You only realise how important these topics are when you’ve been practising and you’re serious about it. So you know how important weight is in figure drawing, let’s get the tools needed to succeed with it.
Spot the difference in these two sketches of the same pose below. Hopefully you agree that the one on the right works better. How do we arrive at this drawing? By thinking about and drawing the weight of the figure. To do that, you can use the 7 tools I’m going to give you in this article. You might be thinking that 7 tools just for weight is a lot to learn, but don’t worry, they’re all closely related and most of them are straight forward.
Tool 1: Squash at contact point
So let’s start with some low hanging fruit. Easy ideas that make a big difference. Note which part of the body is bearing a lot of weight, so in a standing pose it’ll be one or both of the feet, in a sitting pose, there will be some on the butt, maybe there’s weight on a hand. If you’re not sure where the weight is, imagine doing that pose, and think where you would be supporting your own weight.
Find those contact points, and let those parts squash and flatten into the supporting surface. So in the example below in the middle, the butt feels like it’s floating, there’s no weight squashing it down. If we just flatten this contact area down like in the drawing on the right, we can feel that weight there. Sometimes you might create a bulge above the flattened part to emphasise the squash.
You can see this even in feet. Notice what happens as your foot starts to take your own weight when you take a step. It gets wider and flatter. The more squashy the body part, the more you’ll see this. With elbows which are just bone, there’s not much squashing.
2 Shadows: Ambient occlusion, cast shadows
At the contact point in the image below, the figure and the surface are very close. So here the buttocks and seat are squashed together as we noted above.
It’s really hard for light to get in there, in this little space where they meet. Other areas of shadow, for example on her back, aren’t getting direct light, but they are getting other ambient light, light rays that are bouncing around the room. Here where the butt meets the seat, even those ambient light rays are struggling to get in and it’s extra dark. So we can create a thin, dark mark to indicate this tight space that light struggles to get into.
Even more powerful than the ambient occlusion is the cast shadow. Adding this helps us see the ground plane. The ground is what creates the sense of weight because it’s pushing back against that weight. So if we can show the ground well, the weight will feel more real, and the cast shadow onto the ground is one way to do that.
So we want to show that ground plane and make it feel real. A big part of that will be about perspective. Now you don’t really need a grid or anything complicated, but just show the ground plane. The foot is on the ground plane, so how the feet are shows how the ground is. So in the example below, we have these drawings of the same pose. In the version on the right we have paid attention to the perspective of the ground plane in how we place the feet and cast shadows. It’s really just a matter of holding up our pencil to the feet to see the angle, and the same for the cast shadows. If we don’t pay attention to the ground plane, it’ll be like the person is floating.
4 Balance ideas
This is probably the most important one. To go more in depth on this, check out our previous article about balance. But the key principle here is this: what is the weight making the figure do? We looked at this pose below, and how the weight is balanced over this foot, the hips shifted over it, so the leg is on a diagonal, the pelvis is pushed up on one side, then the lower torso is at an angle, and to keep the weight over this foot, the ribcage is angled back.
The drawing below on the left is what happens if I draw without thinking about any of these things and the version on the right is when I prioritise these things. Do you see how now there is a strong sense of weight in the drawing? We can feel how gravity is pulling things down and what the figure is doing to stay balanced over that foot. To learn more about balance in figure drawing, check out our tutorial on balance.
5 Weight bearing Limbs become pillars
So now we are identifying limbs and body parts which are bearing the weight. That’s a good word for it, bearing it. They are carrying a heavy load, maybe straining a little. They can’t mess around, they have to be like pillars. Often they will be straight like a pillar to efficiently carry the weight. Just a quick note, sometimes, the straightened limb can have a little curvature to it.
If the weight bearing limbs are bent like in the front leg below, you’ll see the muscles have to be tense to ensure the limb can carry that weight.
6 Non weight bearing body parts become light.
Now let’s look at those other limbs, the ones that aren’t bearing much weight. How do they appear? They are not having to be pillars or tense as they strain to carry the load. Maybe the person is carrying something or just tensing up, in which case they might be tense too, but very often, you can see they feel light. It’s like the weight bearing limb is serious and rigid, doing hard work. The other limb is lazy and fanciful, ‘ooh i can do whatever I like, I can float around’.
So if you like, as you draw these weight bearing and non-weight bearing limbs, you can think about the tension in them and draw them with light fanciful marks, or strong, sturdy marks.
7 Pulling down forms
For some forms, especially fat, you might notice gravity pulling those forms downwards. So you don’t want to draw them like they are floating. The bulge of the tummy or the love handles over the crest of the pelvis, the breasts, and so on, you can draw those forms like their mass is being pulled downwards.
So below, I’ve done this painting based on one of our reference images. If I hadn’t paid attention to how the forms of the breasts are being pulled down by gravity, it wouldn’t work nearly as well. In this pose, you can also see that when the head is held off at an angle, you might see some strain in the neck as it tries to hold that quite heavy weight up.
So when you see a pose, it’s super useful to consider how the weight is working. This is something that will separate your figure drawings from the rest. Ultimately it’s just about logically thinking through what the weight is doing to the weight bearing body parts and the rest of the figure. It takes time and practice. Remember you can learn about balance, which is a big part of achieving the sense of weight, in our tutorial on balance here.
If you want to know when to learn this skill, you can see it is skill number 8 in our sequence of skills guide. So there are 7 others you should be confident with before. You can download the guide for free HERE
This year we are taking Love Life Drawing to a new level. So that means we have a really powerful drawing challenge you can do right now, called Fresh Eyes. We also have a free reference library where you can draw the best quality reference poses. The shadow shapes on these make it so fun to design your drawings. We have low angle shots, dynamic shots, various models and more added each week.