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TUTORIAL: Figure drawing, book recommendations, proportions

A break from my usual paintings of portraits and cat heads! There is a “tutorials” category in this blog, and today I am using it!

I have a painting student who is interested in working more with life drawing and figure drawing. I told her that I’d make a blog post with some book recommendations and other basic tips. This is that blog post! (Book recommendations are at the bottom of this page.)

A topic we’ve been discussing is that all-too-common bugaboo for many artists—getting basic figure proportions correct. Working from life or working from photos, it can get tricky.

It’s a common error for artists to make the head too big for the figure. I remember doing this when I took my first life drawing class. All my figures looked like horrible trolls with HUGE heads! It took a while to finally overcome this bad habit.

This is often happens because we emotionally “see” the head as the most important and unconsciously make it bigger. (We do the same when drawing faces, too. The features will be too big for the rest of the head, and new artists often make the forehead too short and the back of the head too shallow, because we focus so much on the features–eyes, nose, mouth—that the rest of the head is subconsciously viewed as “less important” and drawn smaller.)

To combat this common problem, and to aid all artists in getting the proportions correct, many art teachers have been teaching the “heads high” proportion standard.

From Loomis’s popular book, “Figure Drawing for all It’s Worth.” Click on image to see larger view.

The conventional wisdom is that most people are “7-1/2 heads” high. We use the height of the head as a unit of measurement, and then see how many head-heights down a figure is. In this illustration by Andrew Loomis, he spells it all out. 7-1/2 heads is how “high” most people are in real life. Art schools typically teach this rule of proportion. Loomis classifies 7-1/2 heads as “rather dumpy.” I’m not sure I think it looks that bad, but it does make the man look a bit short compared to his 8-head-high (and above) brethren.

Out of curiosity, I thought I’d apply the “heads-high” standard on real-life people to see how they line up.

This woman (photo found on Wikipedia) is 7-1/2-heads high. (She was naked in the original photo, so I unartfully added “coverage” in Photoshop!)

This average-looking woman is 7-1/2-heads high, as expected.

A picture snagged online, of actor Tim Allen. I’ve added the common “landmarks” where the head-heights usually land on a typical figure. He is also 7-1/2 heads high.

It can be a little tricky getting the proportions correctly analyzed when looking at a photo. If the camera angle is looking slightly down on a figure, then it’s likely that the lens distortion will shorten the legs by a small amount. If the camera angle is looking slightly up to the figure, the head will be made to look smaller. Since it’s more typical to take pictures looking slightly down on the figure, a lot of full-length photos distort the legs and make them appear shorter.

Here’s an example of this (that isn’t as drastic as some photos may be!).

Notice how she’s not quite 7 heads “high” in this picture, and how her legs appear (and measure) shorter due to camera lens distortion. Thanks to Laternamagica-studio of dA for the stock photo used!

I apparently have found the “heads high” thing so fascinating, because I keep on doing it in Photoshop! 😀 Here it’s applied it to one of my old figure drawing sketches.

How I usually do my “measurements” is to mark a spot slightly below the top of the hair (because the hair fluffs up a bit) and to mark the bottom of the figure at the heel. It was a relief to find that I had drawn this figure more or less “correctly,” as she is about 7-3/4 heads high, though her legs might be a bit short and her torso a bit longer than “average.”

There are some variations on this rule of human proportion. Some shorter people might be 7 heads high, or even less. Taller people will be 8 heads high or more. At a local figure drawing group, we tried this “heads high” thing on our group leader—a fellow who is very tall and lanky. Much to my astonishment, he measured at about 9 (NINE!) heads high! I couldn’t believe it, but numbers don’t lie!

When drawing people, it’s better to err on the side of making a person more “heads high” rather than fewer heads high. A little glamorization is preferable to making a person look shorter and dumpier than they are in real life! That’s why some figure drawing books encourage artists to purposely lengthen the figure to 8 heads high (even if the model is 7-1/2 heads in reality). I personally don’t think it’s necessary to always do this, but I do think it’s vitally important to make sure that you don’t shorten the figure (make the head even slightly too big or the legs slightly too short). It’s something we all must continually be watching in our figure drawings.

Now, onto some figure drawing book recommendations:

Figure Drawing for all It’s Worth by Andrew Loomis: This book is a classic and is recommended in many figure drawing classes, for both fine artists and illustrators. It’s so full of goodies, I don’t know where to begin when I praise it. All I can say is it is a MUST HAVE.

Drawing the Head and Figure by Jack Hamm: This humble little book may not look like much at first glance. It has a kind of hokey, kitschy-looking cover with retro-60s-looking art. But I don’t care, and many other artists don’t either. Hamm crams in a lot of useful, accurate info, tips and shortcuts for helping you in drawing the face and figure. Worth its weight in gold!

Dynamic Figure Drawing by Burne Hogarth: This book rocked my world. When I found it (while in college), I copied every sketch in it, studied the “rules” Hogarth gave on how the muscles and bones lined up, and I felt it helped me dramatically. Later on, I was fortunate to study under Mr. Hogarth in real life (more about that here). Hogarth is a popular figure drawing author and you’ll find his books for sale in many art stores and recommended often when the subject of figure drawing comes up. I’d caution anyone to not rely on Hogarth’s books alone, as his strong stylized “look” could become too much of an influence. Combine studying from his books with studying Loomis, Hamm, and other fave figure drawing authors.

Bridgman’s Complete Guide to Drawing from Life by George Bridgman: Like with Hogarth, I’d recommend you study Bridgman but not become too focused on only his works, as he, like Hogarth, is very stylized. (Interestingly, Hogarth was a student of Bridgman! And Norman Rockwell was a student as well. Small world!) This book is affordably priced and has some excellent tools for helping the student understand how the figure is constructed.

Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist by Stephen Rogers Peck: This was one of my favorite books in art school. He crams in so much good stuff, trying in an earnest (and effective) way to demonstrate various principles of human anatomy. Anatomy books are usually pretty “dry” and boring, and tough to take. I won’t say that this book doesn’t contain any “boring” anatomy, but it tries its best, mostly with success, to explain anatomy in an understandable and more digestible way.

It isn’t necessary to get all of these books right away, but I’d recommend at least the Loomis book, if you can only get one!

Looking at the listings on Amazon.com for figure drawing books, you’ll see a lot of nice-looking possibilities. Get as many as you can afford! I know there are some excellent newer books out there. But not all figure drawing books are created equal. I’d be leery of some of the ones tailored for cartooning, anime, or comic books. (Some are probably good, but some might not be…) The books I list are tried-and-true, and often recommended in places like ConceptArt.org. They won’t steer you wrong.

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