Never skip leg day! You hear it said all the time about the gym, but it also holds true for studying art, especially when trying to learn figure drawing.
The legs make up around half of the body, but are often ignored because they don’t always capture or convey the gesture and range that we see in the waist up. However, just like the gym, if you ignore them, your structural base will be off, and you’ll find the realism of your figures collapsing on themselves.
A well constructed set of legs gives your character that solid base in believability. It grounds them! Firmly roots them in any scene or setting you’re placing them in. So, let’s take a look at what it takes to start drawing well constructed legs!
To draw legs, it’s easiest just to start with a straight line. Yup, it’s really that simple to start. The length doesn’t matter at this point, so just make sure you leave room on your paper for it. At the top and bottom of the line, you want to give it a bit of a notch. The top notch represents the hip, and the bottom the ankle. Don’t worry about details yet, we’ll get there in a bit. If you measure half way down the line between those two points, you can add another notch to that. That will be your knee.
Once you have your notches set on your line, you can start to add a bit of form, a bit of mass. A medium sized oval/egg for the knee area. A large oval mass that will extend past the hip. And another oval that will go just below the knee. You can see how these masses are starting to form the thigh, knee, and calf. The size and proportions are up to you, but for now just try to follow along with the diagrams.
Keep in mind that this is still very rough, it’s just plotting the form. But even at this point you can likely start to see how the leg is taking shape.
We’re going to take a look at the ‘quad’ for now, the front of the thigh. You can see it gets its nickname from the 4 muscles at the front of it. Think of them as tear drops, two that look like they’re dropping down, and then ones split that ‘drops’ up.
They are nicely divided by the center line of the upper leg. Once you’ve practiced drawing them in straight on, try to tackle the other leg and see if you can identify the different tear drops (remember, it’s the opposite lane, so they would be flipped in position). After you’ve drawn in the quad, you can draw in the inner thigh that tracks towards the crotch area.
For technical reference, the quad is made up of:
The Vastus lateralis (2) - On the outside of the thigh
The Vastus medialis (1) - This teardrop-shaped muscle of the inner thigh attaches along the femur and down to the inner border of the kneecap.
The Vastus intermedius (4) - Between the vastus medialis and the vastus lateralis at the front of the femur, it is the deepest of the quadriceps muscles.
The Rectus femoris (3) - This muscle attaches to the kneecap. Of the quadriceps muscles, it has the least affect on flexion of the knee.
The muscles on the front of the leg are used for extending (straightening) the leg, so you’ll find them absolutely flexed when the leg is straight and stiff.
Next we’ll take a look at the back of the leg. This is primarily made up of the hamstrings. You can see how the colored highlights show it as almost ribbons or bands that start high near the glutes, proceed down the leg and then wrap the back of the knee.
From the rear the leg, you can also see parts of the outer quad, and inner thigh. It’s best to sketch in the rough shapes first. Use circles for the glutes (depending on the type of bum you’re going for), and then those expanded ovals we already talked about for the main part of the upper leg. If you’ve roughed those in, the details are easy to add.
Draw some ‘banding’ lines that run from the glutes to the back of the knee, and then sort of make them wrap to either side. Once you’ve done that, you can fill out the cutter quad a bit, and the inner thigh.
For those interested in looking up the technical names for the back of the leg:
The Biceps femoris - This long muscle flexes the knee. It begins in the thigh area and extends to the head of the fibula near the knee.
The Semimembranosus - This long muscle extends from the pelvis to the tibia. It extends the thigh, flexes the knee, and helps rotate the tibia.
The Semitendinosus - This muscle also extends the thigh and flexes the knee. However, not all are always visible, so for drawing purposes, it’s best to simplify.
The muscles on the back of the leg are for flexion, meaning, bringing the heel towards the bum. So you’ll find the hamstring is most engaged and flexed when the leg is bent.
Lower Leg Muscles
The lower leg has some interesting things going on. For the sake of this tutorial, we’re going to skip feet. I know, I know, sacrilege, right? Don’t worry, I’ll be covering them in another article.
In this section we’ll just focus on the knee down to the ankle. You can see how the calf is sort of a larger oval sitting below the knee area. You can of course change the proportions and position a little on this. Genetics has some amazing variations for size and calf insertions.
One thing I will impress when drawing though is the sweep of the form. I added some darker blue lines to emphasize this - on the outer part of the calf, you’ll have this nice round sweep from the knee down to the ankle. On the inner part, the sweep starts at the ankle, hooks up, and then goes around your ‘calf ball’ that you sketched. See if you can fill in some of those blue line sketches on the sheet.
Once you have all that, all you have to remember is that from behind, you can see a bit of a triangle notch that’s been taken out of your ‘calf ball’ on the bottom.
The muscular anatomy of the lower leg is dominated by:
The Gastrocnemius (calf muscle) - One of the large muscles of the leg, it connects to the heel. It flexes and extends the foot, ankle, and knee.
The Soleus - This muscle extends from the back of the knee to the heel. It is important in walking and standing.
The general function of the calf is to extend the foot, so you’ll find that the calf is especially flexed and visible when the figure is on their tip-toes. The opposite is true for when the muscle is extended - there is less detail, everything is stretched out.
Bending The Leg
But, what about if you have to bend your leg? How do you go about approaching it? It’s actually pretty simple.
You can see how we have the regular process of an establishing line, finding the ends (the hip and ankle), and then finding the center (the knee). Then we add in the ovals to give some form.
Finally, we add in the muscles. When we bend the leg, it’s the same thing, only with a bend half way. I’ve turned it to the side here to show you the inner thigh, you can see the inner tear drop drawn here. That’s the Vastus medialis.
If you’re going with the 50/50 proportions, then the bend is simple, the knee is perfectly in the middle. You can see how I’ve measured (in green) the lengths of the upper and lower legs in the bent leg. They match up perfectly!!
Remember to Experiment
Legs are amazing. They can be long, short, thick, thin, muscular… all sorts of sizes, looks and proportions. You need to feel comfortable playing with that. Go back to your original sketch lines and experiment! what if you didn’t place the knee in the exact center… how does that impact the look of the leg? What if you made the calves thicker than the thighs? Is that a look you might like on a character?
You can see in these examples that there are different amounts of mass on the legs. Adding or subtracting thickness can help you differentiate between characters. As well, wrinkles, veins, and muscle definition can drastically change the look of the figure.
So, what sort of look at you going for? Something heroic and strong looking? Chances are you want to lean towards muscular and athletic. What about a victim, a hostage? You don’t want them to appear strong and capable, right? So, you’d look toward maybe something more fragile. Something that maybe looks like it couldn’t fight back.
Drawing legs is, in part, understanding anatomy, but another huge part is knowing what to show and what not to.
Skeletal Structure of The Leg
Now, at the start of this tutorial, I gave you a VERY simplified approach to drawing the structure. I find it easier to work with a sort of stick figure to start things off, but I realize not everyone enjoys that. That some people love to know all the details under the surface.
Here I show you how our simplified blue line can sit over top the actual skeleton. I’ve gone ahead and labelled the hip, femur, patella, tibia, and fibula for you. I’m not sure they’re always needed when drawing, but you never know, especially if one of your characters has some grotesque injury, you just might want to show some of these bones poking through!
Either way, it’s always good to understand what lurks under the surface, so you’ll better understand what you’re seeing and drawing.
So, have I convinced you that leg day is important? That you can’t just skip it or wing it? Really, make sure your figures are standing strong. Give them the base that they deserve. Have your figures standing on a foundation that lends credibility, something believable! Even if it’s just for a pin up on a blank background, the human eye will recognize the credibility of it.
Taking the time to practice through this tutorial will give you dividends down the road. I mean, how many times have we heard feedback like “Work on your anatomy”? It’s an ongoing issue that deserves attention. And if you’ve made it this far, you’ve obviously given it yours! Good for you, hopefully you have a bunch of sketches that you can now use as your own personal references.
No matter what, this type of smart practicing will help you grow as an artist.
Thank you so much for joining me in this tutorial. It’s the first one I’ve done up for How To Draw Comics, and I really enjoyed it. Writing, instead of talking, had its challenges, but I had fun with it.
And if you found this tutorial interesting, feel free to join me in my main video course How To Draw ANATOMY where I go over this in more detail, and you get to hear me ramble on and on dropping anatomy hints, and the occasional dad joke.
You’re also welcome to follow me on Instagram or Facebook under the name ‘Juggertha’. I drop art, tutorials, and courses fairly regularly, so it’s good to subscribe. Best of luck, and… break a leg!! (compulsory dad joke)
Ed (Juggertha) Foychuk