Top 5 figure drawing progression tips with Simon Luty
There is a video version of this article which you can see on YouTube here.
How did Simon Luty learn to combine gesture, structure, volume, and an expressive and creative style? He has 5 tips for you if you are also learning to draw figures.
In my meanderings around Instagram I came across a really good artist. He has managed to build up a variety of skills to a high level and combine them in an effortless and stylish way. I don’t understand why he doesn’t have more followers – if there is any justice on the internet, he will have thousands by the end of the year! I think he’s a serious talent. Guys go and give Simon Luty, Instagram name @mandela.ri, a follow.
I got in touch with Simon because I wanted to know how he had come so far with his skills. He answered a load of questions for me and recorded one of his gesture practice sessions. So I’m going to show that session, show some of his drawings, and explain the tips. Here’s the first tip.
Build with bricks
Simon’s learning came in phases. He didn’t focus on every skill at once. He spent time on fundamentals about volumes and light. Then he started seeing the basic structure and proportions of the figure. From there he started a gesture phase.
Here’s an analogy I thought could be useful. There’s a big pile of clay and our fox friend is trying to make a wall. These scruffy illustrations are by me by the way, I’m sure Simon would have drawn something more polished. At first he tries to just pile up all that clay into a wall shape. He ends up with a big mess and a lot of stress.
It’s only when he starts to chop up and cook the clay into bricks and builds the wall in layers brick by brick that he starts to make real progress. Each layer supports the next layer.
I like the brick analogy because of the layers. I imagine each layer has each skill you need for drawing. You get through the fundamentals of each one, then you can start to build those same skills further in another layer.
Each skill isn’t just supported by what you did for that skill before, but all the other skills you’ve built. So Simon’s ability with gesture wasn’t just built on gesture practice, but also on other study, like structure and light.
How to lay each brick
Simon goes through a process with each brick, with each skill he’s focused on. First comes a study period. He needs to understand the concepts he is working on. So whether it’s gestures or light or anatomy, he’ll do some study from books or online. He’s pretty much self-taught in that way. Next, he’ll study the works of artists he admires for that particular skillset. He doesn’t just blindly copy their artwork, but draws them thoughtfully, trying to understand how they’re achieving what they are achieve.
And next comes the quantity practice. This is where you go from understanding the skill intellectually to your eye seeing it and your arm creating it on paper. This is where muscle memory is built, where intuition is formed. In the initial stages, this isn’t about quality results but about putting in a lot of time with the skill. When Simon started doing this for his gesture skills, he practised 1 – 3 hours per day.
Once the skill was established, it wasn’t his priority focus any more but he still wanted to maintain it and develop it, so he now does 20 to 30 minutes a day on gestures, using them to warm up.
Get everything to at least medium
He said ‘We need to push all our skills to at least medium level and then focus on our strengths.’ I think that’s a great tip. It gives you permission to not be perfect in every way, but it does push you to work on the skills you don’t like to work on too.
There’s a few reasons I think that’s valuable.
I’m really milking this brick wall now but imagine some of the bricks in the lower layers are cracked and weak. The subsequent layers will fall apart too.
The thing that stands out to me in Simon’s drawings here are that they combine a variety of skills seamlessly. The structure and volume support the gesture and vice versa. Let’s say you work tons on anatomy and proportions, but not on gesture because you don’t like it. Well, gesture isn’t separate to anatomy and proportions. Without gesture, you are likely to misjudge where things really go and straighten them out. So your work on proportions and anatomy won’t develop as well because you have no gesture skill.
Lets say you love gesture but give no thought to structure, form or proportions because they are too boring. Your gestures will be lifeless and unnatural. Good gesture drawings have some sense of structure and form in them. This drawing is loose and expressive. But there is a sense of ribcage, there is a sense of balance – look at how the ear, middle of collarbones, crotch and ankle line up.
But I like how he says you just go to medium for all these skills, then focus on your strengths. Medium is good enough to support the wall. I always say this for people working on proportions. You don’t want the proportions to be so off that the viewer doesn’t notice the nice gesture or line quality or tones because their eyes are caught on how unnatural the figure looks. But they don’t need to be anything more than just good enough. You don’t need perfect accuracy and everything exact, you just need them to be not distracting. If you have your various skills all at good enough, you can start to bring your strength areas, which I think are the things you really care about in the drawing, up to a higher level.
Find a good peer group
Simon is mostly self-taught but he explained that it was really valuable to be surrounded by a group of passionate people who are also working on the same skills. I absolutely agree with that. We did Figuary, and the best thing about it was the community that formed around it sharing their drawings and supporting each other. We are also running our Life of Drawing programme with a group of students. They’re doing our lessons every week there, but one of the most valuable things is the support they give to each other.
I have been trying to plan a way to help bring together a supportive community of life drawing enthusiasts. I thought about a facebook group, but now I’m thinking it would be best to create our own forum at lovelifedrawing.com. I’ll keep you guys posted on that.
Take care of yourself
Simon’s exact words were ‘don’t forget about life’. Your progress isn’t going to be sustainable if you’re miserable while doing it. There are a few reasons I think this is a really valuable point.
First of all, learning to draw is tough and it’s easy to beat yourself up. Simon says you should compare yourself to your past self, not other people. Aim to improve over how you were drawing before. That is really hard to do. Every time I see another artist I compare myself to them, so I know how hard it is to stop doing that, it’s almost involuntary. Something I think can help is to actively compare yourself to how you were before. That way you drown out the comparisons with other artists with more productive comparisons to your past self.
The second reason I think this is important is that there seems to be some link between people doing creative things and mental health struggles. The research here is quite murky, but either way, taking care of the mental side of life is always a good idea. Also, it’s been shown that a positive mood helps with creative activities. This is all stuff I want to find out more about and do a proper video on, but for now let’s just say while learning to draw, remember to take care of yourself.
I hope you guys found these 5 tips about learning to draw figures useful. If I can summarise the main message in one sentence it is to set yourself up to succeed. Rather than trying to learn tons at once, give yourself a doable and structured sequence of learning steps. To learn more about drawing gesture I have put a useful playlist on the screen, and there’s also another video suggestion too.