How to START a figure drawing – making sense of the many methods

If you’ve watched enough how tos and watched enough time lapse drawings, you may have felt bewildered by the variety of approaches people use and teach in tutorials. So which approach should you use to start your life drawings? Also, at the end of the video, we address a little conspiracy theory from the last video, so don’t miss that. We’ve also written out the tutorial as an article below if you prefer.

In our beginner series, we said to start at the big lines of movement. Then create your simple stickman based on visible landmarks. Then in our gesture drawing series, we started drawings entirely with gestural marks.

In our Lane Brown video, he talks about starting from the large volumes, and our own life drawing teacher Frank says he often does something similar.

When Mayko was studying Schiele, she started at geometric shapes and then in the foreshortening series, she did something similar for some of the foreshortened poses.

Some artists will think about the weight and tension in the pose and start their drawings from that. Sometimes artists will start with an envelope – a shape that encompasses a big chunk of the whole pose. From there they may block in the figure, starting with only the simplest big shapes and building up the nuance layer by layer.

So many approaches. (Thanks for Lane Brown and Frank Gambino for two of the images in this picture)

So when do you use these different methods?

Examples of Mayko’s approaches

Lets look at a few ways Mayko approached these poses. The figure is relatively straightforward without too many confusing elements to contend with. It has a rhythm to it, so these lovely gestural lines are a good way to start the drawing.

The visible landmarks were there. The curvature of the spine, the masses of the ribcage and pelvis are clear. So it is also a good candidate for thinking about some sweeping gestural lines and then building some structure with a simplified stickman.

On this pose, you can’t see many of the visible landmarks we talked about. It’s a little bit less familiar. Instead, what stood out to her immediately was this big triangle, and she felt it was the biggest and simplest mark should use to capture a lot of the pose. So that became her starting point. That big triangle is not necessarily the “correct” way of doing this pose, but it is what she picked up on first. If she’d decided to start with gestural lines, that would also have been fine.

Your visual sensation

The first time she drew this pose, her movement lines were actually all straight and angular – quite different to what we’re used to seeing.

She explained that her approach is dictated by how she feels when you looks at the pose, rather than any particular rules. What does your eye pick up on first, what is the visual sensation that you feel most when looking at the pose? For her with this pose what jumped out at her was all straight lines, and she let that override the conventions in her head.

Going on instinct and intuition is easier said than done when you’re still learning to see, still getting overwhelmed by all the information your eyes take in. That’s when a standard method is useful – it gets you to stop overthinking and just draw. She said that that’s totally fine, but that whenever you do notice something – this triangle shape or these straight lines or whatever, go with it and nurture it. It’s a skill to build confidence in your own instincts, starting to notice them and have faith in them.

A commonality

Whether it’s a single line of action, an envelope, a geometric shape, a set of gestural lines – one thing these approaches have in common is that they are big and simple. There is no detail in them, and they encompass a lot of the pose in a few marks.

Many people when starting out will get dragged into details much too quickly. It’s hard to filter out unimportant information. It all seems important and you don’t feel confident enough to leave things out, so irrelevant details creep in from the start.

To go along with this skill of seeing big and simple, it’s also useful to learn to make very light marks. This way these first simple layers won’t take away from the more final layers you add on top. Making those light marks is surprisingly hard, so trying it and developing that muscle memory is going to pay dividends later.

Materials influence the approach

We will talk about materials and how they impact your approach in more detail in an upcoming video, but it’s worth noting here that some materials can be built up in layers, like oil paint, charcoal, soft pastel, digital and some are less conducive to that like ink and sometimes watercolours. If you can’t have an underlying layer to put down simple movement and structure, you may need to map these things out using your mind’s eye.

The Time Influences the Approach

For a 2 minute drawing, it’s often a good idea to go for gestural lines that capture the figure. Even within that, there are many ways to go about it. I recently watched a video by a YouTuber I like called Zin Lim with various completely different approaches to gesture drawing. I’ll link to it below, because I loved that video.

For a longer drawing, 60 minutes for example, you may be tempted to use that extra time to become very careful and cautious. That can be problematic because you may find that your quick drawings are full of life and energy, and your longer drawings are stiff and overworked. It can often be good to carry that boldness and energy from your quicker drawings into the longer pose, and use them to get down some dynamic initial layers to start the drawing.

The aim influences the approach

The different approaches to a drawing result in different feelings. A structure first approach will have a different result to a gesture first approach. A tonal approach will differ to a linear approach. As you practise, you’ll learn what the outcomes are like and what you prefer, and you start to develop your favoured approach and style. These things tend to emerge organically, usually with a lot of strange and awkward experimental drawings along the way. With practice, you’ll learn more about what you want to achieve in your drawings, and which methods you can use to get there.

Exercises mean isolating skills

There’s a difference between exercises, which are designed to help you develop a particular skill, and your actual drawing approach. Exercises ideally will mean you isolate and work on a particular skill, so you might take a specific approach during an exercise that leaves out a lot of the things you should normally do. Like a basketball player practising 3 pointers doesn’t have to worry about the rest of the game, just that one skill. If you just try to draw figures only, it’s like your playing a full game every time.

Take our last video for example. It was about learning to abstract the light and dark that you see, and drawing what your eyes are seeing. So the exercise should try not to distract you too much with worries about gesture and structure. That makes it accessible and helps develop that specific skill. But, it’s different to a total drawing approach which will encompass other skills.


Your approach will depend on your aim for the drawing, your material and the time. From there, it is fine to use a standard approach you’ve learned, like the one in our beginner series or gesture drawing series or whatever. But also, when you see the pose, see if anything jumps out at you – a line or a shape. Try to start with something that is big and simple and captures a big chunk of the pose, whether it’s sweeping gestural lines, a geometric shape or something structural. There’s no correct formula or rules, these are all just tools you can use together with your own intuition. If it still all seems confusing, the key is perseverance, because with consistent practice, it really will all start to make more and more sense.

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