Sunday Mailbag

July 1st, 2007 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I wondered if when you draw your figures for MAD, do you use some kind of construction lines such as stick figures then flesh them out with cylinders, cubes etc and then finally draw the finished figure? I’m having trouble drawing figures and they keep coming out either looking very rigid or completely out of proportion.

A: The human figure is a tough thing to master. I struggle with it all the time, doing a lot more bad figure drawings than good ones. Personally I feel the best way to develop your figure drawing skills is to do a lot of quick, gestural sketches from life. People like Steve Silver, who spend time with a sketchbook in coffee shops and on their lunch breaks drawing the passers by build instincts for the figure, weight and movement you just don’t get doing labored renderings.

When I draw the figure, I do a short of halfway construct as my base. I don’t do the stick figure method or the squares and cylinders, but do a basic figure with some volume as a starting point. I find the action figures, those in motion, to be the easiest to draw. It’s the ones just standing there I have trouble making look natural.

This would be a simple starting construct for a figure.


I try to be conscious of the angles of the shoulders, hips, knees and heels so they aren’t out of whack. These are never truly parallel, as a person almost always rests more weight on one leg than the other… I find that’s important to getting any kind of a natural feel to the stance of a figure. I also need to be aware of the curve of the spine. Spines are not straight. Drawing a rigid, straight back makes a figure very awkward and stiff.

MAD art director Sam Viviano, a great dispenser of wisdom, once told me he draws everyone as if they were naked, and then draws clothes on them after he has the figure down. That way the clothes are being work by the figure, and do not act as the figure themselves. I do something similar, but I always draw briefs on the base figure. You can kind of see them on the rough sketch above. This helps me keep the pelvis in the right place and acts as an anchor for my spine.

Then I flesh out the figure a bit-


I add the clothes and some of the other features. I will make corrections as I go… I always draw aggressively and understand I will be making mistakes and that’s what the eraser is for. A drawing is built, not instantly created from nothingness.

Finally I clean up the lines and draw in some details.


A lot of the life was sucked out of the figure on that last step. The roughs are more natural and dynamic. They usually are.

Thanks to Justin Cook for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. vivek says:

    Sweet….!!! It can’t get any simpler than this

  2. Justin says:

    This is great, Tom. Thanks. I have been practising all week and have noticed a difference already. Cheers!!!


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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