Tuesday, April 29, 2008

10 Tips for How to Sketch People

Cheers Boston!
(sketching fellow travellers at Logan Airport, Boston, USA September 2006)
8" x 10", pen and sepia ink and coloured pencils
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Drawing and sketching people is an invaluable way of developing a wide range of artistic skills. 

I've been drawing people for very many years - family, friends, people in cafes and restaurants, life class models - and other artists. People often tell me how much they like the sketches I make of people I come across on my travels with a sketchbook - which I find a bit odd as most rarely have faces!

Anyway, I've decided the time has come to write a bit more about sketching people. So this blog post is about 10 tips on how to sketch people – or at least my understanding of how I sketch people.

This post is also a condensed version of an article I'm drafting - and this time I'm aiming to create a priced publication (once I've sorted out the mechanics!). To that end I'm looking for 10 volunteers to form a review panel for this latest Making A Mark Publication. More about this at the end!

First some basics - then the top tips.  The basics come from Sketching for Real - Introduction. The sketches throughout the post include some which have been posted on this blog before and some which are new to the blog.

What is a sketch?

A sketch, in art terms, can be:
  • a way of practising and refining your skills in drawing and mark marking
  • an exploratory drawing – exploring how something works/might work
  • a quick drawing – e.g. sketching in public tends to be time-limited rather than open-ended
  • a rough description – it’s OK if they lack detail; don’t fill the page or are not even completed
  • a record of something you’ve seen
  • a record of one or more aspects of something you want to develop into a painting e.g. a colour study
  • a preliminary study – for a later painting (done before you start to check how your painting will work rather than as an underdrawing on your final support)
A sketch may be an imaginative or a creative interpretation of reference material – but it does not involve meticulous copying of a reference photo.

Very often a sketch is a study of a subject that the artist can see – and consequently involves working and drawing from life.

Why sketch?

Sketching broadens and enhances your basic skill base.

As you practice and progress, sketching helps you to:
  • Develop your freehand drawing, mark making and observational skills
  • Draw something everyday – an exercise which will bring fluency and confidence to your drawing
  • Get a better record of the colours and tones you see
  • Practice how to crop a scene and compose a picture
  • Develop finished artwork without relying totally on a reference photo
So now I've identified what a sketch is and why sketching can be a good habit to acquire, we'll look at the 10 tips for how to sketch people.

10 Tips for How to Sketch People

These tips are NOT of the 'get rich quick' variety. They're essentially principles which make much more sense through application. However the real benefits really only come when they become ingrained habits through lots of practice.

#1. Take a class in life drawing!

This is my #1 top tip because this one tip produces the most benefit in terms of learning how to look, understanding how the human body works and how to draw figurative shapes and values. If you want to know more I've got a guide about Life drawing and Life Class which can be downloaded for free from my website.

#2. Find a place where people linger

There's no point in making life difficult for yourself. Sketching people who are settled or who move only a little or slowly makes sketching people a lot easier.

The Big Draw, Covent Garden 2007
copyright Katherine Tyrrell
Here are some suggestions:
  • cafes, bars and restaurants,
  • waiting rooms of any kind
  • train stations and airports
  • art galleries
  • people watching an event
  • parks and places where people sit in the sun
  • artists sketching/drawing/painting plein air or in studios

# 3. People ALWAYS move - so learn to draw FAST!

There's no way of getting round this one! Tips on how to sketch quickly can be found in Sketching for Real: Assignment 1 - So you want to learn how to sketch...... Also learn to be philosophical about the fact that you'll have a lot of "starts" which don't go anywhere in your sketchbook. My rule of thumb is I lose about 25% of the sketches I start - and I draw very fast!

#4. Sit in one place and construct a scene

So - you've accepted that people will come and go so and you've learned how to sketch quickly. You still need a strategy for how to deal with the comings and goings. My own personal strategy is to sit in one place and construct a scene around a pivotal person.

Private View, RSPP 2007
8"x10" pen and sepia ink and coloured pencils
copyright Katherine Tyrrell
I try and select somebody who looks interesting and as if they might stay still long enough for me to get the bare essentials down - size, shapes, relationship with the background and, in particular, the horizontals and verticals. I then construct the scene around that person as people come and go. They don't all have to be there at the same time!

Remember you are sketching and not drawing a portrait. I've noticed a tendency for people who are starting to sketch to just sketch individuals as isolated objects and for them to ignore the backgrounds and context altogether. The next three tips are about addressing this.

#5. Draw shapes and values not detail

Squint to see values. Start by working out the rough size and shape of the big shapes that you can see - in value terms. You can then work within these - again using value shapes. Using line to describe the edge of some aspect of detail can then be surprisingly effective if most of the drawing is value shapes due to the contrast between the two. I always enjoy sketching the 'squiggley' bits of folds in clothing.

Diners at the Club Gascon
8"x10", pencil in Moleskine sketchbook
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

#6. Make connections

Here are some of the connections you can make
  • look for connections between people in terms of relationships and body language
  • identify the big shape that is the group of people. If you can't see an edge then don't draw it.
  • join up shapes which are the same value e.g. connect shapes associated with an individual to the background if they are the same value
  • make the connections between different zones more obvious. Overlap figures and objects to demonstrate who is in the foreground, the middle ground and background.

#7. Remember proportions

Use the background to help with scale. Sight size and measure proportions accurately if you have the time If you don't, then choose one line to act as a baseline for keeping everything in proportion. I always try and find a vertical because I have a tendency to have leaning verticals and it acts as a check.

'S' painting in Tuscany
pen and sepia ink in sketchbook
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

#8. Seek out repetition

People who repeat movements are good subjects to draw. You have to work out what the sequence is and how often it repeats. Artists very often make wonderful models for learning how to draw people who are animated as most tend to have a neat and repetitive routine of movements when drawing or painting. The painter in the above sketch had two distinct patterns of movements. I watched for a while and decided which one gave maximum sketching time.

#9. Avoid drawing faces and feet!

If you draw a likeness, then you should really obtain a model release. Practice likenesses with family and people you know rather than with strangers. Squint when you look at faces and then only draw what you can see - which will be values. You'll be surprised at how little detail there is.

Feet are often drawn bigger than they actually are. Check the feet in the sketch below - would you have drawn them this small?

Figures in the Piazza San Marco, 
Venice - sketched from Quadri's
pen and sepia ink
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

#10. This is not an exercise in portraiture

It's worth reiterating that you need to remember that you are sketching and not drawing a portrait or trying to be wholly accurate.

Think of yourself as a visual journalist, there to record what you see - when you squint! Be discriminating - you don't need to draw everything. A lot of people's sketches are not complete.

If you get a good vantage point, try drawing lots of little people on one sheet of paper. Drawing small is always interesting as you have to work out what are the important characteristics to keep which mean they don't all look like stick men or the same. You can also change the colour of clothing to make sketches better!

A review group

I'm currently drafting a guide to sketching people. This will expand upon the tips given in this post and the intention is that it will become a priced publication.

I'm looking for 10 volunteers to help me by becoming a review group. It goes without saying that all volunteers will receive a free copy of both the draft and the final version! It doesn't matter how much experience you have of either sketching or drawing people as I'm interested in the views of people with a range of backgrounds.

I'd like to work with at least some of the people who comment frequently on this blog - you know who you are! I'm probably going to invite a few people - but if you're interested please say so below and I'll get back to you. Alternatively if you'd rather e-mail me you can find my contact details in the right hand column.



  1. I'd be glad to be part of your review group if you're still putting it together, Katherine. this is a wonderful post - very well organized and insightful. And I really like the way you sketch too! Yoou put down quite a lot of detail without getting caught up in it.

  2. I'm not sure if I'm qualified (entirely self taught) but I'll put my hand up if you need more volunteers! I had to laugh at 'don't draw feet' - that's very subjective Katherine! ;) I heard a rather handy tip about feet - that they measure the same in length as the distance from elbow to wrist which is usually longer than people think they are.

  3. What I love about the Cheers, Boston drawing is the setting is perfect for narrating your scene. Here we have a counter and a grouping with a laptop user. It sounds simple, but try it sometime, people!

    Very sound advice and post!

  4. Excellent, tips, Katherine! And if you'll have me, I'm volunteering to be on your review panel.

  5. Great idea, I would be happy to join your review group if you still have openings. Drawing and sketching people has recently been a big emphasis in my sketchbook drawings.

    Thanks for gathering your thoughts about sketching people. I foung your sketching in plein air very helpful.

  6. Katherine, this is a good post on sketching. Tip #4 particularly hit me. Why didn't I ever think of that? I always wondered how artists sketched a room full of people when all the people I try to sketch move on so quickly. LOL

  7. Katherine if you need my help, I'm here.

  8. an excellent post packed with good stuff!

    I'll be one of your review panel if you think I'd help :>)

  9. I'd love to be on your review panel, entirely out of self-interest of course! If this post is anything to go by (and I'm sure it is!), the finished product will be a real treasure trove of helpful advice.

  10. Great tips! Thanks for posting them. I spend a lot of time in airports ... I now see how I can make more of my time there.

  11. You forgot another major advantage of sketching -- learning how to achieve a likeness in the most absolutely efficient way possible.

    What amazes me, after agonizing over likeness for my colored pencil portraits, is how effectively I can accomplish a likeness with just a few spare lines, if I choose the RIGHT spare lines: the curve of a shoulder, the quirk at the side of a mouth, the line beneath an eye. In literally two minutes, I'll have a sketch that looks like someone because I studied them from life and was able to see better what mannerisms and facial expressions made them look like them.

    Great post, by the way. I'm definitely linking to it.

  12. Great stuff,I always enjoy your blog. This one has set me on more fire to what I love to do already. Thanks for the useful tips

  13. I forgot to say, I would love to be on your review group!

  14. If you're short of people I'd be happy to join.

  15. Now that I've given myself a hernia trying to measure my foot against my elbow-to-wrist (an inch and a half short!), this is a great post - I love drawing people, though still get flustered if they notice me, and am always surprised at the lively qualities that emerge on the paper once I'm over the urgency of getting them down. Look forward to the MAM publication, and am available for reviewing if needed...

  16. I'm late to this, but, as I sketch people very often, I'd be happy to be part of your group!

  17. And I'm even later but I'd be happy to join the review group. I especially appreciated tip
    #4 which had some really good suggestions, though they were all right-on.

  18. Thanks people for volunteering - I'll be writing to everybody very soon

  19. Excellent post...I have been trying to do this alot lately...think i am going to have to go stay in Atlanta a while this summer so i can have plenty of crowds to draw...sitting in a restaurant there yesterday all i wanted to do was draw the clientele and the restaurant...couldnt because of our company...its like everywhere i go i see sketches!

  20. Looks like you have your ten reviewers, but if not, please count me in. I would love to help.

  21. Katherine, if you want some one who is an absolute sketching novice, I would love to help. This is partly selfish, as I am longing to sketch in public. After carrying my sketch book in my haversack for over a year, I actually did a very quick sketch last week, of someone, on his boat, waiting to go through a lock on the Thames !!!


  22. Katherine

    Great post which lays out the basics clearly. The basics apply as much to those with experience as much to those beginning to sketch people. Very helpful advice to set out from (even if one ends up somewhere else).

    I've just finished a large cycle of people watching sketches in a crowd, half of which are now blogged. If you have the time, would you care to come over & cast an eye over them? I'd love to join a review group.


  23. I would love to be a part of your review group if you still have room, I'd like to contribute in any way that I can. I'm a senior high school student and have taken art classes all four years including AP Studio Art. Your blog has helped me very much recently in my sketches. I would always focus too much on the detail rather than the entirety of the sketch and now I like my sketches much better. Thank you for your excellent tips :D

  24. I think you had a lot of good advice, but are doing a disservice by recommending people not try to achieve likenesses or work on their quick portraits. Value, rough shadows, and ghosty portraits have their place, but are not substitute for the expressive or striking reactions to even a very rough likeness. And also, if one is not good at drawing hands or feet that would be a place they should focus on sketching at least for a time to get the hang of it; not, as you suggest, a subject to avoid.

    I've been sketching people and likenesses in public for a long time and I have never encountered anyone who assumes they have to release a drawing of their likeness. That is pretty absurd, these are not photos. A drawing is owned by the artist, not by the subject, unless otherwise agreed upon.

    As a visual journalist, I would think you would be dissatisfied with a sketch that did not achieve the likeness of your subject just as you would be dissatisfied with a sketch that did not achieve the presence of a particular building.

  25. @Morris - if you look at my title, this post was about sketching people (ie not the head). That's about trying to sketch the body, posture, animation etc. If people starting out were trying to sketch a likeness at the same time my view is that many would get very distracted.

    My post is about the sketching equivalent of life class - where the aim is to draw the whole person.

    I'm by no means saying that you can't use sketching to practice drawing specific parts of a person - the hand, head and feet - however I would argue that is a progression from understanding how people work as an entire body - and how best to represent that within a context.

    Yet another progression is portrait sketching and getting a likeness. This to my mind is a whole other topic - with a different set of tips and techniques.

    So - bottom line - I can't do in one post what most people need a book to deliver! :)

    On the question of the release. I publish my drawings online and this post is being read by people posting their drawings online. I don't publish likenesses unless I have a release.

  26. Thanks for this blog, i followed.The tips for sketching were great for me since drawingpeople is my love. I was laughing when you wrote about people moving. often they seem to wait till i have just made enough marks to make the paper usless then they leave.

  27. very helpful. Thanks for your tips for sketching. Nice tips!

  28. You probably have more than enough help for your book, however I am available, my being an "engraver" may qualify me as a spelling checker for you, if nothing else. Can't wait to see what you've been working on.

  29. Nice article and beautiful .Thanks a lot for sharing.I will be waiting for your next post.


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