Figure drawing will make sense after this article

Sometimes it feels like life drawing teachers can’t make up their minds. Do we want you to draw what you see, draw with cylinders and boxes, draw the gestural curves, draw the simplified shapes of value, or draw the anatomy?!


We ask you to practise in these various ways so that you have tools in your toolbox. And it’s really important to have tools in the toolbox! But just having the tools in the toolbox isn’t enough. You’ve
also got to know how to pull out different tools at different parts of the process to create the thing you want to create. And that is what we’re going tolook at today in this article. I’m going to  show you how I draw a figure and explain what tools I use and when.


Very often I start with the head, like in my demo below. I don’t necessarily think that’s the best place to start. Maybe the rib cage is, but starting with the head is such a habit for me. 

Normally I would recommend you draw that head in terms of a sphere with a brow line on it. That would be using the tool of drawing simple forms. However, for this drawing I used a different tool – I drew the simple abstract 2D shape that the head created. This makes use of another tool: the ability to see abstract shapes. 

I begin my life drawing by drawing the rough shape of the head

Next, I’m probably going to add the sternocleidomastoid. This is the muscle that comes from just behind the ear to the middle of the collarbones.

The middle of the collarbones is an incredibly usedul landmark. It links the shoulders, ribcage and head. I’ve marked it out over top of my reference image below. This is the starting point for so many things:

  • It tells us about the connection to the head via the sternocleidomastoid, which runs up to the back of the ear
  • It tells us where those collar bones start
  • It’s going to tell us about the shoulders and where they pivot from.
  • It’s also going to tell us where the sternum starts, which is going to give us the rib cage.

Can you see how I’ve worked off that central point in the drawing above to get the collar bones?  At this point in the drawing I’m paying attention to the angles of the collarbones. There’s a hand in the way but because it’s raised I can imagine that the collarbone to our left is pivoted up.


You’ll see in my demo below that I’ve also brought down the sternum line and added the rib cage egg shape. There are some really simple steps for getting the ribcage proportions right in our ribcage tutorial here.  

marking out the main landmarks of the torso for my figure drawing

The next step that I take is to visualise where the pelvis is.


Now, normally I would recommend that you draw that pelvis as a pair of pants, like I have in the example below. The crucial thing to remember is to push the pelvis-pants far enough to the side. It is natural for beginners to straighten out the pose but not placing the pelvis far enough to the left – but doing so you’re going to make the pose way less interesting and way less dynamic.


I don’t draw the pelvis-pants out in my demo drawing below (right) -but I am visualising them and ensuring I shift the pelvis far across enough. For a more in-depth explanation of the pelvis, check out our pelvis tutorial here.

visualising the angle of the pelvis can help to level up your figure drawings

When I want to add on the legs, it’s really tempting to shift them too low down on the body. So I’m
really going to need to carefully observe the overlap – where does the thigh emerge from the torso? I’m using light marks here. You can see I haven’t got drawn into any details yet. I’m trying to lay down the whole figure overall.


When it came to the thigh and the leg, you can see that on the leg to my right, I found that nice big s-shaped curve going all the way down the leg. If I can put down a single big gestural curve, that’s going to capture a lot of what I’m seeing, and that’s a great starting point for this leg.


When I’m drawing the legs, I want to get a difference between the two: one bent leg, one straight leg. When I’m looking at the thigh on my left, I’m really trying to make sure my curves are asymmetrical and that I taper them down. The thigh gets narrower as it goes to the knee and then the leg is going to get even narrower as it goes to the ankle. That overall tapering is so important. It’s all about big simple ideas like this, not details.


So by this point in my demo drawing below, I’m only about 35 seconds in and I’ve established most of this pose. I haven’t got drawn into any details but I have pulled out a number of tools already:


  • We’ve pulled out the skill of anatomy because we’ve picked out specific landmarks like the
    middle of the collar bones and the collarbones
  • We have pulled out the skill of drawing with simple forms because we put down
    that rib cage egg-shaped form
  • We’ve put down some gestural ideas when we simplified the leg into a nice big flowing S curve



It is this first stage that is actually is what’s going to make or break the drawing.

notice the tapering of the legs when figure drawing will help to make your figures more dynamic

Next, we’re going to start to think about values. In the example above, I’m starting to build up the edge of this shadow on the torso. Can you see how we have a lit area on the left of the torso next to a dark area of shadow?  It’s this line along which that boundary runs that I’m interested in because that line is going to run across the forms.


A lot of people, especially when they’re starting out, get really focused on just trying to exactly copy the outlines, but what’s really useful and important is lines that tell us about the form. 


 The great thing about the edge of the shadow in my demo below is that it tells us about the form. It also tells us about the light: where it’s coming from, where it is hitting and not hitting.


Something interesting about these core shadows is that once you get further into the shadow area, there’s more bounce light getting in. This means that often the strongest shadow is going to be right there at the boundary point between light and shadow. 


So, how do I find the shadow shape?  To start, I’m going to close one eye and squint. This simplifies the valyes and lets me see the big shapes of light and dark. Where’s the edge that runs between the two shapes? But I’m also going to use another skill in combination with that, which is my anatomy skill. So I’m thinking about that transition from the pec muscles to the abs.

simplifying the values of the torso

Hands are very complicated: there’s a lot going on with hands! But in this drawing, I don’t pull out my anatomy skills for the hands. Instead, I use my abstract 2D shape skills. In other words, rather than worrying about drawing the outline of every finger, I think about the basic shape that goes around this hand like an abstract 2D shape. 

To help me see this abstract shape, I switch my mindset to an alien who doesn’t even know what a
hand is. I just see the shape and that’s what I draw.

It’s actually a pretty similar thing for the rest of the arm. I might use a little bit of anatomical know-how to get some clarity – for example, knowing that there might be sharper edges at the elbow. But overall I’m just going to continue with abstract 2D shapes. 

As my drawing progresses, I’m starting to build up more of these edges of shadow. It would be very easy at this stage for my shadow edges to get too convoluted, too complicated. So I know that I’m going to be tempted to get into the details and I have to resist that, cut through the details and stick to nice and simple shapes.


Sometimes I have to take liberties with what I’m seeing to do that but I want the shapes to be nicely designed. I really like that little shape of light coming across the model’s face but it only looks cool if it’s a real simple shape, so I use an eraser to clean up my shadow shape on the face and simplfy it.


So at this stage, I’m pretty happy with my shapes of light and dark. I’m a little bit nervous because around this arm it could easily get too complicated and I’m also aware that if I add lots of strong core shadow and contrast all over the drawing, it’s not really going to have a focal area. I really like the shapes that I’ve got in the head and upper torso , so I’m going to keep the edges a little bit more simple and lower contrast in the legs and in the arms


simplifying shadow shapes on the figure

I decided to add a little bit of background tone because I really like the shape of the lit area of the figure. Light only feels light because it’s next to dark so by putting some dark next to that lit side of the figure, it’s going to make it feel more lit up.

adding final details to my figure drawing

At this point, I’m feeling pretty good about my drawing and I have to be mindful of not overworking it. I’ve got four minutes left to go on this drawing, where I’ll just be noodling about with it,  just adjusting core shadows and and things like that. As you can see, the most important decisions were all made within that first minute.

Below is the the final drawing:

gestural figure drawing

I really enjoyed working on this drawing. It’s super fun and you can see how I pulled out different
skills for different parts of the drawing.


If you’re interested in developing your skills further, I really recommend joining our study group. We take one skill or one anatomical area a month and we go in depth on it with four exercises. We work on it all together and it’s a really lovely group of people – plus the progress that’s being made in there is super inspiring!

If you want more access to me to look over your drawings and ask questions and you want to structure your practice in a really powerful way with really good exercises, check out our study group here


How to Draw Any Pose from IMAGINATION During your journey of learning to draw the figure, you’ll probably have pivotal, memorable moments. Maybe it’s a drawing that felt like a turning

9 Quick Wins to Learn Drawing Faster

Some quick and easy things we can do to make the whole process of learning to draw faster and more fun, from angling your drawing surface to adjusting your mindset