3 methods of practising that will improve your figure drawings

Understanding technique is crucial for drawing – which is why much of our site is dedicated to it. However, even more important than technical knowledge is practice. This can be a pretty annoying fact. If only we could download the know-how into our brains like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix and hey presto – ‘I know Kung Fu’. Fortunately when it comes to life drawing, the process of practising and incrementally improving is fun, and good for the soul.

So, nothing can replace regular visits to a life drawing session. One thing we can do though is train ourselves in smart and efficient ways to practise, so that our practice time is used to maximum effect. This article will provide some ideas for how to vary the methods with which you practise.

1. Drawing Negative Space

A great way to see and learn something new is to draw something you’ve not drawn. Rather than focusing on the model and pose as usual, you can look at the space around the model, and draw that. The space around the model, that defines the model’s shape, is called ‘negative space’. Here’s an example:


Mayko figure drawing

An example of a drawing of only the negative space around the model

Drawing negative space helps in various ones. For one thing, training your eye to see negative space is helpful for normal drawings. You can use it to measure, to see whether you have placed and aligned things correctly.

Secondly, it helps you to start drawing what you see, rather than what your brain tells you you are seeing. Your brain has pre-determined ideas of how things should look, which conflict with the reality that your eyes are taking in (see this article). Your brain doesn’t have pre-conceived notions of negative space though, since that isn’t how we normally see things. So learning to see a figure in terms of negative space helps break down the pre-conceived images we have.

2. Copying the Masters

The word ‘copying’ has negative connotations (for artists anyway – I’m sure it’s not frowned upon at Xerox). Everyone is supposed to express their own individuality, and not plagiarise the work of others. And it’s true that it would be reprehensible if the work you want to exhibit or show off as your own is actually copied from other artists.

However, copying the work of the artists you admire is an excellent way to practise – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s simply an effective way to try a different style and deepen your understanding of how your favourite images were created.

You can select any images that you enjoy and try to re-create the lines, the colours or some other specific element that you want to learn, or just reproduce the whole thing. Below are two examples of copies of some of the ‘old masters’ – Lautrec and the under-rated Federico Barocci.

Figure drawing practice

Copy of Toulouse Lautrec (original on the left)

Copy of Barocci, life drawing

A copy of a Barocci picture – original on the right

3. Practising with Photos and Videos

Many people say that drawing from photos just isn’t the same as drawing from life. However, there is a lot that can be learned from drawing from photos. The figure has already been made 2D – it is already a picture. So observing the lay of the photo’s lines can inform us about how to turn a 3D figure into a 2D one. You can see, for example, how a foreshortened limb behaves as lines on a page.

And perhaps most importantly, photos can provide us with practice material when a live model isn’t available. The more practice opportunity you can get, the better. Here are three online resources for drawing from your screen:

Love Life Drawing reference library! We now have our very own reference library. The lighting and poses are designed to create beautiful shapes. Create a free account and start drawing!

Line of Action (previously Pixelovely) – here you can have an experience that is similar to a figure drawing class at your direction and in the comfort of your home. You can flick through a large number of photos of poses, you can set the photos to change at different time intervals and there is even a ‘Class’ mode, where you can warm up with quick poses and ease into the longer poses.

Croquis Cafe – here you’ll find regularly uploaded videos with a model posing for different lengths of time (1 – 5 minutes) – like a life drawing session would be – and lots of really great photos as well. Drawing from a video is interesting since you get a little of that natural movement in the living figure even though they are staying still, even if it’s just their breathing. Also seeing them move helps you understand their form from different angles before they settle into the pose.

Quick Poses – this site has yet more great photos organised into different themes, and like Croquis Cafe it really encourages quick drawing (see this article to understand why that’s important).

An example of an image from the Pixelovely figure drawing practice tool

An example of an image from the Pixelovely figure drawing practice tool

Mixing up the ways we practise keeps things interesting. This is vital because half the battle is to keep ourselves motivated to practise more. It also makes the learning process more satisfying by developing new skills and accelerating progress. Hopefully the 3 activities above will help make practice more sustainable, more enjoyable and more effective.

We have a lot of great exercises in our free beginner online course First Steps.

Do you practise in alternative ways? Lets us know in the comments below!


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