Figure Drawing Techniques & Options

Ballpoint Pen Illustration of Pallab Ghosh as "Super-Editor"
Ballpoint Pen Illustration of Pallab Ghosh as “Super-Editor”

This article describes some figure drawing techniques for human figures. Even in technical illustration tasks, it’s sometimes desirable to be able to include human figures. However, depicting human figures accurately can be time-consuming, so I’ll suggest some time-saving options.

I will discuss:

  • Realistic drawings or paintings for “finished” artwork,
  • Figure sketching for storyboarding,
  • Cartooning as a way of producing acceptable representations quickly.

Learning to draw is itself a complex skill, and drawing the human figure is perhaps one of the most demanding tasks any artist can face. I’m aware that many entire books have been written on the subject. There are also many books on the subjects of cartooning and storyboarding, so this will be a very cursory overview of my own experience. Nonetheless, the techniques I offer here may be helpful if you need to create such artwork.

The illustration at the top of this article is part of a poster that I produced for Pallab Ghosh, who was at that time a fellow student at Imperial College, London. It was drawn entirely using black ballpoint pens, then scanned to make the final poster. There are more details about this drawing below.

To develop and maintain my skills, I frequently attended “Life Drawing” sessions, which typically involve drawing or painting a live human model.

Figure Drawing: Pencil Technique

Largely as a result of my experience at Life Drawing sessions, I evolved a standard technique for pencil drawing. I prefer to draw in pencil because it is relatively fast, and requires minimal preparation and materials, while still allowing for some correction of errors. The from-life drawing below shows an example of this technique, from a session at Cricklade College, Andover, UK.

Figure Drawing Techniques: Sample in Pencil
Life Drawing Sample in Pencil

It’s usual for models in Life Drawing classes to pose nude, and this was the case for the drawing above. Therefore, I’ve cropped the image so that it won’t be “NSFW”!

Speed is of the essence in life drawing sessions, because live models cannot hold their poses indefinitely. Even in a very relaxed pose, most models need a break after an hour, and most poses are held for only five to thirty minutes. Therefore, even though my technique allows for the correction of errors, there is usually little time to do that.

My pencil technique certainly does not follow “conventional wisdom”, and in fact I have found some standard advice to be counter-productive. The details of my technique are:

  • Pencils. I find it best to use an HB “writing” pencil instead of the usually-recommended soft drawing pencil. I find that the softer pencils wear down too quickly, and that their marks have an annoying tendency to smudge. Eagle writing pencils seem to have smoother graphite than so-called “drawing” pencils, which provide a more uniform line.
  • Paper. I use thin marker paper rather than heavy Bristol board or watercolor paper. Again, the smooth surface of the marker paper allows for more subtle shading effects, because the pencil line does not “catch” on irregularities in the paper surface.
  • Sharpening. I don’t use a pencil sharpener. Instead, I sharpen my pencils by carving off the wood with a knife, leaving about 5mm of graphite projecting, then rub the tip to a point using sandpaper. This is a technique that I actually learned at school during Technical Drawing O-level classes. The benefits are that I don’t have to sharpen the pencil so frequently, and can adjust the shape of the point to provide either a very fine line or a broader “side” stroke.

Figure Drawing Techniques: Artwork for Scanning

It sometimes seems that there’s an attitude that “pencils are for sketching only”, and that it’s not possible to produce “finished artwork” in pencil. Hopefully, the sample above will demonstrate that that’s not true.

However, it is true that pencil artwork can be difficult to scan. Even the darkest lines created by a graphite pencil are typically a dark gray rather than true black, so there is often a lack of dynamic shading range in a pencil drawing.

Reproducing printed versions of continuous-tone images requires application of a halftone screen, and such halftoning typically does not interact well with the subtleties of pencil shading.

To solve these scanning and printing problems with early photo-reproduction equipment, I developed a “pencil-like” technique using black ballpoint pen, and used it in the poster portrait shown above.

Pallab was standing for the office of Student Newspaper Editor, and, for his election poster, he wanted to be depicted as Superman (his idea—not mine!). It was of course important that the illustration would be recognizable as being Pallab. It was also important that the artwork I produced be:

  1. Monochrome,
  2. Easy to scan using the Student Newspaper’s reproduction camera.

It’s not particularly obvious from the reduced-size reproduction of the portrait above, but in fact there are no shades of gray in the drawing. The drawing consists entirely of fine black lines, which could be scanned and printed without requiring a halftone screen.

Figure Drawing Techniques: Storyboarding

If you’re working in advertising or video production, Storyboarding may form a significant part of your work. This involves sketching out the scenes of an advertisement or other video in a comic strip format.

Recently, I’ve also seen the use of the term “Storyboarding” in connection with Agile software development, where it’s used to describe a task sheet. Even though I have substantial software development experience myself, I’m a little cynical about this usage, because it seems like it’s just a way to make a simple and unremarkable concept sound “hip” and exciting. Anyway, that usage is not what I’m referring to here!

Probably the earliest use of the storyboarding technique was for movies. Every scene of a planned movie would be drawn out, showing the content of the scene, movement of actors, camera movements, and so on. Some directors created immensely detailed storyboards, Alfred Hitchcock being perhaps the best-known.

Several years ago, I attended a Storyboarding workshop at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, presented by Marcie Begleiter. Marcie went on to write the book on storyboarding: “From Word to Image”. The AFI workshop gave me a chance to practice producing storyboard artwork, in pencil, “on the fly”. A sample extract from one of the storyboards that I produced during the class is shown below. This was drawn from memory, without reference material of any kind. The script from which I was working was for a 1940s-era film noir story, hence the period costumes and transport.

Sample Storyboard Excerpt
Sample Storyboard Excerpt

Storyboards are usually not intended as finished artwork, of course, as is the case for the sample above. They are used as “working drawings”, from which a final video, movie or even comic strip will be created. However, this type of artwork does call for rapid figure drawing skills, and storyboard illustrations can sometimes later be worked up as finished pictures in their own right.

Figure Drawing Techniques: Cartooning

Fortunately, there’s a way to represent the human figure that is generally much quicker, and doesn’t require precise drawing skills.

The human brain has evolved great acuity in the recognition of human facial features and other details of the human body. Even people who themselves have no drawing skills are intuitively good at discerning the smallest differences between human faces. In fact, that’s partly why figure drawing and portraiture are relatively difficult for artists; simply because your viewers will spot tiny errors that they would never notice in any other subject.

Conversely, our brains have also evolved the ability to discern human features in very simple shapes. Our brains can abstract human-looking details from images that do not accurately depict humans (or even images that are non-living, such as the “Man in the Moon”). The technical name for this phenomenon is pareidolia. Artists can take advantage of this tendency by creating cartoons, which are deliberately not accurate portrayals of the human body, but which we nonetheless accept as credible representations.

I frequently use cartooning techniques in my work, either to provide a lighthearted feel to an article, or else simply to save time! The example below shows an illustration for an early multimedia title that I created, which was intended to help owners of PCs understand and upgrade their systems. This was not a humorous eBook: it was intended to provide useful and serious information.

PC Secrets Title Cartoon
PC Secrets Title Cartoon

Clearly, this is not a realistic image, but the average viewer understands it quickly, and it serves its purpose in showing the intention of the associated content.


Even in technical illustration, it’s sometimes desirable to include human figures, either completely or partially. Drawing accurate figures requires significant skill, and can be time-consuming. Quicker alternatives include storyboard-style sketching, and cartooning. I’ve explained why cartoon-style drawing should be considered even when illustrating “serious” technical work.

Adapting Drawing Principles for Computer-Generated Artwork

I learned to draw in two “old fashioned” ways. One way was “freehand” with pencil and paper; you just sat down with a blank sheet of paper, and sketched everything out as best your drawing skills would allow. It wasn’t especially precise, but that was acceptable in the context.

The second way was what was called “Geometric” drawing. You still needed a pencil and a piece of paper, but also a drawing board and a tee square, and probably also a pair of compasses, protractor, dividers, etc. If you needed to create a neat, precise drawing, this was the way to achieve it.

My grandfather had been a professional draughtsman [British English spelling, and, yes, it is pronounced “draftsman”!] for the City of Leeds, and that was the way he produced drawings too. I still have a few of his drawing tools, including a pair of brass compasses that pivot around a soldered-on gramophone needle!

Another useful tool for geometric drawing was a set of stencils. These were wooden or plastic templates, offering regular shapes that you could draw around or inside. For example, even the best artists have difficulty drawing an exact circle freehand, so circle templates were useful when these were needed.

These days, of course, I suspect that almost nobody still does geometric drawing with a board and tee square, just because it’s easier to produce the same results, or better, using computers.

When I made the switch from pencil-and-paper drawing to computer artwork generation, I was initially confused about how to translate the techniques I’d learned. Was there a computer equivalent of a pair of compasses, a protractor, and so on? Although there are in fact such equivalents, they’re not necessarily the best way to go about producing a drawing. It took me much time and practice before I learned the best ways to translate conventional geometric drawing techniques into their digital equivalents.

Although I did considerable online research, and bought books on the subject, I was never able to find a tutorial providing a general approach to this kind of drawing problem. Everything I found was either very abstract, or else was a specific set of instructions to enable you to draw “exactly what I already drew”. I didn’t find any of that particularly useful, so I’m offering this post in the hope that it may, in a small way, fill that void for aspiring computer artists.

Creating a Gear Icon

Recently, I needed to produce a “gear icon” drawing for some computer documentation. This type of icon is quite popular these days for the identification of “Settings” controls in software, in a linguistically neutral way. The end result I had in mind was to be as shown below.


The tool I’d be using was Corel Draw (similar to Adobe Illustrator), which produces vector drawings. The advantage of vector drawing over bitmap painting (as would be produced by Adobe Photoshop) is that you can draw your original at any scale, and re-scale your final image to any size without loss of resolution. (A vector drawing records shapes as sets of mathematical equations, rather than color values in a matrix of pixels.)

So, how to go about producing this icon? One fact about computer artwork that I learned early on was that there are many ways to produce the same output, so it becomes a question of choosing the most efficient way to produce the result that you want.

It also pays to make maximum use of your software’s built-in drawing “primitives” whenever you can. Any credible vector drawing package includes controls for drawing such basic shapes as rectangles, circles, etc., and most include controls to produce more sophisticated shapes.

To produce the gear icon, I could have drawn out every curve individually, then tried to tweak the result until it was correct, but this would be incredibly slow, and likely produce an imperfect result. Alternatively, I could have started with a circle, then created a “tooth” shape, and attached rotated copies of the tooth to the circle, but this again seemed like a lot of work!

An Efficient Method

Of the available primitive shape controls, the Star tool seemed to produce a result that had the greatest resemblance to my desired result (Adobe Illustrator offers a very similar Star tool). So, I selected the Star tool and drew a regular, 11-point star, as below. The exact proportions of the star didn’t matter in this case, so I just “eyeballed” them. (The fill color used in these samples is for clarity only; you can use any fill type, or none at all.)


Now I had to trim and modify the basic star shape to make it look more like a gear.

Next, I used the Ellipse tool to draw 3 concentric circles over the star, and centered all the objects vertically and horizontally, as below. The exact diameters of the circles didn’t matter. All that mattered was that the diameter of the outermost circle should be less than that of the star, and the diameters of the other two circles should be respectively larger and smaller than the inner portion of the star, as shown.


Now, I opened Corel Draw’s Shaping menu to begin combining the basic shapes. Firstly, I selected the outermost circle and used the Intersect control in the Shaping menu to lop off the points of the star, with the result below.


Next, I selected the outermost remaining circle (above), and used the Weld control in the Shaping menu to merge it with the remains of the star. This “filled in” the inner vertices of the star, to create the gear’s “bottom land”, as below.


Finally, it was just a question of using the innermost (remaining) circle to punch out the hole in the center. I achieved this by selecting the inner circle, then using the Trim tool in the Shaping menu to remove the center from the remains of the star shape.

Final Drawing

The end result was exactly the shape that I wanted. I’m now able to recolor and resize this vector shape for whatever application I need. Below is an example of the icon applied to a fictitious software button.


Just to demonstrate that the hole in the center of the gear icon really is a hole and not an opaque circle, below is an example of the gear icon laid over a bluish square in Corel Draw. The square is covered by the red portion of the icon, but shows through the hole in its center.


I suppose that there’s an element of “lateral thinking” in these designs, in the sense that you have to start by thinking about the desired end result, then work backwards from there to the primitive shapes supplied by the drawing tool.

In my next post, I plan to discuss how to use computer-aided techniques to assist the production of more “conventional” artwork.