Tips For Improving Figure Drawing



As a figure drawing instructor I’ve heard things like, “I just can’t get proportions right and the legs look stubby, drawing faces and hands are hard, she was twisted in a funny angle hard to draw I couldn’t get the perspective right”, or I’ll see choppy repetitive lines containing a distorted form confirming a unfocused approach to drawing. All is not lost. Practicing a generalized approach will enhance confidence and creative license making you a better painter, sculptor, and yes even better at abstraction, after all drawing the figure is a developed approach and even abstraction is a type of approach. The key to figure drawing is breaking down what you see into a simple methodology and into a continual measuring process that builds on previous established measurements. Although there are many ways to simplify I will discuss three that should be good enough to get you going. I recommend first creating points on your paper to fully contain the whole figure, secondly choosing your first reference line to build on, and thirdly using shadow to build volume and character.

Point measurement is simply proportional placements of points on your paper that bounds outer reaches of a figure like a great sculptor estimating the bounds of her master piece before the first chisel strike is made. Imagine placing a point approximately in the middle of your paper then placing a point that is vertical located half way between your center point and the top of your paper. Next make a point in the same manner vertically below and then two more points horizontally the same way. If you connected a line between the two vertical dots then the two horizontal it would make a simple cross. Obviously you’d be aware that you could control size simply by creating points closer or further away from the center. “Voila”, you’re now thinking in a measured way that makes for great drawings! Now let’s translate this to bounding a human figure. Let’s imagine you’re drawing a human subject. Arrange the drawing surface perpendicular to your line of sight of your subject. Now thinking vertically place an imaginary point that represents the highest level of the body part in your line of sight, head, hand, etc. Next create a point in relation to your first point at the lowest part of the body, you’ll have to think about it but make it as close as you can, then do the same for furthest two points horizontally in relation to the other two then connects the dots the way you made the cross. Now ask yourself does my imaginary lines make the same angles that it would if there was really points on the model where I chose? If not adjust as close as you can it will be close enough for your next step.

Secondly use the reference points to proportional place your first lines. Look at your model closely and imagine a line or lines that sweep through the whole body that describe general movement. This could be an “S” curve line that flows from head to toe, or a spinal line in combination with center lines that run through the head, arms, and legs. However you see it transfer it to paper in respects to your established points. Furthermore, look at your model and imagine lines that describe position or twist of the shoulder and pelvis by imagining lines that run from shoulder to shoulder and hip joint to hip joint and transfer it to your paper. If you haven’t created center lines for legs and arms yet do so if needed. You have now just created what I like to call a “drawing skeleton.” Now use the “drawing skeleton” to judge proportion sizes of legs, feet, hands, and so on. If you have difficulty drawing hands and feet imagine the hands covered in tightly fitting thin mittens capable of stretching with finger movement, and imagine feet in thin socks. The idea is to draw those extremities as masses then work in details. In addition, the head usually presents difficulty. If the model has an oval head draw an oval if square draw that then refine the contour. Use the head contour to reference position and sizes for the mouth, nose, eyes, and so on. (Further tips on portraits will be described in step three.) The overall drawing scheme is “always work from general to specific continually referencing the model as you draw for the right proportions until the line drawing is completed.” In addition, establish the practice of erasing, leaving traces of your old lines to help guide you and redrawing lines for lines you’re not satisfied. That practice is a prelude to great work and the mark of a great artist. Remember you are the artist you are in control no markings are final at any stage of your drawing until it’s to your likings. Erase and draw again if you don’t like point placement, erase and draw again if you don’t like your completed line drawing!

Thirdly use shadow as a tool to create volume and positioning character features. This works particularly well when light casts strong shadows on the model. To correctly and easily apply shadowing think of how shadows are cast on four basic shapes, a cube, a sphere, a cylinder, and a cone. It’s a good idea to use two drawing instruments of darker and lighter shades. I use charcoal mostly, so I use a dark willow and a soft vine, but for you it may be pencil or something else. Also try drawing from light to dark when applying shadow. Look at your model notice parts that closely approximate the basic shapes, arms and legs maybe more cylinder like in places and more conical elsewhere a head maybe oval or cube like or a combination of the four shapes. Closely mimic and transfer those geometric shadow effects you see on your model to the drawing on your paper. Say to yourself things like “the head is egg shaped like with a conical nose protruding my shadows will be like a sphere and a cone.” You will soon see your drawing take on a solid presence. In addition, cast floor or wall shadows by the model can anchor the figure giving it a solid feeling. Give it a try it’s your decision on what works.

Now for using shadow information in another way, that is portrait building. Let’s imagine there are two identical oval dinner plates on a table sitting side by side positioned in the same way, and I randomly placed three coins on a first plate then I ask you to closely approximate the coins position on the second plate with three other coins, I’m sure you would have no problem matching the pattern closely. Treat shadows cast on the face the same way, that is judging where to put shadows beneath the eye, nose, mouth, and etc. the same way. This will help locate facial anatomy and create a convincing portrait (hint: if shadows are fuzzy try squinting at the model to lessen shadow gradation).

In conclusion, I find drawing a kind of discipline that is resisting our natural urges to respond to body parts specifically at first, although your drawing may have a focus work form general to specific continually using previous geometry to judge the next. I’m sure doing so will improve your drawing skills. Lastly, I must add that the drawer is not a camera he or she is much more and don’t worry if the end result is not perfect move on and you’ll get better with practice. Cheers to you and happy drawing!



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