Lesson 8: Proportion and Flow

As of October 8th 2016, after roughly two years of offering free critiques, I will now be limiting my own critiques to patreon supporters ($3 or more). But don't fret - you are still welcome to freely submit your work and questions directly to the /r/ArtFundamentals subreddit to be reviewed by the community.

If you're looking at this lesson, I'm under the assumption that you've completed those that come before it. Lessons 1 and 2 are an absolute must, while lessons 3-7 are highly recommended in order to sharpen your ability to work with form and think in 3D space. I know a lot of you will have come here thinking, "I want to learn to draw!" and thinking of drawing people as your first stop. That is.. unwise to say the least. Human beings are complex, and since most of us happen to be human, we're pretty unforgiving when they happen to be drawn incorrectly. It's really not a good place to start, so I recommend going back to the beginning of this curriculum and working your way up.

Before we get started, just a quick word about the tools you should use when completing the homework. Previous lessons forced you to work in ink - by this point, I expect that you'll have built up some of the good habits that come from having worked in pen for so long. I'm welcoming you all to use whatever medium you are most comfortable with for the figure drawing lessons, just be sure to apply the same methodology of thinking and planning before every mark. As I mentioned above, drawing people can be very tricky and complex, so forcing you to work in ink would likely make things far more difficult than they need be.

Gesture and Flow

So if you've been exposed to any figure drawing lessons in the past, there's a pretty good likelihood that you're familiar with the concept of 'gesture drawing'. For those of you who aren't, it is the act of capturing the energy or gesture of a pose or movement as a series of lines. Many instructors will have their students more or less go crazy on the page in a way that doesn't entirely line up with our patient, preplanned methodology here, so we'll be partaking in a variation of gesture drawing that is more deliberate and that focuses on line economy.

We are going to focus on capturing the flow of a figure using under 20 lines. We start by analyzing our reference image (or live model, as the case may be) and identifying the features of their torso, and move into the legs, the arms, and if necessary the head/neck as well. Wherever the flow breaks (for example, a bent elbow or knee), we either act as though the flow has not been broken (for instance, drawing the leg as though it were straight), or we let it stop there.

Don't worry about proportion, but don't go out of your way to ignore it. It's just not our focus for now.

Gesture Drawing Steps

This is the same demo that's shown in the intro video, but I'm breaking it down here for those who prefer text (and for their instruction not to include the feverish ramblings of a person who's fighting a cold).

  1. One of the most important elements of a pose is the relationship between the shoulders and the hips, so we establish this early. For the line connecting them, you can either use a contour line that runs down the front of the torso (be mindful of keeping it on the surface) as I've done in the example, or you can use a line to approximate the spinal curve. One term that many students learn when taking figure drawing courses is contrapposto. This refers to the shoulders and hips being aligned opposed to one another (for example, shoulders go up and to the right, hips go down and to the left). This assymetry leads to a more dynamic pose (with the weight shifted to one leg), so if you happen to see it in your model's pose definitely try to exaggerate it a little. This comic by Peter Duggan does a good job of explaining it. Oh Heptup, you're so virile.
  2. Next we enclose the sides of the torso - notice that due to the assymetry of the hips and shoulders, one side is longer (expanded) and the other is shorter (compressed). The expanded side can be captured with a simple flowing arc, while the compressed side must be accentuated by two lines. Though the flow of these lines breaks here, the overall flow of the torso (maintained by the central line and the expanded side) holds strong.
  3. In order to have some place to connect our legs, we capture the 'underwear-shaped' pelvis. Study your reference carefully to see how this should be drawn.
  4. I try to keep the legs relatively simple, with relatively straight, flowing lines. If the leg should bend, I let the lines stop at the bend, or flow a little past it without changing its direction.
  5. Same goes for the arms. Hands and other such minutiae aren't a big concern here.

That's pretty much where the gesture/flow is captured - from there you can choose to extend into step 6, which is just adding missing bits that aren't terribly important to the flow for that pose, but don't go too far into detail. Right now we're keeping things fairly simple. No detail, no complexity.

So here's the bad news - there's going to be some memorization, and it's not going to be fun. Doing the gesture drawing stuff from the previous section can be pretty smooth, but the problem is that you probably don't know where things should stop. For example, how long should a figure's torso be? What about the legs? Below are a bunch of rules - some of which are firm, others are more like guidelines - and you're going to have to remember all of them. It will be repetitive, but over time you will learn to internalize them.

The Proportions of an Adult

Circle-Based Measurement

Circle-Based Measurement

This is where we usually start, with the head. The mother of all measurements. The circle is front top portion of the skull. If seen at an angle, we extend it back into a capsule shape of up to a length of 1.7 circle-lengths if seem completely from the side. When seen straight on, the head is one circle wide.

The pit of the neck (collarbone) is situated one circle down from this initial circle, and the chin is located half a circle beneath the initial circle. Don't forget to give the chin a bit of width.

Now this part is more of a suggestion, or a starting point - the torso (not including the bulk of the shoulders) is around 2 circles wide. Even if seen at an angle, this two-circle measurement can be shifted around and won't necessarily be centred, but the measurement still holds (loosely) true. Keep in mind that when a person is particularly muscular, they've got serratus muscles that can expand considerably - this 2 circle measurement does not account for that, so in such a situation you'll want to build up muscle on top. We're not terribly concerned with that for now.

Head-Based Measurement

You can refer to the big overall breakdown for this one - head measurement is relatively simple. One head down we have the chin, two heads down we have the nipples (assuming a flat chest), three heads down we have the top of the pelvis and four heads down we have the bottom of the crotch. This is fairly consistent for most adult humans, regardless of height.

Torso-Subdivision Measurement

Again, refer to the big breakdown. If you take the length from the pit of the neck to the bottom of the crotch, one quarter of the way down is the bottom of the sternum, one halfway down is the bottom of the ribcage, and three quarters of the way down is the naval/belly button.

Below you'll find links to individual figure drawing demos. They're freely available to everyone, but there's no audio commentary, just real-time drawing and in some cases a few notes written out as I go.


The demo below is technically outdated, but for no reason other than it's older than the rest of the material. It still serves as a decent step-by-step breakdown of how to construct a figure while measuring out all of your proportions


Usually the video recordings of the demos are reserved for my patreon supporters. This time, however, I'm releasing it freely for everyone. The next lessons will go back to being patreon-only.

Free Video Demo (15min, no audio)

Drawing the Head

We start off by drawing the head. The proportion systems all start with a circle that represents the cranial mass.

  1. Draw the circle. It should be a proper circle, not squashed or stretched like an oval.
  2. This particular pose is at a 3/4 angle, so we've got to extend the cranial mass back into a capsule shape. Since we're not in a full side view, we extend it back a little bit less than we would if it were a side view.
  3. Now drop the jaw down to the chin. Refer to the proportion information above to find out how to accurately situate the chin. Connect it all the way to the back of the skull/capsule shape.
  4. Cut a line down to mark the end of the jaw. If you were to draw the ear (which we won't, because this is just a simplified mannequin), it would be aligned to this line.
  5. Now we take that original circle and drop it down once to find where the pit of the neck sits - that would be the little red circle under the chin, also known as the collar bone.
  6. Bring the neck down from the original circle to the pit of the neck. Refer to figure 0.2 to see how the neck connects to the pit.
  7. Now draw the collar bones that extend off the neck. These can pivot around independently from one another. One can be raised and the other can be lowered - this is determined by the actual position of your shoulders. If both arms are raised, both of these collar bones would be angled upwards. If the shoulders are lowered, or shrugging, they'd both be angled downwards. You can have a situation where one is angled upwards and the other is angled downwards.
  8. Connect the neck to the collar bones by drawing the trapezius muscle, down to the shoulder.

If you find yourself confused, read the steps over more carefully, and pay close attention to the red lines in the diagram.

Drawing the Torso
  1. Bring the lines of the torso down - the two edges as well as the center line.
  2. Knowing that the crotch sits at 4 heads down, measure that out and mark it with a line going across. Then take the shape between that line and the collarbone and cut it into quarters, using the proportions you described in figure 0.3 to set out your landmarks.
Drawing the Legs
  1. Take the current height of what you've drawn (should be 4 heads, from the top of the head to the bottom of the crotch) and bring it down below the crotch. If you want your character's height to be 8 heads, mark this spot off as the ground. If you want a height of 7.5 heads, you'll want to bring this ground marker up a little bit. I like to mark the ground with a cross in perspective, just to remind myself that what I'm drawing exists in three dimensions.
  2. Always study your reference closely, and note the pose. Often you'll see that one leg is straight, supporting all of your figure's weight, while the other will likely be bent, relaxing. These are cues you should train yourself to notice, as they carry the gesture.
  3. Block in the feet with simple shapes. Absolutely do not try to get detailed.
Drawing the Arms
  1. Again, study your pose and note how the shoulders lead into the arms.
  2. A very handy trick for posing arms and legs accurately is to look at the negative shapes they enclose when they bend. Here I've highlighted them in pink. Look for these shapes in your reference, and you will find that they make figuring out the nuances of a pose much easier.
  3. Lastly, block in your hands with very little detail. I find it very effective to represent the hand as a mitten with the index finger separated away from the other three.

And there you have it - a simple mannequin that could technically be applied to either gender. It is extremely important to get accustomed to drawing this generic mannequin before you start diving into any sort of detail. Instead of looking at your reference and trying to reproduce some manner of likeness, treat it as nothing more than a pose. You have this mannequin, and you're merely drawing it in the pose that you see. You are not drawing the person themselves. That will come later.

As I mentioned at the top of the lesson page, you are free to use whatever media you are most comfortable with. The ink-on-paper limitation is being lifted from here onwards (unless otherwise stated), so feel free to use pencil, charcoal, digital, etc. When learning to figure draw myself, I used a Conté à Paris Pierre Noire pencil and a large (11x14) pad of newsprint which was secured to a drawing board with a bulldog clip. The board/pad were usually held at an angle, supported by donkey bench style easels when at live model figure drawing sessions, and against the desk and my lap when at home.

About the pencils - like any other, that particular brand comes in ranges of hard (8H-HB), soft (HB-8B), with the hardness/softness increasing with the associated number and HB sitting in the middle. The harder the lead the less of a mark it'll make, and the softer the lead the darker the mark will be with the same amount of pressure used. That said, harder leads will feel different from softer ones. Our instructor had us purchase 2Hs and 2Bs, but after a while I started to find that the 2Hs felt like they snagged on the tooth of the paper, while the 2Bs felt much smoother and more liquid. I ended up switching to the 2Bs only. As a result, I had to be much more careful with controlling my pressure, but I found that it was worth the trouble.

How to Hold a Pencil

Additionally, for pens the traditional tripod grip used for writing has been optimal, as it afforded us the greatest control of the primary means of varying our strokes - pressure. When it comes to pencils however, we have multiple surfaces that we can use to create different kinds of marks, so the tripod grip is no longer the most effective method to hold your tool. This applies to any media with multiple contact surfaces - paint brushes, charcoal sticks, etc.

You'll notice as well that more of the lead has been exposed. This is in order to create a larger contact surface on the side. The pencil shown is dulled from use (I haven't drawn with it in forever, so I had to dig it up for the photo), but this kind of exposure of the lead cannot be achieved with a normal pencil sharpener. In this case, I used a box cutter to carefully carve away the wood. Sometimes I would still use a regular sharpener to sharpen the tip to a point, but it's important to realize that your lead is rather fragile, so you're going to accidentally break it pretty frequently when getting used to doing this. Lead holders may be an easier alternative, but I have no experience with these so I can't say so for certain.

As homework, I recommend doing the following:

  • 20 gesture/flow drawings, as demonstrated in this lesson. Try to use no more than 20 lines to capture the overall flow of your drawing - after that is done, you can add more refinement as you wish, but keep it simple. Do not add detail. I don't want to see their faces, musculature, breasts, belly-fat, etc. at this stage. Try to separate the figure's pose in your mind from the model themselves - draw as though you are transferring that pose onto a single mannequin.
  • 20 proportion/construction studies. Start from the initial circle of the head, and follow the steps outlined in the intro video. The old demo just above is also useful in terms of breaking down those steps.
  • Once the 20 proportion/construction studies are complete, I want you to go back over them with a different coloured pencil or pen and correct your proportional mistakes. Try and match up everything with the three measurement systems outlined in this lesson. Even if you are extremely careful and try your best, there's a good chance that as a beginner, you will have made plenty of mistakes. Be sure to identify them so you know what you need to keep in mind the next time you do these kinds of studies. I want to see corrections on every single figure. Be methodical, and use a ruler or calipers from a geometry set if necessary.

Take your time, and take as many breaks as you need. No need to rush. Be careful and methodical - take the time required to properly measure out our proportions and to construct your shapes.

I strongly recommend finding a life drawing session with nude models. Chances are that if you take the time to look, you should be able to find one near by. If you can't, then you may still use photo reference from the internet. Some resources include:

Avoid using posable/posed 3D models - I see some beginners share these around, but it's not a good idea. Reason being, they rely largely on the skills of the person posing them, and more often than not those poses end up stiff and rather lifeless. This will in turn train you to draw stiff and lifeless characters, so stick to models that are actually alive.