The Silhouette Project, Part 2; Constructing a Basic Silhouette

The shape of a form is its silhouette. Every volume has a shape state. Nathan Goldstein


Publish 2a


To draw or paint a figure (or any subject) convincingly, you have to be able to see it accurately, and you have to understand what you’re seeing.

The human figure contains 16 basic forms: the head, neck, upper torso, lower torso, 2 upper arms, 2 lower arms, 2 hands, 2 upper legs, 2 lower legs, and 2 feet.

Here’s how to construct a basic silhouette. Remember, no preliminary drawing is done when painting silhouettes: 

1). Start with the upper torso. The upper torso is the largest part of the body.

2). Add the lower torso, which is about half as high as the upper torso. Connect the upper and lower torso with a shape that represents the spine. 

3). Add the neck and head. There are 4 head lengths between the top of the head and the bottom of the lower torso, and the bottom of the lower torso is the mid-point of a figure. 

4). Add the upper and lower legs and the feet. The upper leg is slightly shorter than the lower leg and foot. There are 4 head lengths between the lower torso and the bottom of the feet. The foot is the same length as the head.

5). Add the upper and lower arms and the hands. The upper arm (including the shoulder) is slightly shorter than the lower arm and hand. The hands end at mid thigh, and a hand is 2/3 the length of the head.  

6). Add the flesh and clothing – and walla! You have it – a silhouette!  See photo above.

Hint: If you are new to figure drawing or painting, it may be helpful to begin by marking off 8 head lengths on your paper as I did in my illustration above, to help you determine the size and placement of the 16 basic forms. 

BTW: There are many concepts for measuring and dividing the body and its parts. One of the two commonly held theories states that the figure is 7 1/2 heads high. The other states that the figure is 8 heads high. I like a slightly elongated figure, so I use the 8 heads high approach, which by the way, was Michelangelo’s hypothesis.  

Some differences between the male and female figure:  1). The female’s hips are broader than the male’s, and where her hips join the body there is a much sharper angle.  2). The female’s hips are about the same width as her shoulders, the male’s hips are narrower than his shoulders.  3). The female’s shoulders are narrower and taper more than the male’s.  4). The female’s waist is narrower than the male’s.  5). The female’s upper thigh is thicker, and the curve from the waist to the knee is much more prominent than in the male’s.  6). The female’s arms, wrists and fingers are smaller and thinner than the male’s.  7). The female’s lower legs taper to thinner ankles and smaller feet than the male’s. 

Happy Painting!

4 thoughts on “The Silhouette Project, Part 2; Constructing a Basic Silhouette

    1. Donna Post author

      Myrna, I’m excited that you’re participating in The Shilhouette Project! I visited your blog and your silhouettes are fabulous – a testimony to how the idea of practice, practice, practice leads to informed and confident painting and drawing skills. You rock!
      Everyone – stay tuned for The Silhouette Project: Part 3 for more tips on painting silhouettes, and for an upcoming special announcement that includes a prize! Donna

  1. Ginny Stiles

    Oh Donna. I am one of your most ardent new fans.
    I am basically a watercolorist (with a dive into acrylics the last year or so).
    I love sketching and teach a class on sketching.
    I have found your blog to be THE most wonderful find on the internet for artists and I have passed the info along to others. I am ordering one of your DVDs too.
    This challenge on the figures is SO wonderful and I am hoping to include my Florida art club in the challenge!
    Don’t look at my blog for this right away…I just got back from a fantastic 10 days of journaling my way around central CA and I have to blog about that first!!! (you have been a link on my blog for quite awhile!)
    When I grow up I want to be just like you!
    I am hoping to get one of the art leagues I belong to in central Fl to have you down to teach!!!
    I belong to Mt Dora Art League and the Leesburg Art League.
    Anyway…I do plan to accept this challenge…give me a week to get my head on straight and get my suitcases unpacked first! WHAT a great challenge!


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