The most important thing to keep in mind when learning life drawing
Before going into anatomy or perspective, it’s really important to understand something that many of the best artists emphasise repeatedly.
There isn’t a ‘correct’ approach to life drawing. Everyone has their own style, and that style will itself constantly evolve. You are doing things right when you are having fun and feel satisfied that you have expressed yourself. In some ways that seems like very unhelpful advice. However, understanding that point will give you a great foundation for building your drawing style.
There’s so much advice out there, you may hear it and think ‘I don’t do that!’. Some life drawing books make life drawing seem like an exercise in building up anatomy step by step from skeleton to muscles to skin, for example. That may well be the best approach for you, or at least something you should try. But it’s important to remember that you only need to do the things that fit you. The best way to figure out if a technique suits you of course, is to experiment with it – keep what you like and discard what you don’t.
Just to illustrate this, here are the bare bones of some step-by-step approaches to life drawing that very talented artists have described to me – you’ll notice they are all quite different but equally valid:
1. Start with the skeletal structure – in particular spine, shoulder line and hip line, with consideration given to balance and physics.
2. Build up muscles and fat on that structure.
3. Based on your drafts of the underlying structure and shapes that the body is comprised of, begin to polish your drawing with the tones on the skin surface.
1. Measure the head.
2. Using the head as a measurement unit, map out the location of other limbs and key features and where they will go on your page.
3. With distances and positions correctly mapped out, start to draw each part of the body, one by one. Start with their outline, and then build up the tones and texture. Try to see the shapes as they are, without thinking of them as parts of a human being.
1. Just start drawing! Start from whatever part of the model interests you most. If you like the way s/he twists the body, for example, start from that point. If you find the facial expression interesting, start from there.
2. Let the rest of figure develop naturally from that point. Include both outline and tone. Use loose, flowing lines without worrying too much, to make the drawing vibrant and alive. Make sure you are looking at the model at least 50% of the time.
3. Once you have got a first draft down of the model, take a step back and have a look. Does it look natural to you? Is there something that you feel needs altering?
4. Continue to fix, step back, fix and so on until you are happy. While fixing, you may like to consider measurement techniques, or perhaps even think about your understanding of anatomy or perspective, to help you understand how things need to be altered. If you can convey any fascination or wonder you feel with the pose into the drawing, that’s success.
1. It’s useful to start with a line that defines the pose – often this is based on the curvature of the spine.
2. Start to flesh out a quick first draft. Ensure that you use tone as you go, to help with placement of things, not just outline.
2. Pay careful attention to the negative space. Are the shapes in the negative space correct?
3. Start to correct your drawing. You don’t necessarily need to erase everything you replace – sometimes those ‘historical’ lines can add something.
And there are many more great drawing processes:
You could start with a rough rendition of the tone, before going into the outline. You could start by only drawing the negative space around the model.
You could cover your page in a layer of charcoal – using the side of a piece of charcoal. Use a cloth to start to remove the black from the page, to reveal the pose. This is an approach that Mod White used to great effect in this drawing:
If you ever start to feel like there is so much you have to learn and so many things you do ‘wrong’ in your drawings, I think it’s best to remember that many of your favourite artists don’t do all the things they are ‘supposed’ to do, because there isn’t a correct formula. They have probably tried many tips and techniques, but they have made them their own. You have a lot of opportunity to try any of the tips or techniques you’ll read about or hear about on this site – but they are all only suggestions or possible ways forward.
If you’d like a starting point, which you can then modify and make your own, try our First Steps online course (it’s free!).