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Putting People into Your Paintings
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Last updated 01/05/13


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I see so many lovely paintings of buildings or villages - many of them beautifully painted but dead, for the need of some people. Many subjects that we paint are man-made - boats, buildings and churches, cars etc. and they look un-natural without people.
The problem is, we are afraid to put them in - we are scared that our beautiful picture of a village street will end up looking as though it has been invaded by Martians!
This demonstration will hopefully help you to avoid the Martians and at the same time to enhance your art work and make it come alive.


Putting People into your Paintings 01

There are 3 levels for putting people into paintings.

 Level 1—in this type of picture the landscape dominates and people are introduced to the painting to add value and interest to the background—see the figures behind the stall above.

 Level 2—in this type of painting the figures are the dominant feature but details are still quite sketchy—see the middle distant figures above—the 2 women walking towards the viewer, the man walking away and the stall keeper. With these figures gestures are important in telling a story.

 Level 3—in this type of painting the figure is all important and is the main subject—the figure is completed as a portrait—the foreground figure above.

 Some paintings work by combining all 3 levels but in this demo we will mainly be looking at levels 1 and 2.


Next we will look at the why and how of putting figures into our paintings :-



  •  To add life and realism to your painting.

  • To add scale.

  • To add movement.

  • To add interest.

  • To add a focal point.

  • To add balance and/or to improvement the composition of your painting.


 In order that your painting does not become inhabited by a gaggle of Martians, remember some basic rules/guides:-

  •  Adult bodies are approximately 7 to 8 times the height of the head in height (see diagram below).

  • They are approximately 3 times the width of the head, wide.

  • Children's’ proportion differ—they are often only 5 1/2-6 times the child’s head height in total height.

  • Very rarely put the feet in—just allow the legs to end.

  • Rarely put any details into the face—if you put any detail in just add the eye socket shadow.

  • When people are standing on a level surface, their head heights are all in line with each other—see below.

  • Study gestures and balance—to indicate movement have one leg shorter than the other.

  • Have fun—I ‘collect’ people in a sketch book for practice or copy and simplify figures from magazines. I find it helpful to create stories for each figure—it helps in making them show the viewer what they are doing in the picture.


Below left, notice how the top of the heads are all in-line in this crowd scene  - it’s the body height that changes to indicate distance.

Below right—the average adult body height is 8 times the head height and the shoulder width is 3 times the head width.

Putting People into Paintings 02 Putting People into Paintings 03


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Note - all images are Copyright.