Posted by: Julie Duell | June 22, 2009



Part cyl. figure 4

OK now don’t be daunted! I know most people think that figure drawing is about the hardest to do – along with portraiture.   Why not give this method a go?

This is a basic introduction to figure drawing – one where you don’t need to go into the study of every bone and muscle unless you wish to.  This is a method using CYLINDER FIGURES.  Lets begin with a chart showing an average adult model .   Proportions are different for children and the head is much bigger in relation to the body, changing as they grow. 

Everywhere we bend (elbows, wrists, shoulders, waist, hips, knees, ankles) you draw a circle or oval (depending on the angle of the figure you are looking  at). In between these circles or ovals, cylinders connect them – along with masses for the head, chest and abdomen.  

Of course there are all sorts of variations from person to person, but generally (as shown in Leonardo Da Vinci’s illustration above)  an armspan equals the height in an adult – also that half way from top to bottom is the pelvis (not the waist as is commonly thought).  Being aware of the quarters is a great help in figure drawing – (top of head to chest, chest to hip, hip to knee, knee to heel.)

Here is a break-down of the cylinder figure to make it clearer:

Cylinder figure break down



Wooden models from Art shops serve limited purpose, mainly because most do not bend sufficiently to emulate natural poses or positions like walking.

 Here are some examples of drawing cylinder figures with a black marker OVER THE TOP of figures in the sports pages of the newspaper.  

How to start?  Just draw a circle or oval at every joint plus at the waist over the top of your newspaper sports figure.  Some joints may be hidden – if so, just leave them out.   Now join up those circles and ovals to form cylinders in between. 

Part cylinder figure 1

Part cyl. figure 2






In these action shots you will notice there is a lot of what we call ‘foreshortening’ where parts of the body will be coming towards you.  After doing a number of these exercises you will develop a feel for this. Here is what I mean by foreshortening…

  In this example the circle for one knee is INSIDE the oval for the hip joint! The most important part of all drawing is LOOKING and trusting what you see.    In fact, I believe twice as much time should be spent observing the subject as looking at the paper while you are drawing. That way, more of what you can see of your subject will be transferred to your paper and less of what you know about it.

Part cyl. figure 3 





Once you are confidently drawing cylinder figures, you may choose to sketch them softly and then clothe your figures…


Of course the proportions of our body parts change as we grow…here is a chart giving average proportions from baby to adult. There are huge variations so please treat this as an approximate guide only…


Below is my favourite method for drawing people – I start with a faint cylinder figure foundation, then I move to clothing, mapping the light and shade as it falls on the figure. I use this method as a basis for painting as well as drawing.

When you clothe your cylinder figures you will need to look closely to see where the creases occur wherever the figure bends and the way the fabric drapes itself.  Just watch and experiment with quick sketches and it will become second nature to observe these things.

A BIT ABOUT BALANCE:   Note that the weight of the chest is usually over the foot taking the weight – just as we lean forward when walking, or running, transferring the weight onto the leading foot.


Also be sure if you are drawing a hat, that it fits over the head and doesn’t appear to perch up on top looking too small.

So that you get a better idea of  how the mass of the torso, carried weight etc. is distributed, we will switch to skeletal images to better illustrate this…

Centred load carrying

Weight bearing centre

Skeletal profile - hammer






Putting on shoe skeletal 1 Putting on shoe skeletal 2




From a good understanding of cylinder figure drawing, you can progress to learning bone & muscle shapes etc. later or simply clothing your cylinder figures may be enough.

Along with the tips on how to LOOK and draw what you see (in the post “DRAW, YOU  CAN!”) & a little practise every day, you will be drawing figures fluently before too long – and most importantly, have fun doing it.


Although this is covered much more in depth in the posts about PORTRAITS, lets just look here at how the head joins the rest of the cylinder figure.


The head can be thought of as a sphere plus a jaw, joining onto the cylinder of the neck. Note the angle of the neck – not straight up and down like a flower on a stalk! In a child, the jaw is less developed. 

Now for a few examples of figures in artwork in which I have used various methods of rendering. In each case I would have begun with a very light cylinder figure in willow charcoal, which can be dusted back to be a barely visible guide when adding more detailed drawing.

Firstly here is “Heather” in charcoal and “Rebecca” in pastels…

Heather study















You can see how the love of line, light & texture can entrance the artist in you. These were all drawn very quickly in a Life Drawing group.  Next is “Jacqueline” in Pastels

Jacqueline 2 copy













One of Tony’s and my favourite occupations is to do lightning gestural  impressions on the spot, usually back or side views so as not to intrude on the privacy of the subjects. The object is not to obtain any likeness but rather to capture the action or body language.  Often it requires taking a mental snapshot and then putting it down, as the person has inevitably moved on!  It’s a great way to train your photographic memory if you like a challenge!



Fun at Avoca Beach 1 copy

Fish catch details full res

Sometimes the quick sketches become reference for paintings like this one above of my late husband, John, cleaning fish at MacMasters Beach.  It always attracted young onlookers, so made a nice study.


This brings us to the problem of sizing and placing more than one figure in a drawing or painting.   There is a guide which deals with standing people all the same height on level ground (which almost never happens!)  Not greatly helpful, but neverthless here it is:

 The thing I find helpful is to “think myself into the composition”.  For example, if it is a street scene – I imagine a doorway where I want a figure to be & put a mark where the feet would be.  That is the most critical thing.

 Next I  put another mark where the head would be in relation to the doorway.  OK so now I have a top and bottom mark, so I can put a half way mark for the hips and go for it. 

 TIP: Make the head smaller than you think you will need at first and increase it later if needed once you have sketched in the rest of the figure.

In this next French scene I challenged myself to include seated and standing figures in many different attitudes and sizes. It was very difficult. The only way to really learn is to jump in the deep end and try.  Sometimes I sketch a figure on a separate piece of paper and place it on the painting to see where it fits most comfortably size-wise.

French street scene

Nundle artists







In the painting above “Artists at Nundle”, I worked from quick sketches on the spot to create the oil painting back home in the Studio.  Sizing the figures fell into 3 areas – foreground, middle distance and far distance – the far away figures needing to be the ‘right’ size in relation to the house.

In the next study, this group of Artists set up right in front of my Studio at MacMasters Beach and so became the ideal subject!  Being absorbed in their work meant they didn’t move very much and gave me time to paint them!


Finally, if you don’t feel like studying all those muscle and clothing shapes etc. why not have fun with your cylinder figure itself?   This next painting was based on just that, with some of the figures moulded in Fimo (which you bake in an ordinary oven) for three dimensional relief:

Mannequins -  mixed media copy






Or perhaps you could have fun outlining group shapes. The shapes of the spaces (which we call negative shapes) are helpful in drawing too.

Group outlines & negative shapes






However you enjoy figure drawing, I hope this post has helped you in some way.

Cheers,  Julie


  1. Superbly succinct .

    • Many thanks.

  2. Thank you very much for posting these lessons! I am a student and don’t have any income of my own to afford art classes and I am happy that I came across your website, you post lots of things I have yet to learn about art and they are simplified in ways that I can understand better (English is not my first language so it is very helpful!). Thank you very much Miss Julie! I wish you good health and prosperity!

    • Hello Yan, Thank you for your message. I am delighted my free lessons are helping you. Please let me know if you have any questions – no charge for advice. Good health and prosperity to you also!

    • Julie, this is great, are you starting to advertise again. I’ll put this on my facebook page too and then see if it is okay to post it on other art pages as some only like stuff advertised to do with their own teacher. I’ll give it a go. I think you are one of the best teachers I’ve found on the net. I received this twice, by the way. J



      • Thanks Robyne – Glad you are finding it helpful. Cylinder Sam and Cylinder Sally have been around a while now and helped lots of people sketch figures. Drawing them over the sports page pictures is a great way to learn about foreshortening too. Best, Julie x

  3. Hello Julie, I can’t believe I’ve found someone who is able to tell me in such simple terms how to do figure drawings when I’ve been lost trying for years. I wonder why some people just have the special way to convey what others fill books trying to explain — and leave the would-be artist floundering and thinking it is just all too darned hard. I’m so excited about this and will be drawing all over the newspapers with joint circles and clothing shapes — who needs to read the news anyway. Thank you from my heart.

    • I’m so glad you are finding the site useful Robyne. Enjoy and Happy Arting!

  4. Thank you for sharing that. I have just started a class in drawing and painting and you provided just what I need to help me draw realistic people. I appreciate you taking the time to blog!

    • Glad to be of help Beth…Julie

  5. wow this method is really good and I am going to try this definetly! 🙂

  6. I have really enjoyed the figure drawing I will do as you say I will cylinder the figures in my newspaper after I have read it of course and get my pencil working for me I am 71 i do paint a bit and just watch tv in the night now this will be an exciting new change I must look at more of your lessons now , thank you so much Beryl

    • Hello Beryl – I am so pleased you have discovered a new challenge. Adding to our skills feels so satisfying at any age. I am much the same vintage as yourself and am still pushing boundaries exploring texture in painting and learning animation for the web. Once you are comfortable with cylinder figures in the newspapers, you might try sketching people from life in similar manner. Draw the cylinders lightly as a base, then add clothing over with more solid lines. People in parks and cafe’s or seated on public transport usually sit still long enough for quick sketches and provide nice groupings. To honour their privacy, don’t sit too close or draw facial likenesses – keep it general. They will probably think you are just doing a crossword puzzle. Just a small sketchbook in your handbag will do. Let me know how you progress Beryl. Good luck. Julie

  7. what joy to look at the bushy poems illustrated so beautifully

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: