adding figures to your landscape - Gail Sibley, “Exploring the Possibilities,” Unison Colour on UART 400, 9 x 12 in.

Adding Figures To Your Landscape

I’m sitting writing this post on a KLM plane, blasting my way across the Atlantic to the UK (via Amsterdam) where I’ll be teaching two workshops – one in the Yorkshire Dales and one in Cornwall. I’ve only just returned from Toronto where I taught three workshops at the ICAN Conference organized by Pastel Artists Canada and before that, I was demoing at the Plein Air Convention & Expo (PACE) in Denver. Whew! So in deciding what to share with you, I decided we’d go back to PACE where my demo focused on adding figures to your landscape.

Add a figure to your painting and it will almost always catch a viewer’s attention. But a figure needs to read correctly to bring life to your painting. If it doesn’t work, for instance, the figure is out of proportion, it can cut an otherwise wonderful painting down to its knees!

So why add figures to your landscape? 

People can bring meaning and can add a narrative that isn’t there without them. A landscape with a path pulls us in to follow the path. Add a figure in the distance and we may connect with the person, and start imagining a story. 

A figure will also instantly offer a sense of scale.

The thing is, a viewer instantly knows when a figure is “wrong!” You can’t easily get away with incorrect placement and proportions!

Here are six problems that can crop up when adding figures to your landscape:

  1. The proportion is out of whack
  2. The pose is awkward or unreal
  3. The placement and size doesn’t feel right (ie doesn’t match the painting’s linear perspective)
  4. The lighting doesn’t match what’s happening in the rest of the painting
  5. The colour of the figure doesn’t connect to the main colours of the painting
  6. The figure has a “pasted-on” look

So let’s deal with each of these problems one by one.


I’d say proportion is the easiest place to fall down. For instance, we tend to make the head too large for the body. Sometimes the arms and legs don’t seem quite the right length. For example, legs can appear just too short!

The thing is, we don’t need to add much for a viewer to believe there’s a full-blown figure. A few lines, a few strokes, may be all that’s needed. It’s getting those lines in the correct place that makes the figure believable.

Generally, an adult is seven to eight heads tall. So that gives you some indication of the size relationship between head and the rest of the body. Heads are oval-shaped rather than round. Elbows connect to the waist. Legs are pretty much divided in two by the knee. An arm that hangs at your side reaches down your thigh and if you stretch your thumbs towards each other in front of your body, they meet just about where your leg starts (on the inside).

My pastel demo about adding figures to your landscape.
My pastel demo about adding figures to your landscape.

When adding a figure, you must ensure it’s in the correct relationship to its surroundings. This is where linear perspective comes in. You can show scale and distance by adding figures in relationship to each other and the horizon. People nearer to us (and the picture plane) are larger, and those further away are smaller.

The horizon is always at your eye level. So if you’re standing, that’s where the horizon line is. The same is true if you’re sitting on the ground – as you look out, the horizon line is at your seated eye level. And where’s the horizon line if you’re looking out of a first floor window? At your eye level!

If you’re standing and the figures in your painting are standing (and the ground is level), everyone’s head will more or less be on the same level whereas their bodies will get shorter and the figures get smaller as they recede towards the horizon line.

If you’re seated and everyone else is standing, note where the horizon line (your eye level) meets their bodies – somewhere in the middle.

If I am looking out a window, the figures below will all be below the horizon line.

Understanding this, you can put people in where you want them and they will be believable.

Mind you, if the ground rises, things will shift (eg people’s heads will be above your eye level), and on it goes. The thing is to OBSERVE!!!

adding figures to your landscape - Some sketches showing different eye levels
Some sketches showing different eye levels

You’re aiming to create convincing poses, ones that seem natural. One thing to note is where a figure’s weight is placed. Drop a plumb line from the nape of the neck to the feet.

If a figure is standing straight with weight evenly distributed, the line touches down between both feet. When a person’s weight is moved onto one foot, the ankle of that leg lies directly below the nape of the neck.

OBSERVE and start sketching figures.


If you’re adding figures that aren’t in your scene then make sure to get the lighting the same as in the landscape. Strange things can happen if you add a figure from a different photo and don’t pay attention to the lighting! For instance, the cast shadow from a figure may be going in a different direction from those cast by the trees. Not good!

Is the light coming from overhead, from the side, from the front or back? The figure needs to have the same kind of light fall on it as the landscape. 


I suggest bringing some of the colour of your painting into the figure itself even if you want it to be wearing red against a green field. Link some of the green into the figure and maybe scumble some of the red into another part of the painting.

adding figures to your landscape - Gail Sibley, “Exploring the Possibilities,” Unison Colour on UART 400, 9 x 12 in.
Gail Sibley, “Exploring the Possibilities,” Unison Colour on UART 400, 9 x 12 in.

The easiest way to prevent this is by softening some edges!!

To start adding figures to your landscape and make them believable, YOUR ACTION is to start squinting and making small sketches of people, capturing pose, weight, and contour. This will give you practice in capturing the attitude of a person. These are just notations to get you used to the proportions and position of a figure. Once you do this over and over, it’s easier to place an imagined figure into your painting.

adding figures to your landscapes - a page full of figure jottings
A page full of figure jottings

I’d love to hear if this was helpful. Do you regularly add figures to your landscape paintings? Do they always look like they belong there? Or perhaps you want to add a figure or two to your painting but you just don’t feel confident about doing so? Follow these tips and you’ll manage just fine!  

Until next time!


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12 thoughts on “Adding Figures To Your Landscape”

  1. Great post, I have just started with adding figures to the landscape, I struggle with proportions and I love the idea of the figure jottings.
    Travel safe.

  2. This was soooo helpful Gail!! I love adding figures to my paintings, but many times they do feel stiff. I’ll be diving deep into your suggestions. Thanks so much!

    1. That’s super to hear Ruth! I definitely think less is more. And whenever you’re out people-watching, make a few notations in a sketchbook. I do them very small so I don’t get caught up in details. All you want to try to capture is the contour and the gesture.

  3. This is very helpful, Gail. I have also just started to add figures to my paintings. Your sketch of the many figures in many positions will be very helpful. I plan to make a sketch of my own…good practice,

    1. Love hearing this Judy! I encourage you to do the figure sketching practice. Yes, there’s regular figure sketching but these are tiny and fast! One suggestion is drawing figures from paintings – again, keep them small and fast and don’t get caught up in the details!

  4. Hi Gail, I have just found your site, you are amazing, thank you so much for sharing all this very helpful information, I love everything you do to help everyone, your adding people is awesome, your sketches of people in all different positions are unreal, thank you very much, you’re an amazing artist, best wishes always ✨👏🏼🙏🎨✌🏼

    1. Donna, you sure made my day with all your praise – I’m definitely blushing! I’m also doing a wee jig of joy that you’ve found HowToPastel and find it so useful 😁

  5. I’m amazed by what simple little squiggles and jottings can convey! So much personality! They all tell a story! Thanks for these tips. Have a great trip!

    1. It really is amazing how much our mind can fill in when those squiggles are in the right place!
      Thanks Helen – it’s awesome so far!!

  6. Sooooo helpful. As a primarily landscape painter, I’ve been wanting to add figures but felt flummoxed about it. So I saved this post and am now using all your helpful information and “how-to” tips.

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Gail Sibley

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My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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