Drawing people part 1

As a follow up to our recent tutorial, ‘Draw a Face Using Simple Shapes‘, we’ve decided to take things a step further and show how to draw an entire body. We won’t be using as many simple shapes as we did for the face: there’s a little more drawing involved. But don’t worry, it’s very easy! But before we dive in, we need to discuss some very important considerations when drawing the human figure.

Since we’ve got a lot to cover we’re splitting this tutorial into 2 parts. This first tutorial will cover the basics of proportion, anatomy, and other things to keep in mind when drawing people. The second tutorial will apply these principles to a vector illustration. Let’s get started!

> Click here to skip ahead to the second part of this tutorial


How Important is Proportion When Drawing People?

Nothing can screw up a drawing of a person more quickly than wonky proportions! A couple of years ago, I teamed up with the incomparable Fanélie Rosier (member absolutely_frenchy on iStock ) for an article on figure drawing. We strongly suggest you check it out, but let’s also run over the basics here as well!

Measuring With Head-Lengths

Let’s look at how the human body is structured. The neat thing about drawing people is, you can use body parts to accurately ‘measure’ the size and positioning of other body parts: No ruler necessary.

A person’s height can accurately determined by the length of their head (‘head-length’). This sounds super weird but it really does work. If you look at a photo of a person, you will see that people are 7 to 7 1/2 ‘heads’ tall. Go ahead and try it: Use a ruler to mark the head-length, then see how many heads make up the entire person. In real life, you can also hold up a pencil and mark a head height with your thumb, then move the pencil up the body to see how many marked head heights you get. This will get you some strange looks from strangers in public spaces.

Here’s how a figure’s body measures out according to our head-length scale:


Here are two lovely ladies measured on our head scale.

• First head-length will be, of course, the person’s head

• The second head-length down will be the chest (nipples)

• The third head-length down will be the belly button

• The fourth head-length down will be the groin

• The fifth head-length falls at mid-thigh

• The sixth head-length falls a little below the knee

• The seventh head-length falls between mid-calf and the ankle (shinbone)

• The seventh and a half head-length will be the bottom of the feet

Head-lengths aren’t just for measuring height, however. There are plenty of other things that can be measured by head-lengths:

• Shoulders should be one head-length wide each

• Feet are one head-length long

• A person’s elbows will fall roughly at their waist level, between the third and fourth head-length

• Standing sideways, a fit man’s chest will be one head-length thick

• A forearm is similar in length to the foot: approximately one head-length long

Other Proportional Tips and Tricks

Some other handy proportional facts:

• A spread fingered hand will cover a person’s face almost perfectly

• Just like the body, a human face can be measured too: this time, by eye length!

• A person’s inside ankle bone will be slightly higher than their outside ankle bone

• Women have wider hips than men

• A person’s height is roughly the same as the width of their outstretched arms

• The top of a person’s ears will align horizontally with their eyes

• A person’s eyes will fall halfway down their face

• A person’s fingertips will fall around mid-thigh when arm is held straight against the body


Note how the hand is comparable in size to the face.


Just when we thought we had proportions all figured out, we’ve noticed that our head-length measurements don’t apply to everybody… Children are a whole different ball game indeed! If you’ve ever seen a newborn baby, the first thing you’ll see is that their heads are very large compared to an adult. As they grow up, the head will become smaller in proportion to the rest of their bodies.

Some considerations for drawing children include:

• Very young children’s height can be measured in about four head-lengths

• By age 7, children will have grown to around six head-heights tall

• A baby’s forehead is much wider than an adult’s and the eyes are slightly lower on the face

• Young children will have slightly protruding stomachs

• A baby’s eyes are around the same size as an adult’s, so they will appear much larger on the face

• Children have much softer angles than an adult (the younger the child, the more ‘baby fat’ there will be on the body), so use lots of curves and rounded edges

• Children are very active so don’t draw them in stiff, straight poses

• The hands and feet of children are pudgier than adults, and fingers and toes will be smaller


Note that the children’s heads are larger compared to their bodies than the adult’s heads, and that their eyes are larger.

What Else Affects Proportion?

We’ve shown how the human body can be measured using head-lengths. But what about when the parts of the body move, bend, or are positioned closer/further away from us?


Perspective is tricky (in fact, it probably deserves a whole tutorial to itself!). We won’t get into complicated point perspectives here: We just want to concentrate on how it affects drawing people.

A general rule of thumb is: The closer an object is to your eyes, the larger it will appear. If someone stands directly in front of you and extends a closed fist towards your face, their fist will naturally look bigger than if they held it pointing away from you! Artists will often play with more extreme perspectives for dramatic effects.

See how the white chess pieces in the background are shown much smaller than the black pieces in the foreground: This is how perspective affects objects of the same size.


Bodies bend. Elbows, knees, hips, wrists, fingers, ankles, waists and necks are all major bendy points on the human figure. It’s important to note which way they bend, or your figures may end up looking as though they’ve broken bones!

Elbows and knees can only bend one way. If they bend backwards, you’d be in pain! However, a slight ‘hyper-extension’ of knees can be very graceful when drawing women, as it elongates the legs and makes them look more feminine.

Wrists, ankles, necks and waists have much more range of motion and can bend in most directions. When drawing realistic people, keep a watchful eye on these bending points: Going too far with a bend can look forced and not very comfortable, which makes the viewer feel awkward!


Here is an example of how the body bends.


As a body bends in one direction, something is going to have to move in another direction to compensate. Think of a teeter-totter: As one end goes up, another comes down. A human can raise their arms above their head no problem, but when they start to lift a leg, their weight is going to have to shift or they’ll fall over!

If the upper body bends to the right, the hips and/or legs will have to push to the left to maintain balance. If the upper body bends forwards to touch their toes, their butt will push outwards to the back. If the upper body bends over backwards to stretch, the hips will move forward out over their toes. The more extreme the movement the more extreme the compensation will have to be!


When the body upper body or limbs move, the rest of the body moves in the other direction to compensate.

Our Angles and Curves

Whether a body part is angular or curved is determined by what’s going on under our skin. Don’t worry, we’re not going to get into an in-depth anatomy class here! But it is important to understand the difference between muscle, fat and bone – particularly when drawing men and women, who are quite different to draw!


proportion-07Let’s start with the human skeleton. You can see one on wikipedia if you don’t happen to have one handy, or if you happened to toss the ones from your closet out during this year’s spring cleaning. You don’t need to memorize all of the bones (unless you want to). What you need to pay attention to here is which bones are where, and their general sizes and shapes.

The first bone I’d like to mention is the pelvic bone, the big butterfly shaped one near the middle of the body. This is a very heavy bone, and it’s important to note that women’s and men’s pelvic bones are a little bit different. A woman’s pelvic bone is wider because it has to be large enough to birth a baby. So when you’re drawing, keep this in mind!

The forearms and lower legs of humans are actually made of 2 bones, not just one like upper arms and thighs. You can’t easily see these bones when looking at a person, but when someone tenses their hands or twists their wrists, you can start to see the bone structure as the skin and muscles pull tight. It’s common to exaggerate this on comic-book styled men to make them appear more ripped and powerful.

You can see the human ribcage is a cylindrical shape and that it doesn’t extend all the way down the torso: This gives us the curvature of our waists. For women, this curvature is often very exaggerated to show femininity and sex appeal.

At the base of the neck, there’s a small bone called the clavicle that travels from our shoulders inward to the centre of our chests. When you look at a fit or slender person the clavicle bones are apparent as long thin horizontal bumps that sit just below the end of the neck. It’s common to draw the clavicle as it gives nice definition to a person’s upper chest area.

The last thing we’ll draw your attention to are the knees. Note that they’re surprisingly large and made up of a ball-and-socket type arrangement of bones. When drawing women, it’s common to skip excess definition of the knee area, whereas when drawing muscular men, the knees are often exaggerated as the thigh muscles start just above the knee area.


Now that we know how the skeleton affects the way that humans look, it’s time to look at muscles. Because humans really don’t look the way that skeleton did! There are layers and layers of muscles (and internal organs, of course) stacked on top of our skeletons so it’s important to pay attention to their sizes, shapes and positions.

Here is a pretty good example of the muscles in the human body. There are a lot of them! There are also detailed breakdowns by muscle group available here.

The biggest thing you’ll notice is how muscles have filled out the skimpy bits of our skeleton: the upper thighs, the upper arms, the chest and the abdomen. You’d hardly know that the forearm and lower legs on a human’s skeleton are made of two bones, and look much thicker than the upper arm and thigh under the muscles when you’ve stripped away the muscles! The area under the ribcage is also filled in (with both muscles and internal organs).

Some things to note about muscles:

• The muscles in the thighs are very long and there are a lot of them

• Back muscles are large, and on men, are often exaggerated to show strength

• Upper arms are typically drawn to focus on 2 muscles: the bicep and the tricep

• On women, muscles are usually softened and drawn without much shading

• The calf is shaped like an upside-down heart: When flexed, a drawing of a muscular man should show this definition

• Shoulders are their own muscle and shouldn’t be drawn as extensions of the arm muscles

• The muscles in a human’s neck are vertical and from the front form a ‘V’ shape

• Pectoral muscles (the chest) are drawn much, much larger on men than on women

• The abdominal muscles cluster vertically at the centre of the torso – they give the ‘six pack’ definition on muscular men

• Muscles look different depending on whether they are flexed or not – Keep this in mind as you’re drawing a moving or laboring character and plan accordingly

Skin and Fat Deposits

proportion-08The last thing to keep in mind while drawing people is how skin covers our bodies, and how fat is distributed underneath this skin. Skin isn’t just a thin layer stretched out over our muscles! Our skin is made up of many layers of varying thicknesses depending on where it rests on our bodies. For example, the skin on a human face is much thinner than it is on our backs.

Skin also changes as we age. It becomes thinner as we get older, and of course, starts to wrinkle. Since aging skin gets less blood flow over time, it looks less voluminous and isn’t as stretchy and elastic as it is when we’re children. This is important to note when drawing elderly characters.

Skin is very elastic, but, it’s not completely elastic! As we bend and twist, skin can create folds. A good example is bending over to touch our toes: Creases will be created in the skin over our tummies. How deep these creases are depend on how our fat is deposited.

Some areas of the body contain more fat under our skin than others. Areas such as our forearms and shins rarely collect fat, whereas our bellies, hips, and thighs can put on weight rather easily depending on our body types. Faces can also show the effects of fat, rounding out our cheeks and creating a lump under our chins (a ‘double’ chin). Children in particular look pudgy and rounded compared to adults due to their ‘baby’ fat.

Fat distribution is very different between men and women! The most obvious example is, of course, breasts. One common newbie mistake is to draw breasts as perfect half circles sitting atop a woman’s chest: This isn’t how breats are shaped (well, not unless a surgeon has intervened with nature!). Since breasts contain a lot of fat, they tend to slope downwards on a woman’s chest. Think of filling a water balloon with fluid, then holding it by the base of the balloon and holding it base-side-up it against a wall: The liquid will settle at the base of the balloon, creating more of a pear shape than a round beach ball shape.

Women generally have a higher fat percentage than men do. As such, their bodies are often drawn as softer and rounder, whereas men are more angular. Body fat can also give people very different shapes: rounded (weight stays towards the middle of the body and tapers off towards the upper torso and legs), pear shaped (where the weight sits low on the body in the thighs and lower torso), box-shaped (where the torso carries weight but the arms and legs remain thin), and so on. It’s fun to experiment with different figure shapes, especially when drawing caricatures and cartoony-styled characters.

Remember: Even if you’re drawing an overweight person, there are still muscles, organs and bones underneath the weight! Just because someone is carrying excess weight, there is still structure to be observed when drawing.


If you really love drawing people, the best thing that you can do is to surround yourself with lots of reference materials. For example, drawing hands is extremely tricky, but if you leave them out of your drawing you’re missing out on one of the most expressive parts of the body! So what I do is keep a folder on my desktop of snapshots I’ve taken of hands from every angle. I’ve cropped them out of my photos and have them in an easy to find place, so if I ever need a hand holding an object, or a hand with the index finger extended, or a hand balled up into a fist, it only takes me seconds to find accurate photographic reference!


Here is an example of a reference photo being used to draw a semi-realistic hand.

Other great drawing tools are wooden dummies. You can get them quite cheaply at most art supply stores and they are fully poseable like a real person. The joints in a dummy work exactly like a person’s joints do: elbows and knees bend one way, while ankles, wrists, necks and waists are constructed in such a way to offer a wider range of motion. You can even buy wooden dummies of hard-to-draw body parts like hands!

Using What We Know… And Putting Our Own Spin On Proportion

We now know how a real human is constructed. But as illustrators, we don’t necessarily need to follow the rules Mother Nature’s set out for us!

In many illustrations, you’ll notice that head-to-body proportions can look very different. Some people like to draw smaller bodies with very large heads to create cute, cartoony caricatures (and maximize on facial expressions). In classic comic book illustrations, heads will be much smaller in order to make the bodies look more heroic and muscular. In fact, comic books will often make the heads so small that the bodies could end up being 8, 10, or more head-lengths!

There are many different styles of proportional exaggeration out there. Some of the most common:

• Increasing the hip and bust widths on a woman while decreasing the waist width (like Barbie dolls) to look more feminine

• Increasing the shoulder width on men to make them look stronger

• Making legs on both men and women longer to look graceful

• Extreme shading on men’s muscles, and the addition of veins, to show strength (particularly in comic book styles)

• Drawing eyes and lips larger on women to look more expressive and feminine

• Increasing muscle sizes on men (biceps, calves, etc) to look more powerful

• Making women’s feet smaller to look delicate

• Less articulation in joints (elbows, knees, etc) to give a cartoony, goofy look

• Avoiding shading on women’s muscles (abs, thighs, etc) to look more delicate and graceful

• Exaggerated postures (extremely slumping shoulders, etc) to show emotions more clearly


In the above example, the woman’s limbs are extremely elongated to look elegant and lean, and her hips and bust have been exaggerated for sex appeal. Her head-length to body ratio is about 8 head-lengths.

The possibilities are literally endless! But always remember the basics of proportion, even when exaggerating. Otherwise your illustration could just end up looking ‘wrong’.

Click here for Part 2: Drawing People

© 2009 Jennifer Borton

19 thoughts on “Drawing people part 1

  1. akismet-a29d565b32978bfceed32083ab0d8035 says:

    Such an excellent tutorial, Jennifer! I’ve always been awful at drawing anything, but these proportion tips helped me make some basic vector characters I want to use in a project. Your tips have made it SO easy!

    In the article you tease me with a reference to using the eye as the basis of the proportion for faces, but you don’t give any details. Could you elaborate a bit further? Body proportions are one thing, but if I get the faces wrong, I know my characters will be useless. Suggestions?

  2. aseel says:

    Are these images allowed to be used in research papers with citations?

    • bortonia says:

      I’m sorry, but no, you can’t use anything from my site without the proper licensing. You can license all of the artwork in my tutorials from istockphoto.com/bortonia 🙂

  3. Li'l C says:

    hi, i was wondering what do you call this kind of drawing style? i tried searching for retro-style drawings but this kind of drawing usually does not come up in the search engine.

    • bortonia says:

      I don’t think the style really has a name, to be honest. It’s just how I like to draw. You could call it ‘graphically simplified’ I suppose!

  4. JMK says:

    Wonderful, have liked the vivid step-by-step description. Congrates!

  5. can you give us some examples of doing hair especially clown hair

  6. NII says:

    AGYEI! This is great stuff, let us have more

  7. NII says:

    This is GREAT
    How can I get the part 2.


  8. Jaquelyn says:

    this is great but i c more stuff on how ur body changes than how 2 draw the bodies 😀 otherwise it was OK in helpfullness but i think i learned more about physical properties of human body 😀 lol sry and thx

  9. Mike D says:

    Great info – I’ve filed this in my design reference for when I have to deal with drawing people! 🙂 THANKS!

  10. Derky says:

    very helpful!! i cant wait until you post the 2nd part =)

  11. Neha says:


    Thanks for the such good and useful tuts.I have created some vector faces from the help of ur tutus.

    Hope to see more interesting tuts on the same topic .


  12. […] Its a basic vector human illustration, what you need to know before drawing a human body you must knowing the body proportion, this first tutorial will cover the basics of proportion, anatomy, and other things to keep in mind when drawing people. Its divided into two parts, the second tutorial you’ll learn these principles to a vector illustration. Read Complete Tutorial […]

  13. Brad C says:

    Wow, very descriptive and some great information on here. I’ll definitely have to come back and reread sometime for reference.

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