I helped a beginner draw much better with these 4 tips (Life Drawing Stage 1 to 2)

In our article, the 5 stages of learning to draw people, we talked about how everyone starts at the symbols stage, where your drawings get distorted by preconceptions about how people look. The next stage was the analytical stage, where you learn to observe and draw what you see. With the help of my wonderful wife Lucy, a life drawing beginner, we’re going to show you guys how you can move from stage 1 to stage 2. Here’s the video version and below it is the article version. 


First let’s look at how the progression goes, then ways of practising the 4 skills you need.

This is how I used to think the learning process should go. You start by learning to draw simply, with gesture and maybe 3D shapes, then you learn to build detail on top of that, with better rendering and anatomy knowledge.

But I now think that is more how an experienced artist does a detailed drawing, but it’s not exactly how an artist starts learning to draw. Proper simplification is much harder than it looks for a beginner, so you need to get over this initial hump to get to that point:

Here Lucy drew without any guidance from me and without using any particular techniques, just drawing. I would say this is half way up this hill – she’s not just drawing symbols and the proportions are pretty good. But you can see that tendency to straighten things out a bit, which is a classic symbol stage habit.

To get up the initial hill you learn to draw a stiff but fairly accurate figure, worrying too much about proportions, overworking it, correcting lots of mistakes and taking quite a long time. This drawing she did with my guidance is more like the top of this hump. This took way longer than the first drawing, and we carefully worked through every single step together. She wouldn’t be able to do this on her own, even though I showed her how, but now she knows what she needs to practise to get there on her own.

Eventually, you’re confident enough to simplify back down, seeing what matters and leaving out what doesn’t. You have to learn to let go of detail which is really hard, and we’ll cover that in another video. [Fox skating down the hill goes from detailed to simplified- text: Whole arm. Gesture. Simplifying values. Simple 3D shapes.]

From there, you can draw detail and nuance on top of your simple foundation. Or you can move further into the simple, stripping back more and more. Once you’re over this hump, the world is your oyster. 


Before starting: Set specific, doable goals

You need to have specific goals for whatever your current stage of learning is, because a general goal of ‘I want to be good at drawing’ is such a huge, long-term goal, it could feel like you’re failing all the time. 

Our goal here is just to move up this part, and that means being able to draw a figure with proportions just natural enough that they’re not distracting to the viewer. That’s very different to exact accuracy, but still very difficult, and it’ll take time to get there.

These are the 4 skills we want to develop.

  • map landmarks
  • see what is wrong (because they are probably going to be quite wrong)
  • see abstract shapes and 
  • see volumes and planes

Notice that doing a beautiful drawing is not one of the goals. That’s totally fine because at this stage we’re not thinking much about gesture, simplification and composition skills yet. 

Skill 1: Mapping out essential landmarks

So first we need to learn to map out the figure’s landmarks. I asked Lucy to start with the main volume of the cranium as a ball shape, and then look at the angle of this line of the neck muscle to get to the middle of collarbones. From there we measured the angle of this collarbone and also the line down to the top of the ribcage arch. We took a lot of time at this stage to map out these landmarks.

How to practice mapping landmarks: so when you practice you need to have the time and patience to do a fair bit of measuring of distances and angles. Hold up your pencil to the pose and check how far things are, what the angles are. You’ll also benefit from seeing imaginary vertical and horizontal lines.

As you build the figure, remember you’re trying to move away from your symbols. Don’t straighten the pose or stretch out foreshortened parts. Use your measurements and analysis to force yourself to see and draw the reality. 

It’s a pretty painstaking process, but it helps break down your preconceptions and you end up being able to do it automatically without having to measure everything.


Skill 2: Seeing what is wrong

A lot of us are good at seeing that our drawing is somehow wrong, but the real skill is analysing – why is it wrong? Which part needs to move to make the basic proportions work? So here we noticed that the armpit was above the line of this collarbone, but that would make the shoulder too thin. I asked Lucy to take a moment and look for whether the collarbone was off, the top of the shoulder too low, or some combination of the two. Sometimes something that looks wrong only looks wrong because other things around it are off. So you need to take a moment to investigate to see what needs fixing.

How to practice: Take each problem in the proportions as a great learning opportunity. First try to see the drawing with a fresh eye. Bring your head back and take in the drawing from further away. Use a little hand mirror, or take a photo of the drawing and if you can, flip it horizontally.

Next, use the skills of measuring and checking vertical and horizontal lines again, but this time try to use different measurements and lines than you used when you first drew it.

Because there’s so much trial and error, you might use the eraser a lot. Here I kept reminding Lucy to keep her early lines light but it’s ok if yours gets messy. You’re building the skill of seeing what’s wrong and how to make it right. Line quality is a skill for the next learning phase not this one. Even if you’ve built up an area, if you realise it’s wrong, redo it. Nothing is precious. Seeing what’s wrong is partly analysis and partly just experience from doing a lot of practice.  

Skill 3: Seeing abstract shapes

We can get past our symbol drawing by drawing the abstract shapes in the negative space and the abstract shapes in the shadows.

I kept on asking Lucy to see the abstract shapes in the shadows and in the negative space. You’ll often find it easier to capture these abstract shapes. But you can’t only see them as abstract shapes, you also need to think about what they represent. So you sort of switch back and forth between seeing them as just shapes and seeing them as meaningful for the figure. So here as Lucy drew this abstract shape, I had to remind her that this part of it was created by the ribcage arch, so it should align with the arch she had already drawn.

She was also worried about all the detail in the shadows, so I asked her to just merge them all into big simple shapes.

Skill 4: Seeing volumes & planes

And finally, you want to start the process of seeing the figure in terms of its big volumes. Eventually, it could be really useful to be able to see the figure in terms of boxes and cylinders, which you may have seen other artists do. I think that is really useful, but I think it’s something that comes later because it’s not as easy as it looks.

So for now, you can start to simplify the surface of the figure into planes. The surface of figures is generally curved, but you can simplify some areas into planes – this is facing this way, and this is another plane facing another way. The edge of the shadow shape here helps you define a line between these imaginary planes. Some areas are very nicely curved and you can keep those as curved surfaces like a cylinder or sphere. But others can be simplified into simpler planes. Learning to see these things is a great skill at this stage.

Designing your practice sessions

So let’s think about how your overall practice session could go.

You do still need to try doing quicker, gestural drawings and your basic fundamental forms during this stage. So you could warmup by drawing cubes, cylinders, and spheres and then do quick poses trying to feel the gesture and flow. Just don’t expect too many epiphanies and results from those exercises yet. You’re warming up, and starting to get used to these ideas, so that in the future when you start really working on them, you are more ready. Whatever you do, don’t compare your gesture drawings to other people’s since it’s not the thing you’re working on right now. 

Then in your main practice, do longer drawings, maybe up to 30 minutes for a pose. Here you remember your goals – to slowly build these 4 skills and not to achieve a great drawing.

This is how Lucy, a beginner, progressed through a figure drawing with analytical guidance

Once you’re comfortable with these skills, you’ll start to make the simplification and gestural skills the main focus of your practice. 

As I mentioned before, our Life of Drawing programme is one way that you can navigate this learning process. We’ll take you through a series of lessons and practice sessions across 10 weeks and go through this analytical drawing and then the simplification process too.

If you’d like to know how to learn life drawing, the mindset and learning process to use and the major mistakes to sidestep, get our free guide at lovelifedrawing.com/lifedrawingsuccess.

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