The 5 stages of learning to draw people – Roadmap from beginner to expert
Are you in the symbols stage, the drawing what you see stage, the simplification stage, the expressive stage or the creative stage? Are you stuck in one of these stages? That’s what we’re covering in today’s video. It is also written out as an article below the video.
I’m still going through the learning process myself, and I am also obsessed with other people learning to draw, whatever stage they are at but especially beginner artists. These stages are what I consider a common progression from beginner to a point where you are happy with your drawings and your skills.
This article has a lot of generalisations, and of course we are all different, but I think you’ll recognise a lot in here. Also, these stages aren’t really entirely separate – so rather than being clearcut stages like this,
it’s more like this. You will still have stage 1 struggles when you’re at stage 5. Habits never really go away, you just build better ones that take over most of the time.
When you start drawing people you begin by drawing pre-conceptions or symbols – this is how most of us learned to draw as kids. This stage also involves realising how hard it is to draw what you’re actually seeing. I’m going to try to demonstrate this stage.
Getting through this is one of the biggest struggles of learning to draw, and it can take a long time. This stage isn’t a bad stage – everyone that is going to become good must go through this.
What it’s like: At this stage, ideas like ‘gesture’ might make sense to your brain, but don’t make much sense to your eyes and arm. Constructing a figure from simple 3D shapes is equally difficult. So even after studying these concepts, our brains might get these ideas intellectually, but put pencil to paper, and it doesn’t seem to work. That’s because those skills require your eyes to be able to see important points, angles and distances in the figure, but instead they’re still overwhelmed by all the information they’re taking in.
How the drawings are: So you default back to preconceived ideas of how the figure should look, or you might think of them as symbols of how the figure should look. An eye should be an oval with a circle in it. Torsos get elongated because you want to draw the head on top of neck on top of chest on top of stomach. Everything gets straightened out. The preconceived symbol of a figure seems to include straightness. Any foreshortening is removed – the preconception of an arm is that it is long like spaghetti, not a circle.
It’s not just bad drawings in the symbols zone. Firstly, I personally really enjoy looking at them. There is a sincerity in them, a lot of character and there’s that vulnerability of someone doing something they’ve not yet mastered. In fact a lot of really good illustrators go back to something like this style because of its charm. The only problem is, without developing more skill, the drawings aren’t what they artist wanted. It’s not as good to look at something when you know it wasn’t what the person wanted to say.
Other characteristics of this stage: confusion, drawing small, using scratchy tentative lines, and lots of self-deprecation. People often make fun of their own drawings and themselves at this stage, which is fine, but just remember that this a necessary and legitimate phase of learning to draw.
Drawing what you see stage
The next stage is where you develop observational ability for proportions. You do stiff but increasingly accurate drawings. The drawings are analytical, they are often overworked with a lot of detail and not much composition, but they’re roughly right. You need to do quite a bit of measuring, checking alignments and so on, to get things in the right place.
You keep working at some drawings until they’re right, even if it takes ages, and your brain starts to reorient itself away from the preconceptions towards what the eyes are really seeing. You need quite a lot of information on the page to make sure things work. Your initial lines are quite off, but once you start to add more information, you can see it and correct it. So you might have to redo whole sections of the figure or portrait as you build the drawing.
At this stage, a lot of people find drawing muscular people easier, because there’s a lot of features all over the figure to help map things out. You might find that the faces you draw have aged the person, that’s because you needed to put down more marks with extra information to get the drawing to work.
Your mind starts to accept things like ‘ok, maybe the foreshortened arm doesn’t have to be as long as I want to draw it’.
But you are still straightening out the pose without realising, reducing the drama and the big angles.
At this stage, gesture still doesn’t make much sense, and in-depth anatomy seems to just be additional confusing information. But the crucial thing is your eyes are starting to take charge over your brain with its symbols. So even though shorter drawings feel impossible still, longer drawings start to work.
You should still try to do quick drawings, still try to do some gestures at this stage. all that confusion is all learning, believe it or not. Just don’t expect any results from it.
Other characteristics of this stage: still confused but not overwhelmed, drawing a little bigger, branching out with materials, overworked drawings with really hard marks, still self-deprecating with the occasional ‘hey that one isn’t awful’. And some drawings you think, hey I’m getting the hang of this. And then the art gods crush your soul in the next drawing, because how dare you think you might be getting good.
Once you’re doing this, you are on your way. The next thing to do is learn to simplify.
Simplifying what you see stage
Once your eyes have started to become stronger at seeing how important points relate to each other and seeing the big simple volumes in the figure, you start to not need to measure everything. You don’t need to add so much information and then rework things completely as you build the drawing.
You start to not need to be so analytical, because your eyes are doing those things on autopilot. So proportions become less the priority. At this point, you start to see and be able to capture more gestural lines. You can see where they need to go and have the muscle memory to make nice smooth curves with your arm. Because these things are more on autopilot, you can be more spontaneous, you can go with what you feel not just with your analytical eye.
In shorter poses, you increasingly have the guts to leave out more and more information and focus on what matters. You’re still not sure exactly what you’re doing so results can be really inconsistent. Sometimes things go horribly wrong, and you’re tempted to go back to analytical drawing where you can guarantee a reasonable result. Resist that temptation and persevere with the inconsistent but somehow much more fun loose and simplified drawings.
Once you can simplify confidently, even short poses don’t feel rushed. You know what matters and where it needs to go, so you can start to play with things, and drawing becomes even more fun. You start to try pushing the gesture to its breaking point, you start to introduce lost and found edges, you start to merge shadow shapes together more and more. You try to see how loose or how funky you can push things while still capturing the pose and the figure.
There’s no way to summarise or explain what happens at this stage, because it could be anything. You go off into the unexplored jungle of creativity and beat out your own path.
As I thought more about this I realised something – your progression will be a cycle through stages 2 to 5. You’ll need to go back to your analytical skills, you’ll need to work again on better simplification and being more expressive.
The reason I thought this would be useful is because I think people can get really frustrated because they know they need to do all this different stuff, and they jump between trying to add skills from all different stages at once.
So if you tried to do gestures before getting to this stage, which look so simple, and couldn’t and felt bad from it, or if you tried to simplify into 3D shapes and couldn’t, well that’s because those are skills that needed all this other ability in your eyes to be developed first. Again, don’t stop trying to do them, just stop expecting much from them.