Any urban sketch can benefit from having people in the scene. Whether you feel figures are complex or straightforward, artist Andrey Shmatnik shows us exactly how to add life to a scene in his FREE Live Demo!
Step 1: Purpose and a Preliminary Sketch
Andrey is an architect, so he’s no stranger to drawing buildings! His hobby is urban sketching, as he finds that it’s not necessarily about style or sketching technique but understanding certain principles.
He recommends learning different figures to use and taking note of poses commonly seen in urban scenes.
There are three primary purposes for adding human figures to your drawing:
To make the drawing more realistic, an empty street in the city looks surreal (or turn it into a ghost town!). Adding a crowd of simple silhouettes is enough to make a city look bustling! Silhouettes are best for adding people to the background.
As a storytelling device, such as adding a street artist in the foreground with a few others watching. This is best used when drawing humans in the foreground.
Adding a sense of scale or perspective. This can give a scene a completely different feeling!
Once you understand the purpose of when and why you should add human figures to your drawing, we can move to the sketching part.
There are two sketches for this demo: the first is the Flatiron Building (a.k.a. Gooderham) in Toronto, Canada. To save time, you can go straight to an ink sketch, but Andrey does take a moment to pencil in some quick proportions.
First, draw a quick frame in ink for your drawing, leaving a little space around the reference photo, giving yourself room to add people.
Next, draw a dot for each of the main corners of the Flatiron Building, and connect them if necessary. Draw the line that marks the bottom of the building and the horizon line above the previous line.
Keep looking at the reference photo to get the shapes of the most prominent features in proportion, including the lamppost and a few of the background buildings. You can do the proportioning and marking part in pencil as Andrey does, or go straight to pen if you’re feeling confident (or pressed for time!).
Tip: Andrey uses cold press watercolour paper here, which is always a good idea if you’re planning on adding a watercolour or graphite wash later on.
Step 2: Ink Drawing
Once you’ve got all your marks down, it’s time to draw! You can use either a fountain pen filled with waterproof ink or a waterproof graphic pen. Andrey emphasises drawing quickly and loosely because you’re just providing a background for your human figures.
Add details to the Flatiron Building as necessary, but you can do the buildings in the background with a few quick lines.
The lamppost is in the foreground as well, so you can spend a little time on it. The key is not to aim for perfection! A shaky line can even add more character and expression to your drawing than a perfectly smooth line, so don’t worry about getting it right.
It’s about capturing the essence and atmosphere of the urban scene. You can even adjust some of the details – it’s part of your creative freedom to do so!
Tip: Make sure to leave some space at the bottom to add people, especially around the lamppost.
Step 3: Adding “Carrot” People
When you’re done with the buildings, it’s time to add some life! For people in the background, they’re too far away to have any details, so Andrey recommends drawing them as “carrot” people (a.k.a. “glove” people).
So-called because they look like carrot-shapes, these are perfect for drawing crowds, as they take very little time and you can draw them in varying heights. They’re also primarily silhouettes you can shade in, so don’t fuss over them too much!
Tip: Don’t space your human figures out evenly, as it will look very unnatural. Bunch some here and there and even overlap a few because some figures are behind others.
Step 4: Adding More Detailed People
After adding a crowd in the background, you can focus on the figures in the foreground. They should have more detail and give a little more information about the person and how they interact.
For example, because the Flatiron Building in Toronto is a famous landmark, you’ll often see people (tourists mainly) taking pictures. Therefore, Andrey adds a man holding up a phone to take a picture, then adds a posing mother and child to make them a family.
While they’re not “carrot” people, as these figures have enough details to include arms and clothing, they’re still pretty simple. The key is to keep the poses looking natural and to make the head size smaller than you think it should be.
When you’re done, you can keep adding “carrot” people or otherwise. Just make sure they’re to scale (i.e. those in the background should be much smaller than those in front), and that you don’t overcrowd the drawing.
Bonus tip: Again, you don’t have to follow the reference photo, especially when adding people. This is even more applicable if you’re drawing Plein air, where the people will constantly be moving about. Use your creative freedom to tell a story within the scene and capture the atmosphere of the place!
If you want a more in depth lesson on drawing people, we've got a great class on people sketching for urban sketches!
Step 5: Second Sketch
Since there’s a bit of extra time, let’s squeeze in another drawing! Andrey also wants to demonstrate another form of adding human figures to a sketch.
The next landmark is Allan Gardens, also in Toronto. Because he was pressed for time, Andrey skips the pencil process and does the initial sketch in pen.
You can do the same – utilise the same steps as before, only mark your edges in pen instead. There’s no need to fuss over incorrect details and whatnot; you’re just “setting the scene”!
However, one thing to note is that the horizon line is much higher here than in the previous picture. This gives you a bit more of a gradated perspective and more space to add people.
Andrey also doesn’t want to draw more buildings behind the main one, so he pretends that it’s summer instead and gives the trees some leaves. With creative freedom, Andrey also shifts some of the lampposts and gets rid of the fountain in the middle.
Step 6: Creating Life
Once you have the main building, lampposts, and benches, it’s time to add human figures. Because there are no humans in the reference photo, you get to create your own story.
Here is the other situation where you might want to add human figures because adding people will make the scene livelier. You can add a couple snuggling on the bench, a man feeding pigeons, people walking by, things that people in a park would do.
A valuable tip is to use doors or entryways to gauge human size, especially in a deeper perspective. You can draw the vanishing point if you need to practice – in this case, it’s right down the middle, on the horizon line.
To draw people to scale, those closest to the building will be the smallest. Use the door on the left or right of the building to see how tall they should be!
Tip: It’s a good idea to draw people in the background a little smaller than you’d expect, as more people are shorter than average than people who are taller (because of children).
Besides, if you find the first one you draw is too short, say they’re a child and draw a taller teen or adult next to them!
Add some birds, add more trees, even add people lying on the grass or reading a book – flex your creativity! In the end, it’s all in good fun and practice. When you’re done, you can even add a watercolour wash for a splash of colour!
This demo was just a taste of what Andrey can do – a preview of his mini workshop. There’s always something new to try and something to improve.
Thanks to Andrey for this super-helpful lesson! Here is the link to the original live demo recording. I hope you had fun, and keep telling stories with your art!
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This is wonderful thank you slows the demo down and teaches me so much it’s invaluable
Etchr Studio replied:
Thank you for the lovely feedback, Bev! We’re glad you find this helpful! 🧡
October 29, 2021
Thank you for this step-by-step description. I keep struggling with putting figures – life – into my sketches and they usually look somewhat dead… This will certainly be a great help! Thanks!
Etchr Studio replied:
You’re very welcome, Karolina! 🧡 Glad this was helpful!
October 26, 2021