Anatomy 101, Part One: Proportions


For most people, school starts in September. I skipped class a lot, so for me – it started in October. So, to honor my typical truant self, I’m going to give you all a Back to School special, Drezz style.

This lesson is all about Anatomy. So after you drop your late slip off on my desk and disrupt the lesson, get yourself comfortable, open your books and catch up with the rest of the gang. We’re going to talk about Anatomy in comics.

As an artist, you can’t expect to draw every single character anatomically correct and in proportion every time. Unless you have an eidetic memory of some sort (that’s photographic memory for you jokers in the back of the class,) you’re going to need some reference. We need to understand the structure of the human body and the limits of its forms in order to render them realistically. Even if you’re drawing cartoons and caricatures, you need to have a working knowledge of anatomy and its rules, before you can break them (slightly.)

So before you bring out the excuses – THAT’S MY STYLE, THOSE BANANA-LIKE FINGERS ARE SUPPOSED TO LOOK LIKE THAT – I want you to really take a good look at your work and confess that you don’t rely on proper anatomy and proportions as much as you should.

To avoid some embarrassing mistakes and potential detentions in my class, I am going to share a few key charts courtesy of Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth by Andrew Loomis. These will help you achieve proper anatomy/proportions in your figures. Now, these aren’t the be all and end all of drawing figures, but they serve as a good base. Let’s begin with out studies, shall we?

Ideal MALE Proportions

The typical MALE character uses an 8-head system. Determine the character’s height, divide it by 8, and that will give you the basic size of his head. Take a good look at the chart and you’ll notice a few ratios:

• Width of the body = 2 1/3 heads
• Height of the body = 8 heads
• The distance between nipples on chest = 1 head
• The width of the bottom of the calf muscles when they’re together = 1 head
• The distance from the bottom of the knees to the ground =  2 heads

Ideal FEMALE Proportions

For women, things change a bit. Their overall height is also measured in 8-heads but the head is proportionately smaller, THEREFORE, the figure will be smaller.


• Width of the body  = 2 heads wide
• Waist = 1 head wide
• Buttocks = 1 1/2 heads wide (yes, buttocks… quiet down in the back, you clowns)
• The width of the bottom of the calf muscles when they’re together = 1 head
• The distance from the bottom of the knees to the ground =  2 heads

Now that you know the rules, you can alter the proportions slightly to exaggerate features. A word of warning though – you shouldn’t stray too far from the chart, otherwise your characters will look more like aliens.

Differences in Human Proportions

Now, here’s a diagram with some variations in human proportion.


This chart – explained by Loomis, shows that standard proportions make characters look “dumpy and old-fashioned”. This technique uses a ratio of 7 1/2 heads for the height. If you went to art-school, you may recognize it as the standard taught in most institutions and courses of study. In European comics, this is used as the standard size for male characters.

For a well defined form, you need to exaggerate slightly. The idealistic proportion acts as an alternative to the standard proportions.

Then you have the elongated fashion industry proportion which exaggerates the body even further and extends the form by an extra head taller than standard measurement.

The largest exaggeration of form creates a  super-human figure that you’d see in Marvel and DC comics. The heroic proportion was even used by sculptors in the Classic period in order to make them look larger than life.

Enough of the lecture, now it’s time for your homework.

For our next class I want you to try the following exercises.

  1. Do a series of sketches on paper first to get the feeling for drawing people based on a 7-1/2 or 8 head scale.
  2. Make sure you draw three views – Front, Side and Back. This will give you a good sense of where body parts should be in relation to others.
  3. Repeat this process a number of times using a wide variety of body types (skinny, fat, tall, short) using the other proportion techniques (standard, ideal, fashion, heroic) If you do this enough times, you’ll get the hang of the proportions of body parts a lot faster than assuming they should be a certain way and drawing by trial and error. You wont make stupid mistakes either.

What you are essentially doing is conditioning yourself to draw the human form consistently in proportion. Start with some gesture drawings, then bust out a proportioned human form if you feel you’re not quite getting the sizes down right. Then go back to your subject and try it again.

Class dismissed! Next tutorial will focus on the differences in proportions from adults to children … and you jokers in the back, see me after class.
Andrés ‘ Drezz ‘ Rodriguez is the author of the neo-noir Online Graphic Novel El Cuervo. He provides WA readers with periodic articles (like this one) to help improve their comic skillz so they can pay their bills. Feel free to follow him on Twitter at @DrezzRodriguez

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  1. I completely agree with you about understanding human anatomy. My style is totally Saturday Morning cartoon, but I saw a huge improvement once I started studying how real humans are put together, and the way their body parts move.

    I’m looking for a figure drawing class that can work with my schedule, but I’m also looking at getting the Glenn Vilppu books and DVDs which I hear are one of the best out there on human anatomy.

    Take it from me, even a simplistic Saturday morning style strip can take a lesson from reality.

    • Understanding anatomy is crucial! It’s clear that Drezz has a firm grasp of it.

      If you can’t find a figure drawing class, consider starting one of your own. For several years, some friends of mine and I hired models every week and spent three hours sketching and sometimes painting from them. It was definitely worth the hassle. And it was a good excuse to hang out with other artists.

      Drawing from life has the extra bonus of improving one’s understanding of gesture, which is very difficult to get from static images in a book.

  2. I had to smile at the fact that the ideal proportions of a female diagram has heeled shoes as standard! Definitely a daigram from another era 🙂

  3. Im looking at my digital copy ad i cant see the width of the head written anywhere. Are you meant to guess?

    • Typically a human head is drawn as an oval, or egg shape, so the width of the head is slightly less than the height. In these tutorials, when they say “two heads wide” they are referring to the height of the head, not its width. So you would turn the head on its side to get the “two heads wide” dimension. I hope this helps.

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