Artists are often lumped in to two categories: portrait artists and landscape artists, (although there are all manor of subjects to specialise in) and I am firmly settled in the portraits section. Still life set ups may be intriguing for a couple of hours but they quickly fall into tedium; landscapes draw my eye and paintbrush, but I have no patience for the millions of leaves required to record the rolling hills where I live and always end up painting in the people walking by. So today I'm here to talk about one of my favourite hobbies: people sketching, and how and why you should take it up.

People-Sketching at the Living Crafts Festival, from life.

People are fascinating, truly, we are a subject that can never be fully explored. We come in all shapes and sizes, we decorate our bodies with colourful, varied clothing, and paint pictures on our skin. We hang sparkly objects from our ears and cut our hair, draw lines of black paint over our eyes and try to make ourselves beautiful. Regardless of how beauty changes in our culture, we adapt like brightly coloured birds fluffing up our plumage. What artist wouldn't want to study our strange and captivating species? Then there are quirks in personality, eccentrics who have unconventional lives and stories to tell, or everyday people who are still marvels to us, because we are constantly searching for answers to explain our own existence and behaviours. It is thanks to a consistent curiosity and desire to record ourselves that we have such an archive of imagery, spanning millennia. Paintings that show the fascinating minds that came before us, tapestries and carvings of ancient civilisations; it's hardly surprising that this urge still strikes today, (cameras wouldn't be half as successful if it didn't).

So you want to sketch people, how do you get started?

I often think of drawing like any other skill or sport. It is something that can be learned and is fun even at beginner level, but it can also be honed with training and mastered with discipline and dedication. You might ask an olympic athlete how they got so good, but it's fairly obvious that they weren't born able to do triathlons and it's well known that their training schedules are full on and their lifestyles honed to accommodate that. Artists are equally not born able to paint mammoth frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, but trained to master their skill. So when you have a go at sketching people, don't sweat that it's not perfect first time, or even if you only like 1 in 10 sketches. As long as you get past the first one you're not pleased with and keep going, you're on the right track. It took me about six months of regular practice before I started to have success in capturing peoples likenesses accurately, but before the likenesses became reliable, I was still recording reasonable looking people on paper, who was to know they weren't the spitting image? Artist on the internet are self-conscious creatures and mostly post images of the 1 drawing that came out pleasingly, so when you're learning don't be put off by imperfection in your work and try to just enjoy the mindful act of drawing.

A basic understanding of portraiture is helpful, so attending life classes will help fast track your sketching. A knowledge of where facial features fall on the face is also very useful and a use of quick gestures and shapes to hint at where a body parts go is also handy.

Images from and early people-sketching sketchbook, drawn from life, one I was pleased with, another I was not.

Places to sketch people:

  • Cafes - try to chose people who look like they are staying a while
  • Libraries - especially working ones where people sit and study
  • Train Stations and bus stops, or on said transport - People waiting are good to draw, but this is also fun if you're waiting and have 10 minutes to kill
  • Beaches and other holiday venues - An excellent place for people watching or sketching as they lounge around for hours.
  • Galleries and Museums - Good places for sketchbooks anyway
  • Festivals - often full of more unusual folk than you see everyday
  • Places where people busk - Buskers often expect people to photograph them so are less likely to get up and leave when you start drawing.
  • Ice-Skating rinks - You get some very interesting and sometimes humorous poses here
  • Event Stadiums - Super fans with painted faces and several pints down them are walking talking cartoons, ready to be recorded.
  • At home - sketch your family members going about daily life
My sister, aged 11, wearing a mermaid tail and a camp-blanket. Sketched from life, painted from a photo.

The law on photographing people in public places:

In the UK everyone has the right to take photographs of public places, including people in them. This also extends to places that the public are allowed inside, such as pubs, cafes or shopping centres unless you are asked not to by the owners. The exception to this is when people have a reasonable expectation of privacy, for example, you can't take photographs of people in private places ie, in their garden or through a window, even if you are standing in a public place. This law also extends to children under 16 but it is advisable to be sensible, as parents are understandably very touchy about people photographing their children.

I would categorise drawing people as 'recording their image' in a similar vein to photography, but perhaps with even more flexibility, as people are generally, arguably less recognisable in images (there is a reason court artists are still allowed where photographers aren't). As such, you are allowed to draw people in public places, in the UK. I have never had an experience of someone becoming angry at my drawing them, most people are curious and interested, but some do walk away if they notice you looking at them oddly before they realise what you're doing. Additionally, you can take photos of people to draw from at a later date, but, again, be sensible about it, it is natural to feel uncomfortable if you think someone is paying an unusual amount of attention to you, even if it is legal, however, I am not a lawyer so please do not intepret this as legal advice.

Image for a snow day series, drawn from a photo; far too cold to paint outside!

On drawing from photos:

Sketching people is one of those things that should be practiced from life, you ultimately gain so much more movement from drawing real people, and more knowledge and practice at converting a 3D person onto a 2D page. However, people do move, especially when they don't know you're drawing them. As such, I tend to mix drawing from life and image together. I may go somewhere to draw people, then take some photos to draw more when I get home. I may draw a busker from life, then take a photo to paint the colour in at home. Or I may just snap a photo of someone I feel is moving far too much, and draw them at a later date when sat comfortably with a cup of tea. If you feel self conscious taking photos of people, even when you know the law, take a selfie with them in the background, or pretend to take one but actually have the camera facing the other way (personally I find this rather more embarrassing but it does ease peoples worries). Additionally, you can make an obvious show of taking pictures of the surrounding landscape or buildings and just happen to pass the camera over where your very illustratable person is going about their business.

Be careful when drawing from photos that someone else has taken, especially stock photos. These are usually, legally the property of someone else. Technically, you can draw them for your own personal study as long as they aren't then used for self promotion or profit but it's best to ask for permission even if you just want to Instagram your drawing. I have recently found a fantastic website called 'Pexels' where photographers willingly put their image up for free and unrestricted use that I would recommend if you're looking for a photo to draw from.

A book about people sketching:

Looking at London by Ronald Searle and Kaye Webb

This wonderful image is from the book Looking at London, which is one of my prized possessions. Ronald Searle was a fantastic and well known illustrator, notable for his book St Trinians but this is my favourite of his work; it is a record of the people in London in the 1950s and their stories, and a wonderful mix of people sketching and reportage illustration. On each page is a line drawing, full of detail and character, and an excerpt that describes the people they met. Looking through these illustrations never fails to inspire me and enhance my passion for people sketching.

Ice Skaters in Bath, painted in tiny scale for a decorated letter, from a photograph

I hope that in reading this blog post you have learned something new and are inspired to try your hand at people sketching. I'd love to see any work that you've created, please tag me with @valerianstudio! If you've enjoyed this post you can subscribe to my mailing list for monthly updates via the homepage. Happy sketching!

Ms Emma Leyfield currently trading as 'Valerian'. The copyright to all images and graphics used within this website are owned by Valerian, or Valerian has sought the appropriate permissions to use them.

Trademark number: UK00003464494

April Cottage, Kilcott Road, Hillesley, Wotton-Under-Edge, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom, GL12 7RJ