Tips for sketching people in public

April 11, 2019 | 8 Comments

As I’ve just hit 100 for this year’s OneWeek100people challenge (see here for more) I thought it would be a good chance to consolidate my thoughts about how to sketch people in public.

Thoughts on improving your people sketching

  • I think sketching people on location is all about relying on your knowledge of the human figure – capturing gestures quickly and remembering the unique qualities of individuals. To do this you really need to do lots of research so that you know beforehand how you are going to draw a generic person and some generic gestures. This becomes a database that you constantly rely on when sketching on location.
  • Lots of practice sketching people on location without this research will help you become more comfortable with the act of sketching but there is a very real possibility that you will start cementing bad habits. This was certainly the case for me! Just sketching wasn’t making it easier. It took a lot of deliberate study, practice and checking to fix some basic errors I was constantly making. And in fact, I still need to do this process on a regular basis.
  • The top ‘people sketchers’ have often done a lot of study and know the human figure well. It has become second nature to them.
  • I’m a long way from being where I want to be with my people sketching, but I’m super happy with the development I have made in the past 2 years and especially in the last few months. It’s definitely not just practice – practice and research need to go hand in hand.


Some tips for drawing people in public

  • Try to sketch people who are engrossed in what they are doing – looking at phones is the most usual example.
  • Try not to do the usual sketching head-bobbing action as much as possible – this is what people notice as it’s unusual head movement. So I look and try to memorise the specific features/ gesture and then draw as much as I can before looking back.
  • In a cafe – sit in a back corner if possible and draw the people two tables away (it’s great if there are people sitting in the next table who you can hide behind)
  • Try drawing the staff. I have only had positive experiences when drawing staff! In fact having the staff of my two local cafes on board and engaged in the challenge this week has been a huge part of the experience. They have been cheering me on and checking on my progress. Some of the staff have friends/family who have been following my sketches and trying to recognise them. It’s been so much fun!

Some tips for sketching faces

I’m still in major research mode for torsos, arms, hands, legs and feet… but when it comes to faces these are some of the things I think about:

  • Think about the whole head – the skull – not just the facial features.
  • Find an order for drawing the head which helps you think of structure and proportion first. For me it’s a quirky approach of starting with the ears!
  • Use a tool that gives you some options for corrections – ie. a pencil, coloured pencil, paint
  • When sketching with ink try to minimize your lines – better to go too cartoony than too heavy with lots of restated lines.
  • If you draw an incorrect line in ink, leave it and embrace the wonkiness – well, when drawing people it’s more like embrace the mutilation!

And most importantly….have fun!


  • Bobbie says:

    I appreciate you willingness to share great information so freely!

  • Rachael Ayres says:

    Do you have any recommendations for how to research? Particularly useful book titles perhaps?

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Rachael – I will be actually sharing my research secrets in my next course Watercolour On Location 🙂 and no I don’t have a specific book to recommend. I look at lots of them.

  • Tina Koyama says:

    I already boasted about this on your Instagram: I hit 100+ this morning (Thursday)! 😉 Like you, I was already really fast before I started the challenge and have been for a while, so I gave myself a different additional challenge for each day. Monday was mostly faces and inactive cafe people. Tuesday was figures, not just faces. Wednesday was people walking and trying to accurately capture the multiple phases of the walking motion. Today I had only 14 to do, so I relaxed and did more detailed portraits and captured several little coffee shop dramas (like a guy who fell asleep, and sleeping is not allowed at Starbucks, so the barista had to wake him twice! And the guy flirting with 2 different baristas!). All immensely fun as well as great experience. I agree that practice alone isn’t enough; it’s very helpful to formally study (through books or classes) human proportions for both the face and the body. For me, the best practice has been going to life drawing sessions regularly. Even a 1-minute pose seems luxuriously long compared to “real life” models, so it can be very informative in teaching how to capture accurate proportions quickly. Many thanks to you, Mark and Suhita again for inspiring us all! I love this annual opportunity to challenge myself this way. It’s so much fun that I should just do it more often on my own — but without a formal challenge, I probably won’t, so I appreciate the nudge.

  • Jill Spriet says:

    So many kindnesses you do freely sharing. I take all of your classes
    and love your techniques. you are an excellent teacher!! Thanks, Liz!

  • Teri Carns says:

    Thanks — the most helpful comment here (for me, this moment) was the reason to study all those books about the basics of anatomy, head shape, where the ears go and skull size (my downfall). For some reason (bad early training?) it seems like “cheating” to have those “basic shapes and gestures” as part of repertoire, but it’s clearly not.

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