Drawing Tutorial: Anatomy and Proportion #1

Learning how to draw the Human Form efficiently and effectively takes a lot of time, practice and patience. I don’t pretend to be a master of anatomically correct drawing, but I do attempt to consult my charts and references often when I am trying to establish a believable looking figure. Understanding the structure of the human body and its extents and limits is the key in creating forms that are lifelike and realistic in a relative sense – you could be doing life drawings and attempt to be infinitely realistic, or you may be making simplistic cartoons or caricatures which should have some semblance of being anatomically correct.

There are many current and aspiring artists who neglect to refer to the basic fundamentals of anatomy and proportion and dismiss blatant errors as drawing in their own particular style. I’m not going to argue about being right and being wrong in this aspect, but if a body appears jarring and awkward to most people, chances are you’ve done something wrong when you were putting the pieces together. If something isn’t right about a figure that is meant to resemble the human form, (something that you are completely connected to and know and understand) you’ll notice right away. At times – when you draw it yourself, you become so engrossed in your work that you overlook the obvious. To avoid these embarrassing mistakes, make sure you take some time to review the basics of the human form and study the details before leaping into drawing subjects you don’t have a lot of practice with.

Here’s some examples of anatomically correct proportions that you should adhere to in order to achieve realistic looking figures. These images are courtesy of Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth by Andrew Loomis.

Proportions - Male

Proportions – Male

Note that you’ll want to determine the height of your male on page, divide the height by 8, and work from there – you’ll see there are specific ratios for certain areas of the body. The measurements are determined by head units – one of the 8 divisions you set up is the size of the human head – everything is in relation to that one size.

  • The body width = 2 1/3 heads
  • The body height = 8 heads
  • Distance between nipples on chest = 1 head
  • Width of calf muscles together at lower arc = 1 head
  • Bottom of the knees = 2 heads from ground level

For further reference, the diagram has a scale in feet to give you an idea of where certain body parts would be in relation to the heights/widths of other objects (vehicles, furniture, etc)

Proportions - Female

Proportions – Female

For women, the ratios differ slightly as the average form is smaller then the form of an average man. The overall height is measured in 8 Head Units, but because the female head is proportionately smaller, the figure will be smaller.

  • The body width = 2 heads wide
  • Waist = 1 head wide
  • Buttocks = 1 1/2 heads wide
  • Width of calf muscles together at mid-point = 1 head wide
  • Bottom of the knees = 2 heads from ground level

Now you can alter the proportions slightly to exaggerate features, but you shouldn’t stray too far from the aforementioned guidelines, otherwise your figures will appear alien and awkward. Here’s a diagram with some variations in human proportion.

Variations in Proportion

Variations in Proportion

Loomis mentions the standard proportion technique causes the figures to appear “dumpy and old-fashioned”. This technique uses a ratio of 7 1/2 head units for the height, and is the standard taught in most institutions and courses of study. In order to create more of a well defined form, some exaggeration is needed, so the ideal proportion technique was developed, to act as an alternative to the standard proportions. The fashion industry proportion exaggerates even further and extends the form an extra head unit taller than standard measurement to give the illusion of beauty through elongated lines. Finally, an example of extreme exaggeration of form to create a grandiose, super-human figure comes from the heroic proportion model. Most sculptors in the Classic period, fantasy artists and comic book illustrators who draw large, muscular hero type characters use this ratio.

To successfully learn basic human proportion, try the following exercises.

  1. Do a series of sketches on paper first to get the feeling for drawing human forms based on head units.
  2. Make sure you draw three views – Anterior (front), Lateral (side) and Posterior (back). This will give you a good sense of where parts should be in relation to others.
  3. Repeat the process a number of times and make a wide variety of body types using the other proportion techniques (standard, ideal, fashion, heroic) If you do this enough times, you’ll get the hang of the proportions of body parts a lot faster than assuming they should be a certain way and drawing by trial and error. You wont make blatant mistakes either.

Once your sketches have been completed, open up your drawing software and repeat the exercise. This time, use the guides to help you make your divisions. The reason I didn’t get you to do this from the start was to force you to use your eye and judgement to create the unit divisions visually. The first few drawings may have been terrible because the divisions weren’t 100% equal. That is perfectly fine. No person is 100% proportioned, anyway. This is an average guide that you can use to learn the fundamentals of human form. Once you become comfortable with this average proportion scale, you can modify it for skinny people, fat people etc. For now, lets continue on with the digital portion of the exercise.

  1. Follow the same steps as the sketch version, using the drawing software guides to aid you in your proportions.
  2. Do not worry about erasing or making the perfect figure (with enough practice you wont even need the guides)
  3. If you have a scanner, scan some of your sketches and compare them against your digital version – are the proportions similar?

What you are essentially doing is conditioning yourself to draw the human form in proportion consistently. After doing some gesture drawings, bust out a proportioned human form if you feel you’re not quite getting the sizes down right. Then go back to your subject and try it again.

I hope this short lesson helps you improve on your technique. I’ll elaborate in more detail on other methods to capture the human form through drawing.

25 thoughts on “Drawing Tutorial: Anatomy and Proportion #1

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  6. This really helped. I’m carving a Native American chess set, and the body proportions and three dimensional structure are as important as the regalia and acoutraments, even more so than figure features, (hands, face, fingers, toes).

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  9. Andrew Loomis was the master, I’ve been collecting some of his books from eBay whenever I can. These quides are great to get the ideal canons of proportion in your head, and be able to recognize the differences when you’re looking at a real person.

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  17. Why on earth is the female anatomical drawing in high heels?! It changes the stance entirely! Look at how far forward it makes her lean, it skews everything.

    Are you serious that she is otherwise completely naked but is still wearing high heels? Are women incapable of taking their heels off or are heel-less women simply not worth drawing?

    The male drawings are accurate and flat footed, this is ridiculous. It makes that example image totally useless.

  18. Don’t shoot the messenger – Take it up with Andrew Loomis. He did the drawings, not me. That was back during a time were sexism was absolutely rampant. I don’t agree with the use of the high-heels either.

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