For some, sketching people is a daunting idea, especially when it’s in real-time. However, Róisín Curé dispels all fears in her FREE demo on how to sketch people on the spot. Today, we'll be following along and brushing up on our “people skills” with this tutorial! 

Step 1: Quick Swatch

For Róisín, the key to drawing live is to get the general shapes down quickly and use a limited palette to save time. She’s more concerned with capturing a feeling, and a moment in time, so you’ll find that many of her tips are perfect for the artist on the go.

Since time is of the essence, Róisín recommends a specific colour palette, made up of Payne’s grey, burnt umber, transparent red oxide (or burnt sienna), yellow ochre, and opera pink (i.e. a bright pink). While it doesn’t seem like much, the mixes you can create with this palette are more than enough to paint pretty much anything

Other tools you’ll need are a container for water, a fountain pen or fude pen filled with waterproof ink, a white gel pen, a round paintbrush (or a travel brush if you’re outside), and the hot press watercolour sketchbook of your choice.

Successful people sketching also requires understanding the basic principles of watercolour. Most importantly, water control. Swatch your paints to practice and see what each colour looks like with different amounts of water mixed in the paint.

Swatching is especially valuable when adding light and shadow to your sketch because a more diluted paint will make for a lighter feeling. 

Once you’re more comfortable with water control, it’s time for the next step.

Step 2: Light Sketch to Real Sketch

Now for the hard part – sketching while keeping up with Róisín! She starts with a sketch of her older daughter, using the reverse side of her fude pen to lightly draw “searching lines”. These are basically lines that “search” for the one line you’re looking for in your drawing.

Don’t worry if you make a mistake or it seems slightly out of place. You can always go over it later with a thicker line, which a fountain pen is good for.

Note: She’s working from a painting she previously did live. There’s no reference photo of the people she’s sketching but a picture of the image she’s working from, which you can find here.

You can use the fountain pen almost like a pencil, and don’t worry – once you add some thicker lines and paint, no one will notice the smaller, thinner lines. If you really need it, you can use a white gel pen later to cover up your mistakes.

For the sketch, start with the head, then add the brows, eyes, nose, and mouth. Add the hand on the right, then the hair, neck, and arm. Finish with the other hand holding a phone, and scribble in the blanket.

Keep your lines loose, and only add details when absolutely necessary, like a few stray hairs or hairlines here and there.

Once you’re done with your light sketch, go over it with thicker lines around the brows, eyes, nose, and mouth. Be confident here, but don’t add too many thick lines because you want to keep the drawing delicate and forgiving.

Tip: When you’re sketching outdoors, people won’t sit or stand still for long, which is why you’ll have to go fast! The key to speed is really just practice and more practice. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes – that’s the point of a sketchbook.

Step 3: Painting People

Once you’re happy with your sketch, it’s time to paint. Mix yellow ochre with a bit of opera pink for the skin, then dilute it until it’s the right tone. The light is coming from the right, so paint the left side of the face and under the chin. The hand also casts a shadow on the right side of the face, so paint the area there, including the eyelids.

Paint the hands, too, though be sure to leave the highlighted areas white. It may look too bright right now, but it helps to add contrast to your painting, making the composition more interesting. Plus, it saves you time if you’re painting on the spot! 

Drop a little more opera to the fingertips, ears, and the right cheek to give her a slight blush. Use a more saturated mixture of the skin colour to add darker shadows to the face.

Tip: If you accidentally make your paint too saturated or too wet, clean your brush quickly, then wipe it on a tissue or paper towel before sopping up the extra paint with your brush. This lifting technique is good for when your paint is still wet, and it will save you a lot of grief!

When you’re done with all the skin areas, you’ll need to let it dry before painting the hair, phone, and hoodie. This will prevent the wet paint from mixing with the surrounding areas. To save time, sketch more people for practice, which Róisín also does.

Step 4: Rinse and Repeat

Róisín draws Federico (a fellow artist) next, using the same techniques in a side profile rather than straight on. The biggest differences to note here are:

1. The visible eye is a sideways “V” with a line above the eyelid,

2. the side view of the nose, and

3. the lips. If you nail these three things, you’ll have a solid side profile.

Sketch in the rest of the body and hands, and remember that a loose, “sketchy” effect is fine here. Again, add thicker lines later, and don’t forget the facial hair and hairlines!

When your ink is dry, paint his skin with a similar colour as before, adding shadows where you see them. 

If you'd like to see a more in-depth tutorial on people sketching, I highly recommend that you check out our Mini Workshop Recording on sketching humans in action!

Step 5: Doing the Rest

While you’re waiting for this new sketch to dry, go back to the first and paint her hair with burnt umber and her hoodie and phone with a saturated Payne’s grey.

Note that all hair shines somewhat in the light, so the middle area of the hair is white. If you don’t want such a harsh paint line, soften the edges later using a wet brush.

For the hoodie, just paint it in. Róisín advises against using black because it’s a pretty dull colour. If there’s another object in front that’s also black, leave a small rim of white around it to separate it from the background.

You can paint Federico in the same way, though his coat could be painted even more casually. Again, you’re looking to capture the essence of the moment, not paint a photorealistic image!

Step 6: One Last Thing

Lastly, Róisín demonstrates how to paint people under very bright sunlight. She sketches her youngest daughter this time, whose back is facing the sun.

After sketching, the painting process is pretty much the same, with one key difference being to leave the left side white while using a slightly more saturated skin colour next to the white area. The clothes should be done in the same way, so the white area follows the same line of the sunlight. 

The abrupt contrast gives the impression that she’s sitting outside during a bright and sunny day, which is why you want to exaggerate your tones. It’s a neat little trick to include time and weather in your paintings, definitely adding to the overall composition of your work.

Finally, you can use that white gel pen to white out any small lines you don’t want. Dab it on, and don’t use too much – imperfection is part of the charm!

While you might feel under pressure to draw well, especially if you’re on a time crunch and drawing a friend or loved one, you’ll notice that after a while, it becomes easier and freer because you’ve given yourself no time to fuss over things. This is the fun part of sketching live!

When finished, it’s a good idea to evaluate your sketch or painting to pinpoint what looks a bit “off” or what needs to be improved. That way, next time you practice, you’ll be more aware of what works and what doesn’t. 

Last but certainly not least, keep it fun! You may feel self-conscious about sketching live at first but have a thick skin because sometimes you’ll have to ask permission before drawing or painting someone. 

Many thanks to Róisín for sharing her techniques and for giving us this live demo recording! I highly suggest that you check out her Mini Workshop recording that focuses on sketching faces and expressions!  

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Nicola Tsoi is a practising graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. She likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm during her downtime. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy. 

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