Paintings can be a lot more interesting with the addition of a few figures, however many students avoid adding them as they can seem rather daunting to paint.

Having a sketchbook to hand is a good idea, perhaps keep one in the glove box of your car or in a bag – always ready to use at any opportunity. If you are on a bus, train or sitting on a bench outdoors there will be people to observe and use as a sketching subject.

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If you find the idea of sketching outdoors nerve racking, take photographs on your mobile or have a small camera in your pocket so if you see something, you can capture it instantly. Even using a photograph on a computer screen as a reference point will help you to capture a moment as a sketch.

All the sketches I used for this article were captured on a single day out, in and around the harbour at West Mersea. I spent the day collecting ideas, drawing, painting and just looking.

The Fish Shack, watercolour on Bockingford watercolour paper, (28x43cm)
The two simple figures add interest and suggest a story; they become the focal point silhouetted against the sky, discussing the catch of the day!

Action figures

Action sketches add movement and activity to a painting, and only one is needed to suggest something is happening. Other figures can be used as space fillers.

Top tip

It is easier to draw people either walking towards or away from you.

Demonstration - Simple figure study

Step 1

Draw the outline of your figure.

Step 2

Beginning with ultramarine block in the shirt, dropping in some stronger colour towards the waist.

Step 3

Oilskin waders are traditionally yellow or orange, so use cadmium yellow darkened with a little shadow colour or a purple mix.

Keeping to a limited palette, use similar colours for the paddle.

Use burnt sienna for the jacket and a mix of ultramarine and burnt sienna to create the darks needed.

Step 4

Add the checks on the shirt using a half Rigger brush and a darker mix of ultramarine.

Finally paint the braces by adding a little burnt umber to the ultramarine.

Top tip

The amount of detail needed really depends on whether the figure is in the foreground or middle distance; the nearer the foreground the more detail will be needed.

Try this!

By placing your figure in different paintings and by changing the colours or altering it slightly, it won’t seem like the same subject at all!

For more figure painting demonstrations

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Discover over 170 painting secrets from Terry Harrison in his book Watercolour Secrets.

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