There is perhaps no other subject matter in art harder to master than the human figure. (I’m talking here about drawing a likeness of real-life human figures, as opposed to caricatures or cartoon characters!) I wouldn't consider myself a master at it as I myself am still learning. (As if there can ever be an end to learning. :)) All the same, I can still share a few tips with the aspiring figure artist, though merely as a friend with some experience in this area and not as a 'certified' teacher or instructor.
Viewed from certain angles, a human figure or parts of it would appear shortened due to perspective (what is known in art as foreshortening), as in this example from renowned comic artist Joe Kubert.
I basically have the following points to share on drawing the (male) human figure:
● Draw, draw, and draw. This should be obvious — practice makes perfect — but it's still worth being reminded of it. The more you draw, the more you learn, and the better your work gets.
Basically, you're trying to gain a feel for (1) the shapes and proportions of the different parts of the human figure — how long the arms are relative to the torso, how large the head should be, how the quadriceps are shaped and positioned on the legs, and so on; and also (2) how these different parts come together to form a visually harmonious whole in any posture assumed by the figure and from any viewing angle. You'll need to work on this feel so that it becomes second nature and any aspects of it which prove inaccurate will be gradually corrected. (I've struggled with oversized heads and unduly short legs for a long time!)
It's interesting to note that artists from different backgrounds or historical periods have differed in their estimates of certain proportions of the human figure. Thus, for example, the ancient Greeks measured the entire body as 7½ heads in height, Michelangelo 8, and 20th Century artist Burne Hogarth 8¾. (I'll be telling more about Hogarth further below.) Which standard you should adopt for the figures you draw depends on what kind of figures you wish to depict, according to figure artist Andrew Loomis (of whom again more below). Thus a 9-heads measurement would be reserved for 'heroic' figures, 8 for the 'average' modern male, and 7½ for, well, those who are below average. (Hogarth insists on 8¾ heads for all your figures.) But I reckon a well-built figure measuring only 7½ heads can still look more impressive than a skinny 9-head figure. :)
Michelangelo reckoned the human figure to be 8 heads in height, Burne Hogarth 8¾. Illustrations by Bridgman (left) and Hogarth.
The measurements of the human figure to be adopted for different types of figures, according to Andrew Loomis.
This figure measures only 3 heads, but clearly it's what the artist intended, and our hero hardly appears lacking in any self-confidence for it. :D
A suggestion offered by a modern master of the human figure, George Bridgman (of whom more below), is to visualize the human figure as composed primarily of 3 solids: the head, the chest/upper torso and the pelvis, each with a certain acceptable height, thickness and width relative to the rest of the body. When drawing a figure, you need to form first a correct estimate of the relative sizes of the 3 solids as well as their relative positions and the angles they will assume for the postures you have in mind for your figure. Only after that do you then add in the limbs and other details. You may like to give this strategy a try.
An alternative way of visualizing the human figure, suggested by Loomis, is to familiarize oneself with the skeletal figure designed by him as a guide in the illustration below, which captures all the basic proportions of the different parts of the body. Try and see how it correlates with Bridgman's '3-blocks' method of visualizing the human form.
The journey towards mastering the human figure will not be a short one (sigh). It can take years and years before one can draw a really good figure (unless you're really gifted). I've been at it for nearly 30 years and I'm still learning! (Never really had a formal art education in figure drawing, and I drew a lot a junk which it would make me die of embarrassment to show to anyone...)
● Look at shirtless Macho Men and pictures of them more often. They're good to look at ― at least the well-built ones. (You surely agree or you wouldn't have been here in the first place, right? :p) You should be able to find at least a couple live specimens at any gym, spa or swimming pool! Study their figures, their musculature, the shapes of their bodies. Just make sure you don't arouse their attention when you do so, and if you intend to take any photos or do a sketch, make sure you obtain their permission!
Magazines on bodybuilding and men's fitness ought to contain plenty of good visual images of shirtless hunks as well. You can (and should) try copying these images for practice using pencil and paper. And of course, a further alternative would be to develop a Macho Man figure yourself (if you're a guy, that is), so you can have a ready-to-use model anytime — just undress and stand in front of a mirror!
● Do a rough sketch first. Always start a new project with a rough sketch, in which you initially attend only to the rough outlines of your figure(s). Once you've got the outlines right, you may then start filling in the details. It would be a good idea to do your sketch lightly in pencil, as it makes it easier to correct with an eraser.
● Do a small sketch. Let the figure you sketch out at first be a small one — no larger than, say, the size of your hand, and preferably smaller. When your figure is too large, it's harder to pay attention to the overall feel of the whole figure, the overall sense of proportion. Instead you tend to focus more on the details of the different parts of the figure's anatomy — which you should attend to only after getting the overall sense of proportion right.
Once you have improved on your figure to the point where it feels right — yes, you should review and revise your work, as shall be explained below — you may then proceed to enlarge it, say to A4 size. (I always like to do a high-resolution scan of my sketch and then print the scan out on A4 size paper.) Now you may begin to work on the details — though often after enlarging your sketch you may find new faults with it which were not obvious at first, faults which you'll have to rectify!
● Do your sketches on tracing paper, or transfer them onto tracing paper upon completion. My reason for giving this suggestion is that often (in my experience anyway) faults in a figure drawing which are not obvious at first become very obvious when the sketch is laterally inverted (as in viewing the mirror image). With tracing paper such problems would be easier to deal with; all you have to do is flip the paper over and study the sketch from 'behind' to see what corrections are required.
● Use 3D models to help you visualize your work. The very best model would of course be a live Macho Man in your room :D, but there are more accessible alternatives. You can use clay to make a small model of what you have in mind, or use the well-known artist’s mannikin. Alternatively a special and very convenient type of 3D model to use for our present purpose can be found in certain pieces of 3D graphics software, such as DAZ Studio, which I honestly can't recommend too highly. It's basically a digital art studio in which you can place virtual human figures and props of every variety to create all sorts of delightful scenes. You can place light sources in those scenes as well and adjust their angle and brightness, and the build, expressions, musculature, poses etc of the human figures are all fully under your control. And DAZ Studio is FREE! Much of my current work, some of which you can see here, is in fact created using DAZ Studio, using which you might eventually be seriously tempted to dispense with drawing by hand altogether, though I would encourage you not to. :)
If you seriously decide to try your hand at DAZ Studio, here's a sizeable library of tutorials in video format to get you started. The learning curve can be a bit steep, but it's worth it. Just a warning: the many add-ons you'll be tempted to buy can seriously cost you!
The DAZ Studio interface. (Click to enlarge.)
Light and shadow can make a dramatic difference in the depiction of the human figure. Illustrations by Hogarth.
● Review and revise your work. When you have done a sketch, leave it for a couple days and then come back to look at it again. Sometimes, if not often, you might find new faults with your work which have previously evaded your attention. The lower half of the body might be out of proportion to the upper half (one of my most frequent errors), or the head might be too big, or the foreshortening of the limbs or torso might feel wrong, etc. Time for some corrections!
Even after you've made your corrections by redrawing the areas that looked wrong (you might like to do a 'backup' of the original first by photocopying or scanning it, just in case), leave the work aside again and return to look at it again after a couple days. New faults might reveal themselves! I have worked on some of my pieces like this again and again, relentlessly picking faults with them for correction until I'm satisfied I can find no more ― only to find myself proven wrong when I look at them yet again another time...
The victim's neck appears excessively long in this sketch. And judging by the position of the demon's posterior relative to his head, could his torso be too long as well?
● Do not neglect the small bits. In drawing a good figure, things like fingers, kneecaps and toes deserve as much attention as the rest of the body — unless, of course, you intend your figure to be wearing things like shoes or knee guards, whereupon those parts of the body become irrelevant. (I don't think it would be good to take the easy way out by letting your figures wear such things all the time, though!)
The kneecaps in the pic on the left are little more than just two lumps. The kneecaps in the pic on the right are surely much better.
● Let others criticize your work. Sometimes, no matter how much you try to find fault with your work, certain faults will still evade your attention on account of your current level of experience. Here's where the criticism of others can be valuable. I know, criticism can hurt (just ask any American Idol contestant), but still it's often necessary for learning and improving. C'est la vie.
One would be well-advised to approach for criticism only those whom one can tell are knowledgeable in art, especially in figure drawing, and who can therefore offer the most helpful and constructive criticism. You do have jokers around who really know no better and have no better way to spend their valuable time than to make a nuisance of themselves by annoying others; their criticism of your work will consist in one-word (or at best one-sentence) condemnations which offer no help whatsoever. "It's bad!" Okay, fair enough; can they explain why it is bad, and how it may be improved? If not, you know who they are now; leave them so you need no longer be upset by them unnecessarily.
● Study the work of others, particularly the acknowledged masters of figure drawing. At the very least, you'll need a good work on artistic anatomy which will help you learn about the different major muscles of the human form, with which you'll need to familiarize yourself. It can only be the most profitable thing to study the work of the masters and partake of their rich experience. They can provide much inspiration, too!
One modern master whose work the aspiring figure artist can ill afford to ignore would have to be Burne Hogarth. You cannot but grant that this gentleman truly knows his trade. Well-known internationally for his Tarzan comic strip which appeared regularly in Sunday newspapers a few decades back, he has also authored several books on figure drawing and received awards for his work from Canada, France, Italy and Spain in the 1980s and 1990s.
Going through the illustrations in his works on artistic anatomy, often a pleasure to look at in their own right, one cannot but be amazed by the degree of knowledge Hogarth exhibits with respect to the countless different muscles which comprise the different parts of the human figure — their names, shape, size and position relative to other parts of the body, and so on — and how they come together to form a seamless whole. Issues like foreshortening, light and shadow, how garments fold and crease on the body etc are also explored in his work.
My one small quarrel with Hogarth lies in a short written account by him of the history of development of the human form in world art, found in one of his books. If this account is to be accepted, human representation in non-Western cultures never developed beyond what he called 'The Figure of Immortality', a 'formal and static' way of representing the human figure used only in religious settings and only for divine beings. I am confident much evidence exists to prove him wrong on this, but such minor considerations aside, one can still profit immensely from the knowledge of this master. Recommended!
Hogarth's Dynamic Figure Drawing is the one single title you'll need for learning about drawing the human figure, though his Dynamic Anatomy would constitute an invaluable supplement. (I earn nothing whatsoever if you purchase the two works, and if you have a tight budget, you can search here for less expensive copies of them!)
Hogarth knows every muscle of the human body like the back of his hand!
Another modern master of the human figure would be George Bridgman, who has taught in art classes for 50 years or more. As far as I know he does not go into such painstaking details as Hogarth in labeling every last muscle of the human body, being more concerned with the overall sense of proportion, posture and balance. The large number of illustrations in his works, however, showing the countless poses and angles in and from which the human form and its different parts can be visualized, more than makes up for this relative lack of concern for knowing every muscle compared to Hogarth. In some of his lessons he focuses entirely on very specific parts of the body, such as the eye, ear and nose. Often he shows you how the human figure or parts of it can be viewed 'analytically' as a combination of geometrical shapes.
Bridgman's approach is therefore a little different from Hogarth's, and it can only profit the aspiring figure artist all the more to study and compare the two approaches, as opposed to limiting oneself to one of them.
One thing which fascinates me about Bridgman is how with just a few simple lines he can trace out accurately the basic outline of a figure. At the beginning of one of his works he takes you through a 12-step sketching exercise showing you just how that can be achieved!
The 12-step exercise is found in Bridgman's Life Drawing, an indispensable guide for the figure artist. A further volume by Bridgman is his Constructive Anatomy. Here Bridgman's approach is more analytic, attending more to the different parts of the human body than to the overall figure. These are both classic works worth collecting in their own right. (Again, if you have a tight budget, you can search here for less expensive copies of the two works!)
In demonstrating how the human head may be visualized as a rectangular block and from different angles, Bridgman shows you he's definitely not a blockhead!
There is one last master of the human figure I must not forget to mention, and that's Andrew Loomis. This early 20th Century artist is supremely knowledgeable in all the important proportions of the human figure, both male and female; certainly he is not behind Hogarth in this respect. Even the proportions of young children are covered in his work. Similarly to Bridgman, Loomis shows you in his lessons how you can begin with a basic framework for your figure and then add in the details, starting with the major muscle groups. Loomis also dwells a great deal on foreshortening and perspective as well as light and shadow; in particular he reminds his students of the need for consistency in perspective when more than one figure is placed in the same scene ― you can't draw one figure as if viewed from the side and the other as if viewed from above!
The one thing I have found most endearing about Loomis is his friendly and personal approach towards his readers. He talks about his own life experiences as an artist and offers you words of encouragement, and seeks to pass on to you the same passion for art. Simply put, he treats you as a friend, not as a mere student.
Loomis has produced several works on art instruction, but among these the one single definitive volume for the figure artist would have to be his Figure Drawing For All It's Worth. You can purchase a hard copy, but you can also download it for free (in PDF format) here, alongside several other titles also by him! Check out these priceless works!