Draw what you see

Life drawing of man
Great foreshortening in this life drawing by Mayko

Life drawing has massively helped bring to life the drawing I do from my imagination. This is because it’s helped to break down the preconceptions I had about the lines that define the human body.

The lines that you need to portray a human figure in different poses during life drawing are often surprising. Our minds can become rigid and have set images for how limbs and features should look, how long they are in relation to each other, where they are and so on. So when we see a figure in front of us, sometimes our brains rebel against the truth that our eyes are communicating to us. “Should the line defining the top of the arm really be that short?!” “Is that really the angle that the lower eyelid is in relation to the top eyelid?!” With life drawing practice, we can start to break away from rigid notions of how things should look and start to see the lines as they really are.

So this is the first major lesson I have learned from life drawing – forget what you know about what the human body looks like and draw what you see.

A wonderful life drawing of a woman lying by Mayko – great colours and lines

There are three major things that differ between our pre-conceptions about the lines of the body and the ones our eyes see when starting out. The first is that the body is a combination of 3D objects which are more varied than our simplifying minds like to think. The second that people’s bodies and proportions vary more than we imagine. The third and most important factor is the effect of perspective and foreshortening.

1. Discover the variety of 3D shapes that make up the body

The head is not a circle. A torso is not a rectangle. They are combinations of balls, cylinders, cubes, pyramids and other 3D shapes. One thing that has helped me is to look, while walking the streets or on the tube, at people’s limbs and features and trying to see the 3D shapes they are comprised of (remember to think 3D!). This means disengaging all preconceptions about the body and how it’s structured.

2. Broaden your mind to variety of body types out there

While observing people, notice how different head sizes can be (this continues to blow my mind), how short or long legs can be in proportion to the torso, how wide or thin wrists can be in proportion to hands. Be careful while doing these observations that you don’t stare, get mistaken for a miscreant/pervert, and then tell the police that you only did it because lovelifedrawing.com told you to ;)

3. Break down resistance in your mind to the effects of foreshortening

Overcoming what  your brain is telling you about how things should be drawn and what your eyes are telling you is especially difficult with foreshortening. Foreshortening is when the size of an object’s dimensions along the line of sight are relatively shorter than dimensions across the line of sight. In other words, when you look at a pencil from a straight on angle, it has a much smaller width than when looking at it from the side, and the lines you would use to draw it would reflect that. This is very difficult with a human body where limbs are coming at you at all sorts of angles.

A good thing to practice would be to disengage your brain from the fact that you’re drawing something you know – a body – and just see some lines. To break away from your what your mind is telling you, try overcompensating. When you are drawing a foreshortened object, try a line that feels a little crazy. When you feel yourself think “the line for the leg can’t be that short – the leg is a long part of the body”, try an even shorter line than the one you were thinking. See how that looks. Start getting used to breaking what you think. The ‘crazy lines’ might not turn out that crazy on the page!

I hope this introduction to beginning life drawing has been useful – please leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts and how I can improve it.

To build a solid foundation of life drawing skills, have a look at our new online course Draw Life Beautifully: The Foundation Skills of Life Drawing Every Student Should Have

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