Every Childlike Author needs a Playground.

Stick Figures and their Derivatives

Primitive Stick Figures Hunting Deer.

Primitive Stick Figures Hunting Deer.

If you’ve ever read The Adventure of the Dancing Men, or if you’ve ever seen a primitive cave drawing (and I know you have since an image of some cave art is located right above this paragraph), then you will know that stick figures have been around for a very long time. Some of the first things we draw as a small child, doodling in the empty pages of our mother’s little black book which she gave us to keep us occupied while waiting at the doctor’s office, waiting for the car to be repaired at the shop, waiting for that old guy in the starched white-collar and black suit coat to hurry up and finish his speech so we can go out and play—some of the first things we draw are stick figures.

Because as a kid we don’t have the objective eye for contours and lines, light and shadow, nor do we have the fine motor skills and technical knowledge to put a lifelike image on paper even if we had the artist’s eye. But stick figures… stick figures have everything we want. They can capture the essence of any creature, and more importantly, they can capture the essence of our imagination. But even when we’re young, our imagination has to warm up a little, so the very first kind of figure we draw is the plainest of them all: Stick-Man.

This is plain ol' Stick-Man. He's just a regular guy.

This is plain ol’ Stick-Man. He’s just a regular guy.

Except as soon as we draw it, we realize that he’s awfully alone there, by himself. So we draw another Stick Man. Only with a twist. Because what we see everyday is our mother, the one who takes care of us, who is tall enough to open the freezer door and reach the Popsicles, who makes everything better by kissing our boo-boos, and who embraces us so tightly and comfortably when at bedtime the closet looks suddenly dark and menacing. So on the next stick figure we draw, we scribble on some long hair, because that’s the only difference between men and women that we can tell. We haven’t really thought about gender much, and we certainly haven’t discovered that breasts and hips are attractive on girls, and that boys don’t have breasts but that a square chin and high cheekbones make them more handsome. The only thing clear to our minds is that mommy’s hair is longer, and daddy’s is shorter, so we draw it that way.

Here is Stick-Girl. We tried to make her look pretty.

Here is Stick-Girl. We tried to make her look pretty.

And we keep drawing our stick figures that way for quite a while, maybe using black pen, or the gray lead of a pencil, or the colored crayons we got for being good at the supermarket, until one day we realize that the smaller details, like eyes and mouths, or feet  and clothes and accessories, aren’t too hard for our small clutching hand. So we get this:

And with the details come daddy's hair.

And with the details come daddy’s hair.

And that’s the end of mommy and daddy dominating our pictures. Because now we’ve found out we can give the stick figures anything we want, and the types of clothing we choose for Regular Stick-Man and Regular Stick-Girl transform them into new and vivid personalities. We can give them a mask and sword to make them into a ninja, we can give them a wand and a tiara and make them into a fairy princess, and we can draw a horse and a unicorn for each of them to ride…

And we were always concerned about how the horses looked, because their legs were hard to draw.

And we were always concerned about how the horses looked, because their legs were hard to draw.

This probably goes on for some time, with a new character each time we draw, or if we have a favorite, we’ll draw that one over and over and over and over and over….

Like this cowboy.

Cowboy Stick-Man

The cowboy who you know is the bad guy, because he doesn’t have a sheriff’s badge shaped like a star.

Or maybe like this knight in armor.

Which, after we drew it, we realized wasn't a stick man at all.

Which, after we drew it, we realized wasn’t a stick man at all.

And suddenly our entire perspective on drawing changed from one of simplicity to one of realism and small parts. After all, we’d clearly been able to draw a rather full-ish horse and unicorn long before we did the knight. Perhaps our clumsy, smallish hands could start drawing pictures that were more lifelike now that they’d had so much practice on all the little details, the clothes and accessories, or the feet and features which had once covered the stick figures. So we started drawing with a little more… width. Stick figures no longer had one-dimensional stick bodies, but two-dimensional chests and torsos, and arms with actual muscles. Then one day, even that wasn’t enough, and we added an entirely new side to our sketches.

A third side…

A world of shading...

A world of shading…

And it wasn’t all that hard, either, because we’d been coloring in the pictures we’d drawn since we had those crayons our mother bought us, and shading was just coloring by degrees instead of by blocks. So we did a little more experimenting and a little more drawing, until maybe, just maybe, if we were naturally talented and worked very hard, we could draw something like this:

"Drifting," by Dirk Dzimirsky. Pastel on Paper. (www.dzimirsky.com)

“Drifting,” by Dirk Dzimirsky. Pastel on Paper. (www.dzimirsky.com)

But that level of skill is difficult to reach. As a child, we would never expect to produce such a work. Nor would we want to if we found out how much time was spent creating it. A stick figure is more fun, and quicker on the draw. In the hours and hours it took Dzimirsky to complete Drifting, a child may have fought ten dozen stick figure wars, saved three dozen damsels in distress and slain three dozen dragons, built rocket ships and explored outer space, or perhaps just traced a hand hundreds of times as a template for hundreds of turkeys.

And the amazing thing?

As a child we would be just as satisfied with our work and just as filled with a sense of self-worth and achievement as Dzimirsky probably was when he finished his photorealistic art. And then, when we saw the completed drawing, we would say “Why didn’t you just take a picture with your camera? It would’ve been really fast and then you could have played a stick figure war with me.”

And yet we as kids probably appreciate art in a purer way than any adult, because it’s not about the finished project at all, or about how close to reality we actually get. Imagination serves us better than that.

Like when we abruptly decide to add tentacles on our boots to make tentacle–boots.

The idea was that they could do your walking for you, rather like feet for your feet... except tentacles.

The idea was that they could do your walking for you, rather like feet for your feet… except tentacles.

But some adults still recognize the power of the stick figure, the simple creativity and customizability of the little man with nothing but a skeleton. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one of these adults. He customized the stick man straight into a dancing corps with a murderous message only Sherlock Holmes could decipher. The ancient cavemen used the stick figure to decorate their caves, and we modern humans wonder what exactly they signify.

Because stick men still speak to us.

And some of us living in the present day understand their use. Primarily for comedy, rather than anything else, because anything else would be too serious to depict with a stick person. So mostly the stick figure has been relegated, or elevated depending on your point of view, to comic strips.

Like Randall Munroe‘s comic strip, XKCD, which is mostly for computer or astronomy nerds and people who like math and physics. I don’t always get his programming jokes, but here are just a couple of his comics:

Or there is also the very popular Cyanide and Happiness comic strip, which uses stick figures in its artwork. This comic, as you can probably tell by the title, is morbid and cynical in nature, as well as, um, inappropriate on many levels. Deep levels. Disturbing levels. I don’t recommend it for children, for the tender-hearted, or for those who wish to keep even a sliver of their innocence. However, here are two of their tamer comics:

Cyanide and Happiness


Also, I laughed longer and louder than I have in a long time at one of their animated shorts. There is just something terribly awful and terribly funny about that little Stuck video that I could not overcome.

Finally, I recently came across a wonderful blog titled Becky Says Things. She uses her friend Stickman to help her say things in each blog post, and you won’t be surprised to find out that Stickman is, indeed, a stick man. Her post, Becky says things about… YouTubeis particularly funny, and I probably laughed more for some of her jokes than I did for Stuck.

Stick figures are plainly still being used, and not just by children. They’re easy to illustrate and easy to give life, which is why children draw them so much, and why some adults still prefer them as a medium for art and humor. And look! I used them in this very post! Of course, everyone knows I’m a bit more childlike than most.

In fact, this is only the beginning. I plan to use even more stick figures (and their derivatives) to illustrate my web log. I’m not doing this because I want to copy the style of other, more successful artists, but because the images I find on the web are 1) unappealing, or 2) irrelevant to the subject of my writing. Yet I can’t spend hours creating my own art either, since that would leave me with no time to actually write. Stick men fit both the easy and the versatility bill, and I’m going to take advantage of their rich history and undimming future. They’re classic and iconic, and can wear any hat I want them to wear.

Besides, I am the Childlike Author. Stick figures are my style.

Have anything to say? I’d love to hear your opinions. You can leave your thoughts and comments by clicking HERE.


7 responses

  1. I still don’t have an ‘objective eye for contours and lines, light and shadow.’ I still draw stick figures. I like your colouring in.


    February 27, 2014 at 9:35 pm

    • Yeah, translating visual perception to paper or canvas is extremely difficult if you’re going for realism. It takes a lot of training, and a lot of time. I’m a poor artist at best, but I can shade a circle to make it look like a sphere. And I’m glad you liked the colouring. 🙂


      February 27, 2014 at 10:05 pm

  2. This is a ridiculously interesting article. I had never thought about stickmen so deeply before! I suppose the allure for me was the fact that they are SO simple to draw (and believe me, my artistic ability stops with them), yet they can be so expressive and human.
    Thank you SO much for the lovely words and the pingback! You’ve got yourself a new follower!


    March 1, 2014 at 11:58 am

    • Thank you. I can use all the followers I can manage to get my grubby little hands on. By the way, I liked your blog so much I’ve put it on a blogroll titled “Other Websites that Use Stick Figures.” That way, even if they don’t read this post, they may feel compelled to check you out. Stick figures ought to get more respect, in my opinion.


      March 1, 2014 at 12:16 pm

  3. I use stickfigures on my site all the time. I love creating small one panel comics with them to lighten the mood of what would be just dreary dren. Thanks for the history lesson on a very likable method of communicating ideas! – Shelina


    April 17, 2014 at 7:29 am

    • No problem. Stick figures are extremely versatile and quick to make, so I’m not surprised you use them! Thanks for stopping by!


      April 18, 2014 at 12:12 am

  4. Aiman

    is like it this comic.


    March 18, 2015 at 8:28 am

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