Figure Drawing Concepts
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Figure Drawing Concepts

This article provides ways of thinking about figure drawing to improve the focal point, proportions and accuracy of drawings from the nude.

In this article I will talk less about technical drawing skills than about conceptual skills you can use to think about figure drawing a different way. Whatever level your drawing skills are at now, the ideas I will discuss can easily be employed and I guarantee that you will see a marked improvement in the quality of your finished drawings.

The first issue I want to discuss is where to begin your drawing – most people start by making a simple circle for the head, and thus, most people are drawing wrong from the very beginning. To begin a figure drawing, you need to recognize that the model is communicating an idea or a message (what the pose is “about”) through their body. Decide what that message means to you and then find the part of the body that expresses it best. This can be a particular angle, a particularly dark or light value or anything else that strikes you about the pose. If you have trouble finding the model’s message, close your eyes for a while and then open them facing the model. Note where your eyes went first as this is probably a good focal point for your drawing.

Once you have your starting point, begin to work the figure holistically. Don’t go from top to bottom or from one side to the other. At this stage your hand should not stop moving for about a minute and you should be skipping around the body to find the angles and forms that interest you most. By focusing on these places, you will emphasize them in your final drawing, which will then illustrate what the model’s pose was about. This idea of emphasis can be achieved to different degrees depending on your style or preference. For me, starting at the focal point usually carries enough emphasis through to the final drawing, but many artists prefer a more illustrative style in which they consciously exaggerate certain features of the model to show that those are what the pose was communicating. This exaggeration is often done with size, but using value and contrast is another effective way to draw the eye to a portion of the body without making the proportions less naturalistic.

Another idea to keep in mind while you’re drawing is not only what the pose is about, but also what your drawing is about. Yes, it is a study of the human figure, but are you studying mass, proportions, value or something else? Look at the model from the beginning and figure out what interests you about their body – if I have a large model I often draw in a way that emphasizes mass and weight. If the lighting is dramatic then I often focus on the values and less about the mass or form. There is no rule to this and there is nothing that says each drawing can only embody one such concept.

Once you know what you are looking for in both your model and your drawing, the most important thing is to keep looking. You should spend 90% of the time looking at the model and the rest at your drawing – I know that sounds absurd, but observation is the key. Practice drawing blind contours, where you never look at your paper until you get better at this skill. Most people glance up to check on the model every five minutes, but it is actually your drawing that you should check up on only occasionally. This is because people tend to draw what they “know” the body looks like, and not what it actually looks like. People tend to stylize and simplify the body to conform to how we’ve been told the ideal body appears.

Here are some ways to avoid this pitfall:

Break the body down into values. An exercise to help you with this involves toning your paper to a medium gray with charcoal. Then pull out all the light values with your eraser and put the dark values in with the side of your charcoal. Don’t use any lines and don’t try to figure out what the dark and light shapes are. If you draw them as shapes, exactly as you see them then they will turn out to look like a person, but you have to trust that they will do this on their own – don’t force them into recognizable limbs or body parts.

Another way to draw the figure as it really looks and not as you think it should look is to break the body into different planes and angles. This is the same idea as using values, except with this exercise use the side of your implement (not the point because you will draw no lines) and draw all of the geometric shapes you see that make up the body as a whole.

In case you didn’t pick up on it yet, avoiding outlines is a very helpful way to keep your drawings realistic and interesting. A third way to do this is by contrasting values. The body is either darker or lighter than the background at any given point. That means you should never need a hard line to show where the body ends and the background starts, just show the different values and the viewer’s mind fills in the rest of your implied line. This is partly why it is often necessary to include a background in your figure drawings.

This is just food for thought before you start your next figure drawing. I plan on writing more on the subject since this barely scratched the surface, but in the meantime I’d be happy to answer any questions you still have.

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