Painting male torsos (Blue Dragon Sidhe – old painting)

So I had an email yesterday and their question was along the lines of

‘How do you paint male anatomy realistically, in particular the torso?’ And ‘do you have a tutorial on it’.

I thought about it, then remembered I had some old work in progress shots lying around. I’ve not found a silver bullet, and lord I wish I had my own model who I could strike a pose rather than having to figure it out from reference photos and anatomy studies. I mix up how I paint all the time. The painting below was started in Painter, and finished in Photoshop. Nowadays I work pretty much exclusively in Photoshop, but the ideas are the same.

Anyway, back to my story. Believe it or not, painting men used to terrify me. I lacked confidence, I treated them as though they were some deadly disease (not men in general, just painting and drawing them). I’d been to art school so I’d done life drawing classes, which sadly for me the males consisted of a rather emaciated guy in his 20’s who looked like he should be playing in an emo band, and an elderly gentleman who came to the class in a bellhop’s uniform. Oh my eyes would never be the same! But drawing men didn’t come naturally to me.

So I decided a few years ago to challenge myself. The only way of getting better at something is to practice it!

My goal was to paint at least one male that year, or vaguely ‘get better at drawing men’. I’d done drawings in the past like Arnal, but I’d never attempted to truly paint a male character with so much realism. One of the first hurdles I had to get over was understanding the differences between men and women. Yes, I know, both have two arms, two legs and a heart beat, but there are features that define whether the character looks female, male or androgynous.

My general rule is:

  • Women have curves with rounded,soft edges
  • Men are angular with flat planes and deep creases.

Both can be pretty, but if you want manly men watch out for too many eyelashes, lips that are too soft and pretty, and a shape that is long (no defined shoulders).

For me, the Dragon Sidhe series was a tongue in cheek way of exploring painting male anatomy. I remember taking some snapshots along the way, but I don’t think I posted them publicly. So here goes. They were never intended as instructional images, just me showing what I was working on to a few friends in private back in 2008.

I hope this helps someone :D

Left hand bottom, this is the rough sketch. I had a reference for the face (which was in black and white, another fun excercise in painting skin!). My anatomy ignores basically everything but the pecs, but it represents where I see everything sitting. I added roughly where the muscles would go, and painted my favourite part, the face. The process basically went like this:

  • Define shape in a mid tone
  • Add the highlights/ reflective areas
  • And add the deepest shadows
  • Do not worry about blending the mid tones at this stage. I want it to feel chunky, so the mid tones while important, are used to tie together the edges rather than being the bulk of the surface.


Here’s the face, yes, my paintings are messy.


I’ve refined the face a lot. I’m bringing the colours of his face down into his chest, but also started playing with the shadow tone. It’s been said thousands or times before, but shadows that contain opposing colours are much more powerful. In this case, blues and turquoise are the dominant colours, so the opposing colours are oranges and Sienna.



I decided that because his skin was so warm, the shadows were going to have purples added to them. Here you can see the colours roughly added to the painting before I worked with blending the tones.


I think I’m pretty much done from a blending perspective. I start adding the armour and the pants :) I’ve found that smooth is not always the best way to render skin. I like using almost ‘opaque’ tones to emphasise highlights, and highlights also are good at defining shadows when directly side by side. Some people call them hard edges I think.

 Blue Dragon Sidhe 5

I lied. I wasn’t quite done with the left hand side of the painting. I also added tattoos and a bow.


Now I get to start playing with the background and glowing lights. Reflections are important. Light hits objects and that colour can reflect onto skin. In this case, it’s more blue.

NCadetBlueDragonSidhe7I added stars (I really need to make up some more star backgrounds!)


And then because I ummed and ahhed about it, tried another version of the stars.


So what did I finish up with? Oops, missed a step. Added leather to his belt area and moved the stars again. Also tightened up some of the features, to unify the skin tones.

Blue Dragon Sidhe by Nicole Cadet

And if you want to keep up with me on a regular basis, you can find me on @NicoleCadet on Twitter (random thoughts, this is where I most like to chat), nicolecadet on tumblr (reblogs of content from here), NicoleCadetFantasyArt at Facebook, and NicoleCadet on DeviantArt