Painting figures may seem like an impossible task at first, but the more you know about it, the less daunting it
seems and the easier it becomes to let go of your insecurities and just give it a shot.
An easy way to start learning about proportions with figures is to learn the “head” ratio.
The average human figure is 7 1/2 heads tall. This varies from person to person, of course, and some artists
draw their figures 8 heads tall (making them appear royal and graceful) or even 8 ½ heads tall (for heroes and
other strong, masculine-looking figures).
When choosing a model, you can use a 3-D model or a photograph for reference. Gather pictures from magazines,
books and the internet; or take your own photos of people standing alone, in small groups or in crowds. Attach the
picture to your sketch pad and do lots of preliminary sketches. This will get you acquainted with the figure,
putting you at ease for when you’re ready to paint.
If you’re having difficulty with proportions when it comes to muscle and fatty tissue, it can help to learn the
biology of the human body. Use a book on human anatomy, or search for images of skeletons and muscle placement
using the internet. Practice drawing skeletons, then muscle tissue, then fatty tissue, and then skin.
For skin tones, try sticking to a limited palette. For example, use white, yellow/golden ochre and a pinch of
cadmium red. For darker skin tones, use Payne’s grey, or mix your own grays and neutral tones by mixing blue (or
other colors, if you think that they are more suitable) with black. You might want to check out the use of glaze for skin tones in figure painting too. For
future figure paintings, when you feel more confident, add more colors to your palette.
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Painting onto a grid can make it easier to focus on specific areas at a time and can take the pressure off
having a large task to complete.
When drawing a figure as the main subject of a painting, it can be a good idea to paint the canvas in a dark
background color (for example, dark umber and black) before painting the figure. This helps to add shadows and
contrast to your painting, and you will find that you don’t have to add shadows to the face of your subject, and
rather just layer your light colors.
Artists who don’t have a lot of experience with figure painting lessons often draw
postures too upright. To counter the tendency to straighten figures as you paint them, over-exaggerate the poses.
You can check poses as much as you like, by using a pencil or brush to make sure the angles of the shoulders, hips
and spine are correct.
Whether drawing figures in the distance or as the focus of your painting, unique features are what make people
identifiable, and they should be focused upon. When painting small figures (people in the background or in crowds,
etc), focus on what makes each figure unique in their body. How do they stand? Do they slouch, or push out their
chests? Do they have big noses, or prominent eyebrows?
Pay attention to these details, and feel free to exaggerate them. A figure that is the main subject of your
painting should also have specific, unique features. This time, however, pay attention to the smaller details.
Things like the curve at the edge of the lips and the mole in the middle of the forehead are what really recreate
likenesses in your figures.
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