How to Draw People Using Shapes

By Buffy Naillon
Many artists draw people by drawing in the basic shapes first.

Many artists would like to develop the ability to draw people. This skill set opens up the possibility of doing portraits of family and friends. However, many artists find drawing the human form intimidating. But it need not be. All drawing requires the same basic skills just used in slightly different ways. The ability to draw people using basic shapes is a common tool that artists utilize. It's no different than drawing a still life or a landscape using the same technique.

Get reference photos and study them. You’re looking for the areas in which you’d place an imaginary line of action down the center of the person’s body and how you’d block in the basic geometric shapes involved in drawing the human form.

Create a line of action on your paper. The line of action is typically an invisible line that runs through a person’s body, often at the spine, arms and legs. This line tells the eye how the person will move. Make sure you draw this line in faintly before you begin drawing the basic shapes. If you block in these lines first, you shouldn’t run out of paper (see Resources).

Block in the large geometric shapes first. Artists use shapes in two basic ways to draw the subject. They look for basic geometric shapes like triangles, squares and circles. For example, a person’s basic body shape if he were standing straight would be a rectangle. His legs and arms fit the basic form a cylinder (see Resources 1, 2 and 3 for pictures).

Draw in the organic-looking shapes. Organic shapes don’t fit exactly into any category of basic geometric shapes, but are more rounded and soft. Drawing these shapes is akin to drawing the basic outline (shape) of a squash or a bunny’s ears. Use this type of shape to block in a funnily-shaped hat or character nose.

Double-check the placement of your basic geometric and organic shapes before proceeding on to the refining stage. Doing this will prevent you from misusing the paper plane. If you find that your drawing does not fit on the page well, it’s usually because it is too large, too small or poorly placed within the picture frame. Blocking out the basic shapes all over the paper will help ensure that your picture is balanced.

Refine the lines. Once you’ve drawn the basic shapes, fill in the details of the person like his fingers, face and the details on his clothing (see Resources for pictures and videos).

Tip

Stan Lee and John Buscema in “How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way” suggest that artists spend lots of time drawing stick figures with basic shapes added to them. The artists recommend that aspiring artists draw many pages of these types of drawing until they are comfortable drawing the human form in basic shapes performing any movement the artist desires.

Warning

Do not give up if you do not understand how to use shapes to draw the first time out. It takes practice. Many artists find it perfectly acceptable to restate—that is to redraw—the basic outlines of the shapes they’re trying to draw. They then erase the extra lines once the line they want is in place.

About the Author

Buffy Naillon has worked in the media industry since 1999, contributing to Germany's "Der Spiegel" magazine and various websites. She received a bachelor's degree in German from Boise State University. Naillon also attended New York University and participated in the foreign exchange program at Germany's Saarland University. She is completing her master's degree in educational technology at Boise State.