I believe there is something about being in the company of other people, both friends and strangers, that adds to our sense of humanity, community, and belonging. As social beings, we need relationships with others in order to survive. I am an introvert, but even the most introverted of introverts need some form of community!

Communities are groups of people with some common element. They are important in day-to-day life, but they are also the key storytellers in many cityscape, waterscape and even landscape paintings. I create these communities in my paintings by using shapes that read as human figures: strolling, talking, riding bikes, walking animals, sometimes even dancing. One of the questions I’m asked most often is how I paint figures that communicate both movement and community.

Windswept, watercolour, 22 x 15in (56 x 38cm).  What story is unfolding in a scene where the person in the foreground is walking a dog but the people in the background are moving briskly?


Storylines

I add figures to a painting because they are an essential element to telling a story, providing a point of reference for the viewer. In the same way that our curiosity is piqued by seeing a group of people gathered on the street in life, when we see a group of people in a painting, we are drawn towards them and feel a point of connection. We begin to ask ourselves what is happening? Where are they going? What they are doing? What are they looking at? What are they feeling?

Evening on 16th Street, watercolour, 12 x 19in (30.5 x 48cm)

The city alone rarely tells a compelling story. Comprised of human-created shapes and angles, a cityscape can be interesting in design, but it is the people who capture the energy and spirit of the scene. It is the people who invite the viewer into the story and make it interesting. My paintings are always about capturing the energy or spirit of a scene. Groups of people can also be used as compositional elements, drawing the viewer’s eye from place to place and causing them to stop and linger as they ponder what the group is up to. 

Missed You at the Station, watercolour, 9 x 13in (23 x 33cm)


Scale and movement

By adding figures to a painting – in the form of humans or animals – I provide a sense of scale, movement, and action. A human shape near a car or building offers visual cues and comparisons that offer scale and perspective. A figure that is walking, running, or riding a bicycle creates movement and energy. Often, I dress my figures in colourful clothes, which provides an interesting pop of colour that brings the scene together.

Because my painting style is loose and free, inorganic forms such as buildings, cars, and boats are somewhat easier than other types of shapes. Inorganic forms are more static and offer distinct angles and lines. Organic shapes, such as humans, dogs, cats, horses, birds, and other living creatures present more difficulty, due to their fluid qualities.

Happy Hour at the Dog Park, watercolour, 10 x 14in (25.5 x 35.5cm)

One way that I develop and sharpen my skills is consistent plein-air practice. I regularly spend time in public places, with my sketchbook, focusing on the shapes before me. The challenge with this is not to get caught up in the chatter and clutter of the scene and to focus on the actual shapes. I approach it a lot like those exercises in art school where plaster rectangles, spheres and cubes are placed on a table in the centre of the room for drawing practice. I have to disassociate from the people in order to capture the shape that represents the human form. At the same time, however, in order to capture movement and emotion, I must remain loosely attached so the forms aren’t static. In many ways I have to act as an ethnographer by detaching myself from the scene and simply taking in information while acknowledging that my presence and engagement can’t be fully removed. 

When working en plein air I am surrounded by the actual stories as they present themselves, while at the same time focusing on the shapes. This allows me to work out themes or motifs that find their way into finished paintings. I am able to study, gather and learn, which helps to keep my skills sharp. 

Here is an example of a sketchbook practice page painted en plein air. Notice how I’ve captured the organic figure shapes along with the inorganic building shapes, 10 x 16in (25.5 x 40.5cm)

I use my sketchbooks both en plein air and in the studio to practise and experiment, often playfully or in unexpected ways. Sometimes I will purchase a new and unusual paint colour and use that to practise figures over and over, adding an element of surprise to repetitive shapes (below).

When asked how I achieve movement, emotion, and attitude through a few seemingly random brushstrokes, my standard answer: practice. Lots and lots of practice.  


Proportions

The first step in painting an upright human figure is to work on head and body proportions. Getting the proportions right is critical for a convincing visual. If the proportions are off, the viewer senses that and it becomes a distraction. Generally speaking, the proportion of a human figure is a total of eight heads high. The torso should be three heads wide at the shoulders and four heads high. Legs should be three to four heads long (below).

Notice how the figure is proportioned next to the grid and how I’ve replicated it in the subsequent figures

Some days I practise multiple pages of human figures just to get into the rhythm of painting those proportions. I recommend that before you start thinking about a painting that includes human forms you practice and repeat until the proportions become second nature to you (below).

Once you’ve practised, it is time to become your own ethnographer and observe people in public settings. The grid exercise (below) is helpful because if you paint figures from life, they are going to be moving and it will force you to paint the shapes quickly. If you don’t get the proportion or movement right in grid one, you can try again in grids two, three and four. This way you will gather information quickly without getting bogged down. It helps you to see the shapes, put them on paper, and stops you from lingering, which allows your painting to be fluid and loose.

I will often take three or four boards with paper grids out with me so that I can move quickly from board to board. My sketches include three different types of media: water-soluble ink, brush pens and watercolour or gouache. Use whatever medium works best for you.

With practice you’ll find that painting figures becomes easier and easier. By focusing on shape rather than exact representation you can use fluid brushstrokes to indicate form, allowing your people to come alive. Practise with single figures and then build your community by adding additional people, standing in groups, soon you’ll find them walking, talking, and telling stories you and your viewers can’t wait to hear. 

I have incorporated an unexpected and fun colour in this experimental sketchbook page, 10 x 16in (25.5 x 40.5cm)


GRID EXERCISE

I recommend that you prepare an 11 x 14in paper and grid it into fourths.  Practise painting people in each grid.  Start with one grid and then work your way around all four, capturing the energy of the people in your favourite scene – perhaps a restaurant, coffee shop or pub. Have fun with this practice!