Adding figures to sketches

When I started sketching on location I only sketched buildings and maybe a few trees. I was terrified of adding people. Places are alive because of people and sketches feel kind of empty when they show no human figures.

The vast majority of my recent sketches show only people doing things, athletes, musicians, etc. I haven’t sketched places in a while. So I felt I needed to practice drawing people as if I would be adding the figures when sketching a space. Here are few quick tips for when adding people to sketches:

  • The horizon line is pretty much at eye level of all the figures standing, either close to us or far away. I like to vary a few, like some shorter ladies and maybe some taller guys just to add some diversity. Sitting figures have a different eye level!
  • Small head, large bodies! I don’t really bother to establish the real proportions of the figures, like how many heads or whatever. Such rules are great for figure drawing, but my sketches usually take me just between 15-20 minutes, so I have to be loose and spontaneous. I don’t mind if the body ends up way larger than in reality. We’ve all seen people with much larger bodies than their heads. A large head and a small body however make figures look like extraterrestrials.
  • Figures closer to us show more detail than those far away. When adding color, figures far away are painted with cooler and duller colors. Warm and bright colors bring the subject forward.
  • Waking figures are more dynamic than standing symmetrical figures. Walking figures can be suggested by tapering one of the legs. The opposite is done with the arms.

I still prefer to just suggest details rather than them being very defined. I like my sketches to tell a story and, unless the person is the story, details might distract from the focus. This practice sketch maybe suggests a little more detail than I’d like, but I did this without reference or direct observation –there wasn’t a story to tell here. When I’m back out there sketching places on location I’ll figure out the balance of how much detail to add to my figures.

Mixing grays in watercolor

I love mixed grays. I know it’s easier to just use something like a Neutral Tint, but mixed grays are richer, since they show undertones of the pigments used to create them. Neutral Tint is exactly that… neutral. So if you want to liven up your sketches, spend a few more minutes and mix those grays!

Gray results when the three primary colors, red, yellow and blue, are combined. And, if you mix a primary, let’s say blue, with a secondary, orange, gray comes out as well. This happens because orange has both red and yellow, thus when combined with blue, it results as gray. The most common version of this mixed gray is created with Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna. You have probably seen this a thousand times.

Another favorite of mine is actually created by mixing green and red. I have had in my palette a color that I initially hated, Viridian Green. It feels even a little radioactive, stains everything and it seems to contaminate yellows by osmosis… However, I love it when mixed with a red, like a Permanent Alizarin Crimson. Beautiful.

I like the colors to show through, so I won’t mix it up completely in the palette. I want to avoid the gray to look flat. To me, part of the charm of watercolors is seeing the pigments come together on the paper.

You can achieve an infinity of grays by just mixing different pigments, some will be bluish, some reddish, some greenish, some purplish. Play around with variations of gray; which are your favorites?