When folks that I know draw or paint and they say to me “no, I’m not really into figure drawing” I always feel like they are missing out on a crucial part of why we draw… Whatever we draw. Life drawing is figure drawing, but it’s so much more, unlike a still life or a landscape a model moves, capturing the form places a demand on us to be able to adapt both with speed and elegance. For me life drawing is the purest form of observation, and that will improve your drawing capabilities far beyond your imagining … No matter what your ‘draw thing’ is.
So to help you along the way here are a few tips to get you meeting that observational demand.
Most of us when faced with a model for the first time (after a moment of embarrassment for many) get confused by all of the shapes and forms that they see I front of them… Especially the details! Well the good news is that when you start out you can forget those, well… In part! But instead, focus on proportions.
Imagine a box around your model the sides of which just touch the outermost parts of the form. As you can see in the image here (red line) this will give you a scale to consider upon the page you are about to draw, draw a box lightly there if it helps. If you want to think a little more complex then use what we call ‘enveloping’, rather than a simple box we draw a geometric shape that connects the dots that we place at the outermost parts of the form (green line)
Another method of simplification is to consider the model in terms of the geometry. Not for everyone this method, but it will give you a great understanding of proportional relationships, perspective within the form so that you can overcome things like foreshortening! Check out the sketches here to get an idea of what geometric drawing is like but to simplify consider each part of the anatomy as a simple box like shape and go from there!
Understanding anatomy is without doubt a very important skill, if you don’t know what the bones and muscles are doing, what they attach to, what they pull and push you will not ever truly understand what you are drawing… It’s what sets figurative artists apart from other subject media that doesn’t tend to have a complex moving element.
That said building confidence in your line work can be improved upon regardless of any anatomical understanding and this is where those dreaded short poses come into their own. Most often a new person to life drawing finds a 1 or 2 minute pose exceptionally challenging and at times disheartening. However the longer you stick at life drawing the sooner the realisation will come to you that here is the ideal time to just go for it!
Every pose that a model takes will have this imagined gestural line that runs through it. It’s the form upon which you can lay the whole structure of the body onto. In your one minute pose spend the first precious seconds finding that line. Use your envelope too if that helps, then, keeping your eye on the model more than your paper try to draw the genteral shape in single strokes for each section. Don’t fear it going wrong, it will, but over time your confident lines will become more and more accurate. If you have a few seconds to spare drop in some of the internal structure lines too.
If you can check out Andrew Loomis books, this one in particular!
I think that the thing I see most people struggle with for the most time is shading and in particular the range of tonal value in that shading. I will keep the chatter about tone and value to another post but I think that you will get the idea when I say that shading brings form to your line work, suddenly the figure comes to life. For me however there is an even more important aspect to shading and that is drama! The best life drawing studies that you will see out there are done by those who understand how to push the boundaries and interpretation of the lights and darks of the model before them.
Without a shadow of a doubt charcoal is king at capturing form in terms of light and dark, and it does it with great speed too. I highly recommend working in charcoal on some of the longer poses to help you understand the relationship between light and dark and what it can do to emphasise focal points of interest in your study, how it can bring in mood and atmosphere.
But charcoal can be quite messy, you should see what I look like after a charcoal session! So with pencil you need to understand those numbers on the back end of your pencil there. In short the higher the number in the B grade the darker the tone you will achieve. So start off your drawing with a 2B, get down all of your line work and block in all of the figure bar the lightest lights with a flat tone, you don’t need to press hard, don’t force it. Now study your model for a few moments and look to see where the shadows start to get darker, grab a 4B lay a new layer of tone over the first layer that starts around that transition point and finish it underneath what will become your darkest areas. Now take a 6B and lay in a final layer which is your darks, use an eraser to pull any highlights back out that may have gotten lost along the way. For me personally I like to take a 9B and lay in an area of tone around the figure to help make the highlights pop and to blend into the figure where I want to have some lost edges… A subject for another day!
The Hard Stuff
Eventually you are going to have to come to terms with the bits everyone struggles with… The hands, feet and face… And don’t forget yes we do have a penis and a vagina. I recommend to begin with not to worry about a likeness. When you feel that your confidence and capability are improving spend some time doing studies and just focus on hands and feet alone. Maybe plan a session where you will draw the models face, and just the face in every pose for the whole session. You can apply the same principles discussed already but constrain them to just these areas of the body. Time and practice will be the success for these difficult areas. And no, I am not going to suggest that you focus exclusively drawing the models penis all night, but don’t avoid it when doing your full figure work. Your drawing will always look a little disturbing with a void in those areas and so you won’t ever be truly satisfied with it!
Well I hope that you got something out of those few tips. If you are really fired up to improve your drawing skills you can pop along to my life drawing sessions which run every 2nd and 4th Monday night, 7-9.30 pm at the Duke William pub in Stourbridge. You can check out the Facebook page here! If you don’t think that you can get to one of our sessions there is a great YouTube resource called Onairvideo, not a replacement for attending and drawing from real life but great for practice!