When I draw human figures from reference, my drawing looks wrong but I can see what went wrong and (hopefully) correct it by looking at the reference.

However, when I draw human figures from imagination, my drawing just looks wrong, and I have no idea why.

What are some tips for successfully transitioning between "drawing human figures from reference" and "drawing human figures from imagination"?

  • are you draw a wireframe at first?
    – Vnovak
    Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 9:56

7 Answers 7



  • Study a little anatomy, but do not get too bogged down in "correct proportions". Few of us complies with the vitruvian man :D
  • Study foreshortening
  • Sketch a lot, fast, without looking too closely is the best practice. You will discover new qualities. Do this with both references and from your head or better: sketch people quickly when sitting on the bus. The great thing about that, is that you hardly have any time, and it will hone your abilities because it needs to be fast.
  • Do not go over them immediately, give it at least a week before you look at them.

If you look at some of the old masters, there will be technically things that are off. The classic example are The birth of Venus by Bottichelli, where the neck is too long (conveniently covered by hair), the arms do not add up with the shoulders and elbow, the feet seems too small. enter image description here

Some of da Vincis drawings also look odd; his drawing of hands, they often seem too elongated with odd placement of knuckles.

enter image description here

But no one questions - and should not - question the value of these works. They are not smaller for it; in fact some of the art lies in the artistic freedom.

(I know from experience of drawing hands that things might look off, but are not. They human hand consists of an idiotic amount of bones and are notoriously tricky to draw. They almost always look wrong. And I have studied my hands for decades!). The human skeleton is a gangly thing. It helps to have a mental image of it, but do not get too focused on bones.

What you might want to consider: drawing is not really about photographic reproduction, we have cameras for that. The big question is what you want to express. The quality of a piece of art does not lie in how engineeringly correct it is.

I reiterate:

  • It is helpful to have a little anatomy knowledge but not too much.
  • It is probably more helpful to study foreshortening.
  • Draw stick-men reasonably in proportions.

Then, drawing from your head: try to exaggerate certain body shapes. Draw the same character as thin, chubby, fat, obese; toddler, teenager, adult, old. And there are practicals: it is easier to draw a face in profile or "half profile" (where the tip of the nose aligns-ish with the chin, see image below), than full en face.

enter image description here

It sounds to me that you are too critical too fast. Yes, if you drew The birth of Venus it would look off, for good reasons. You will never be 100% happy, no matter how good you get; that is in the nature of things.

  • 2
    It is common in music circles to hear things like "Its not 'practice makes perfect,' but 'perfect practice makes perfect'". My first thought on this was "but imperfect practice makes style"
    – horatio
    Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 16:56
  • @horatio nice! I actually believe in "mistakes" having value. Besides, someone said "Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Design is knowing which ones to keep".
    – benteh
    Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 17:04

Do you have one of these guys? You can use him to help with the proportions when you do your original wireframe, and then you can build out the details from there with your imagination.

I'm not a great artist, but I've found my little mannequin to be beneficial.

photo of my wooden art mannequin. I call him "Manny."

  • The pose is glorious.I've also found these beneficial for getting the pose sketch out before adding detail :)
    – Jenna
    Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 15:12
  • @Jenna "Manny" thinks he's Usain Bolt!
    – Brendan
    Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 15:40
  • 2
    I see me in the background :P
    – horatio
    Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 17:04

One exercise I've found useful is to have the model in one room and the drawing materials in another room. You can look at the model as much as you want, and you can go back and forth as much as you want, but you can't draw while looking at the model. You have to remember what you've seen as you go from one room to the other.

This is primarily an exercise to develop drawing from memory, of course, not drawing from imagination. But I would argue that drawing from memory is a great first step.


The figure is a complex machine and if you want to play with the settings and adjust poses without reference, you need to have a fairly decent understanding of anatomy, or at minimum the basic shapes of each visible part, how they connect, and how they move around each other.

Once you can conceptualize the forms, you need to have a good understanding of how to rotate and translate the forms. Some people call this "perspective" but I caution you that all the 1- 2- and 3-point synthetic perspective drawing references in the world probably will not be of any particular use.

Once you have these down, the next step is being able to actually see what you are drawing for what it is, not what you want it to be. You can already tell when something looks deformed. This is evidence that you already know what is wrong. Many times people struggle because they cannot bring themselves to destroy work they have done to make the parts work and they fiddle endlessly with the 3 well-integrated parts in order to avoid erasing the gorgeous eyelashes on the deformed eyeball.

And finally, it is usually beneficial to lay down the basics and then seek out references for a particular portion you feel you are having trouble with. If the knee looks wrong, get a mirror or camera and poses the knee and use that to help refresh your knowledge.

One thing I picked up on very quickly as a young artist was that the artists I admired the most at the time (read: probably popular comics and illustration) is that once you get into the drawing you see all sorts of screw ups that I as a consumer failed to notice. You can learn to embrace some of these errors.

I would caution you against using comics and fantasy media when studying anatomy: go to primary anatomy sources and seek out figure photo reference books for artists that focus on images of figures rather than advice (An old one I remember from many years ago was called "The Figure in Motion" but it was primarily/exclusively female photos and the poses were not normal or natural since they were jumping, dancing etc). I actually found fetal facial development photos enlightening.


Stick figures are good to start with -- figure out where the head & spine are and where the joints of the arms/legs are before fleshing it out. If I'm drawing something especially difficult I'll turn the stick figure into a rough skeleton and add muscles, etc.

Get a good anatomy reference book (mine is Peck's Atlas of Human Anatomy but there are lots of others). There are mathematical formulas you can use to rough out the figure - i.e. a normal adult body is about 7 heads high, etc.

I can recommend a book called The Artists Guide to Facial Expression (Gary Faggin) -- it has a great tutorial on constructing a realistic head from geometric shapes. This was the one I used to create believable faces from scratch, in the correct proportions.

My favorite technique in spotting mistakes when you don't have a reference image to look at your work through a mirror. Other things you can try are turning it upside down (as mentioned above) or 90 degrees, with feet at bottom and head at top (especially good for reclining poses). Also, move as far away from the image as you can and squint to see lights/darks.

Drawing from life is in my opinion the best way to create better imaginary figures, because you'll get a better sense of innate proportion than copying a compressed 2-dimensional image. One of the most useful life drawing books I've used is Kimon Niccolaides' The Natural Way to Draw. He recommends this daily exercise: Draw a 5 X 7 inch image, with a pen or pencil (no color/shading) of something you remember seeing in the last 24 hours. Draw for 15 minutes and try to reproduce every detail you can remember.

Again, the mirror is a really useful tool -- if you want to figure out a hand gesture or facial expression you can use yourself as the model -- not to copy the image but to see what an frown does to the cheeks and eyes, or how a fist looks from an angle.

Here's a link to a tutorial in gesture drawing -- AKA making a very quick sketch to capture the essence of what the figure is DOING, rather than worrying about finished appearance: http://www.slideshare.net/honoria/gesture-drawing-introduction Gesture drawing is easy to practice in public places or while you're waiting, and often gives you poses you wouldn't have thought up yourself.

It's as much about training your eye to really observe how muscles and bones work together, how gravity works, how emotion affects a movement, etc. The reason some of these famous pictures work despite them being a little out-of-proportion is that the artist usually conveys the intent or the movement of the figure. Look at Rembrandt's sketches of babies for some beautifully observed moments with a few lines of drawing.

while I was looking for the URL above I ran across a Pinterest Page with some good examples of dynamic figure sketching and reference guides for character design and fabric detail: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/461619030538728573/ Good luck!


Try using a grid regardless if it's from your imagination or reference. Also try viewing the image upside down to see if that helps you spot errors.


It is a little pretentious trying to explain that in a post but here is a simplification.

1) What you probably are doing drawing with references is seeing lines and areas of shades. This is one dimension element followed by a 2-dimensional area.

2) But you probably need to keep drawing from a reference but seeing the underlying 3D blocks that construct the body, pay attention first to the relationship in distances and measures (A) and then to the simplified volume (B)

Yes, start drawing stick figures, and robot-like people.

3) Here is a related question: How to study anatomy as an artist?

4) Do not push yourself too much. Draw from imagination just a torso and practice, later draw just a leg, etc. Forget forced perspectives for now.

Think first normal far view poses, where you can use directly the "hero" proportions of 8 heads. https://www.google.com/search?q=8+heads+proportion+of+human

5) Instead of using the wooden mannequin I recommend using this: https://www.daz3d.com/

These are just some tips, but with a simple underlying methodology.

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