hurting the meaning of the cartoon.

Most of his face is in shadow. So the first thing I did was shade that medium-dark shadow over that entire part of the face area, paying attention to the exact shape of it where it met the sunlit side of his face. I got the shadows on his ears -- very small shadows. I did the brim of his hat, curving it and changing the line from what I had blocked in. I did some shading on the hat that rounded it, always following the photo.

Then I looked close at the photo and saw that because of the shadow, his features are very subtle. His head's in three quarter view. The far eye (viewer's left, the partial side of his face) is only an indistinct dark squint. So I did that in two litlte marks. I shaded a little darker next to his nose to establish the shape of his long aquiline nose. I pressed lightly and went over it twice doing that because I needed good control to get that tiny line accurate. 

Then I placed his mustache and beard. That defined his mouth well enough, it needs no more detail because it's in shadow. Always simplify if you can. As soon as it reads true, leave it alone. Don't outline facial features, that breaks them up with unintentional strong shadows in places they don't exist and makes them distorted and unreal. His near eye was a couple of dark marks too -- the photo didn't show much detail because it's deepset.

Don't draw what you know is there. Draw what you can see.

I had some water texture shaded in at stage two but did it too lightly to scan well, so I darkened it when I shaded around the white ropes. I decided to accent them with a dark shadow that made them look brighter. They lead into the picture toward the man and everything in it has motion. I broke up the simple water textures in the photo by adding what look like reflections of buildings or other boats just to make that part of the picture less boring -- and point toward the boat and the man.

The more things point toward the main focal point, the better the drawing holds together. The primary focal point here is the man's face. So I have strong contrasts with the deep shadow under his hat brim and his beard and his face shadow, I have more detail in that area than most of the rest of the drawing and everything points toward it.

The resulting sketch is a good enough reference that I could do a painting of The Boater without bothering to look at the reference photo again.

This is one of the reasons to sketch constantly. Draw anything that's sitting in front of you. Draw anyone who will sit still for it. Draw your own hand or the stuff on your desk. Get a little pocket sketchbook like the Moleskine and carry that, a soft B range pencil (the higher the number, the softer and smudgier it is) and a kneaded eraser to keep in your pocket when you're out shopping, at work or stuck in a waiting room. 

The more often you sketch people, the better you'll get at sketching people. Then doing refined drawings and serious paintings will come easy. 



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