Jun 13, 2021

Figure Drawing: Drawing an Arm

Arm illustration
In this video, we are drawing an arm to see how we can separate elements of the arm drawing to make it easier to draw. Drawing the human figure can be a difficult thing to do. It can be challenging because the figure is a complex form that we are accustomed to seeing. This complexity and familiarity require us to pay attention to many different elements if we want to draw the figure accurately. 

The arm is an excellent example of the problems we might encounter as we draw. Though we regularly see arms, we are, likely, not as familiar with the different structures of the arm as we might think. Nor are those new to figure drawing necessarily familiar with the various elements we need to consider when illustrating the arm. 

To make it easier, we can separate the elements that go into drawing an arm into stages. Then we can focus on them at different times, allowing us to address one part at a time. That is what we do in this demonstration. 


Let's look at how we can separate the different elements of drawing an arm to make the process easier. The list below shows how I separated those elements and the order in which I drew each.

Basic Shapes

Let's look at how we can separate the different elements of drawing an arm to make the process easier. The list below shows how I separated those elements and the order in which I drew each.

The first thing we can do is translate the main parts of the arm into basic shapes. Here, I converted the hand, upper arm, and lower arm into three rectangles.

Draw the parts of the arm as translated into basic shapes.

Drawing these basic shapes allows us to work on the general positioning and portions of those parts. We use these basic shapes to see if we have the right size for each part of the arm relative to each other. We can also use these basic shapes to make sure that the length and width of each part of the arm are correct.

'We can also use these basic shapes to place the parts of the arm correctly. We want to draw them to have the joints connecting accurately. We can also work out the angles that each segment points to get the directions lined up. 

Simple Forms

We can then convert those basic shapes into simple forms. We do this so that we can determine the perspective. By using simple forms, we can explore how the segments of the arms fit within three-dimensional space.

For example, the arm in this illustration is angled slightly towards us. By translating the arm into simple forms, we can understand the spatial arrangement before drawing the details, preventing confusion later on.

Covert the basic shapes of the arm into simple or basic forms.

Map the Anatomy

We can then loosely map where the anatomical structures belong. We can look for both the skeletal and muscular anatomy of the arm.  As we find them, we can draw a loose guide, working out the general size, shape, and placement of those structures.

We do not need to be precise at this stage. We will refine those shapes later. These guides will keep us in the right spot as we focus on the smaller details of each structure. A quick sketch is all we need at this stage.

Draw quick guides to show where the anatomy belongs.

In this demonstration, I am using ellipses to map the anatomy, but we can use any shape that helps guide us. For example, we could also sketch the bicep as a rectangle, and we might have a better guideline to use when we refine the shape later.


Next, we can draw the structures. We are now starting to draw the arm as it will appear in the final drawing. However, I still like to simplify the drawing a little at this stage. I prefer to draw all the structures using straight lines. 

By drawing with straight lines, we can work out how all the elements come together before considering the curves or undulations of the contours of the forms of the arm. 

The straight lines help us see the connections and intersections of the parts by helping us see how the angles line up. 

Draw the arm structures

The Hand

You may have noticed in the video that I did not draw the hand until I have worked out much of the arms' structures. I often wait on drawing the hand until this point, just in case I need to make a change that requires me to move the hand. A subtle change in the position of the arm can move the hand's position in the drawing. By waiting, I save myself the headache of having to redraw the hand.

Once we have worked out the structures of the arm, we can work on the hand.

Basic Shapes

Start by drawing the basic shapes to work on the general position and size of fingers and the body of the hand. We should draw each segment of the fingers as a basic shape to help us see how each section connects to the other.

Draw the hand as basic shapes

Positioning the Fingers

If we find positioning the fingers to be a challenge, we can simplify the structures even more. We can draw each finger as a line to help us place them before worrying about the mass or widths of each finger.

In this drawing, I draw a circle representing the knuckles to sketch the location of the fingers against the body of the hand. I then draw each finger as a segmented line to position each segment of the finger. 

Simplify fingers to line to help position them accurately


Now, we draw the structures of the hand. We can draw the hand's components using the same method we used when drawing the arm, by drawing with straight lines. Again, we use straight lines to figure out how all the parts come together before considering the curves or undulations of the contours of the forms. 
Draw the structures of the hand.

Map the Shadow Elements

After we finish drawing the hand structures, we can draw a line to create the boundary between the light and shadow sides of the arm. We don't need to do this, but this step helps us with the shading.

As this line establishes the edge between the light and shadow side, we use it to keep our value pattern in check. We will know that the darker values will mostly stay on one side of that line, and the lighter ones will be on the other.

Draw a line to illustrate the boundary between the light side and shadow side of the arm.


We are ready to finish the linework. We can now draw the curvy contours. These are the more fluid and flowing lines that define the shapes, making the arm look more realistic. 

Finally, draw the contours to refine the structures of the arm.

This step should be somewhat straightforward because we have done all these other steps to set up where these lines should go. All we need to focus on is creating rounded fluid lines to suggest a natural form.

As we draw these lines, we no longer need to worry about the size or position of any of these lines. We have already done that work.  We can now zoom in a bit and focus on the features of edges of the forms.


In this video, I shade in the shadow side of the arm but leave the light side alone, letting the paper show through. This is a stylistic choice that I made. However, we can shade in the whole arm if we so desire. 

One of the goals is to keep the values of the arm consistent so that the drawing is unified. To keep the values appearing consistent, we can start by shading the shadow side all the same value. There will be changes in the value level of the different areas within the shadow, but having a consistent base will make it easier to keep each area of the shadow balanced with the other areas.

After we finished drawing the contours, we can start shading.


When you are ready, give it a try. If you are new to drawing the human figure, it is a good idea to practice drawing an arm from observation.  It is easier to draw something we are looking at than trying to draw it from memory. 

When we draw what we see, we will begin to see the structures of the arm and gain a better understanding of how those forms come together. It is all stuff we have seen many times but likely never paid close attention to the details. 

Find an image of an arm online, take a photograph of someone's arms, or have a friend sit with you as you draw their arm. Then draw the arm you see. Follow the steps demonstrated in the video. Look to translate forms and structures of the arm at each stage.  

And, of course, have fun drawing.