Top five tips for a budding life drawing student

Woman sleeping
Woman lying down drawn with pastel

The first thing Mayko pointed out when I asked for basic tips on life drawing was that it’s wrong to think too much about prescriptive ‘how to’ steps in drawing. Drawing style and technique are unique to the individual and there isn’t a ‘correct approach’. When painting or cooking, there is more scope for correct ‘technique’ since those artforms are more about the materials. Drawing is a more direct expression of yourself. You might see things in terms of flowing lines or angles or shapes – and whatever you see is what you should see. All this is wise and undoubtedly true, but us students want some concrete guidance, some tips and tricks and how to tutorials! So I kept asking, and got us some priceless information 😉

See the wood, not the trees

People often start drawing each part of the figure too early, giving them each attention and adding detail to them separately one by one. The idea is that by drawing each part, they’ll add up to create a whole. However, this approach doesn’t lead to a cohesive whole. It’ best instead to look at the whole figure, and see the overall shape and flow of it. You could practise this by starting with a line that captures the whole pose.

Pay attention to the composition

Quite often, students find that their picture ends up only taking up a small section of their page, or sometimes parts of the drawing unintentionally go off the page. More advanced artists do use these types of composition, but it’s probably best when starting to try to fill, but not overflow, the page. Here’s a simple tip for filling your page: look at the extremes of the figure – what is the uppermost line and the bottommost line, and what line is to the far left and what line is to the far right? Ensure that these lines are placed within your page.

I tried implementing this tip during life drawing, and documented it in the Diary of a Student Life Drawer.

The human body is mostly convex, not concave lines

This is not something I had ever noticed before, despite looking at human beings for decades. If you look at a person’s outlines, you’ll notice that most of the lines it is comprised of are, to different degrees, convex but rarely concave. At first when Mayko told me this I didn’t believe her. What about the lines of fingers? What about the waist – isn’t that often concave on a slim person? She showed me that these lines were mostly convex lines joined together.

The effect of not understanding this is that the figures we draw often look harsh and not ‘fleshy’. When you think about, the body is mostly fluid filling out the skin. It makes sense that it tends to bulge, even if only slightly, in a similar way to how an air mattress filled with air doesn’t have any concave lines to it.

Start at the weight-bearing part of the body or at the head

Now this was an interesting one. I asked her where to start a drawing. This would be a step after the advice above about how to use the whole page and take care with the composition. Once you’ve figured out where the edges are, the size of your picture and how it will fit into your page, which part of the model’s body do you start drawing first? The recommendation here is either to start at the weight-bearing part of the body or at the head. So if the model is standing with most of his/her weight on the left leg, then that’s a good place to start. If he/she is sitting on his/her bottom, then start at their bottom. I tried this out, as documented in the Diary of a Student Life Drawer, and found it easier to just start at the head. However, Mayko advised that it’s good practise to think about which part of the body is bearing weight and where gravity is acting strongly.

Get the pelvic bone right

This is a very practical piece of advice. A lot of tutorials in books and online use an anatomical approach in which the body is broken down into its parts and you build your picture from these parts. This approach involves learning the bone and muscle structure of the body, plus the standard relative lengths of limbs and where body parts line up with each other. This approach can work for some and not for others – it depends on your style and how you draw. I have found it useful to learn a bit about the structure of the body and face and keep it in mind while drawing, but I haven’t yet found that it helps to use detailed anatomy as the basis for building up a drawing. We’ll explore this approach in future articles. However, for the time being, one thing that could benefit everyone is to pay special attention to the pelvic bone – where it is and how it’s angled. This will determine much of how the legs and torso are angled and how they join to each other. One great thing about the pelvic bone is that, on most models, it will be visible. The boney bits just under the waist tend to jut out on everyone, telling you which way the bone is angled and where it’s positioned. This is a good central point that will help you get the rest of the body right.

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

We hope you’ve enjoyed these tips. Please post a comment below and let us know your thoughts, your tips and your experiences with these topics.

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