Top five tips for a budding life drawing student

The first thing Mayko pointed out when I asked for basic tips on life drawing was that it’s wrong to think too much about prescriptive ‘how to’ steps in drawing. Drawing style and technique are unique to the individual and there isn’t a ‘correct approach’. When painting or cooking, there is more scope for discussions on correct ‘technique’ since those artforms are more about the materials. Drawing is a more direct expression of yourself. You might see things in terms of flowing lines or angles or shapes – and whatever you see is what you should see. All this is wise and undoubtedly true, but us students want some concrete guidance, some tips and tricks and how to tutorials! So I kept asking, and got us some priceless information 😉


Woman sleeping

See the wood, not the trees

People often start drawing each part of the figure too early, giving them each attention and adding detail to them separately one by one. The idea is that by drawing each part, they’ll add up to create a whole. However, this approach doesn’t lead to a cohesive whole. It’s best instead to look at and capture the whole figure, and see the overall shape and flow of it. You could start practising this mindset by learning to see the lines of movement that capture the essence of the whole pose.

Fill the page

Quite often, students find that their picture ends up only taking up a small section of their page, or sometimes parts of the drawing unintentionally go off the page. More advanced artists do use these types of composition, but it’s probably best when starting to try to fill, but not overflow, the page with the figure. The size of your drawing will have to be limited by the paper you are using, so the idea here is to draw on as large a scale as you can given those limitations. People generally start out by drawing too small – make this conscious effort to draw big!

Here’s one method for filling your page: use measurement techniques to understand the width of the pose (the distance from the extreme points on the left and right in the pose) and height of the pose (the distance between the lowest and highest points in the pose) in terms of head lengths. For example, you may measure that the pose is 6 head lengths high and 3 head lengths wide – so you can now roughly and lightly mark in boundaries for your drawing where the width is twice that of the height. You also know that if you make the head of the figure about a third the width of your drawing, the figure should roughly go up to your boundary marks.

The human body is mostly convex, not concave lines

This is not something I had ever noticed before, despite looking at human beings for decades. If you look at a person’s outlines, you’ll notice that most of the lines it is comprised of are, to different degrees, convex and rarely concave. At first when Mayko told me this I didn’t believe her. What about the lines of fingers? What about the waist – isn’t that often concave on a slim person? She showed me that these lines were mostly convex lines joined together.

The effect of not understanding this is that the figures we draw often look harsh and not ‘fleshy’. When you think about it, the surface of the figure is mostly contained fluid. It makes sense that it tends to bulge, even if only slightly, in a similar way to how an air mattress filled with air doesn’t have any concave lines to it.

Start at the weight-bearing part of the body or at the head

Now this was an interesting one. I asked her where to start a drawing. This would be a step after the advice above about ensuring your drawing is large and ideally fills your page. Once you’ve figured out where the edges are, the size of your picture and how it will fit into your page, which part of the model’s body do you start drawing first? The recommendation here is either to start at the weight-bearing part of the body or at the head.

So if the model is standing with most of his/her weight on the left leg, then that’s a good place to start. If he/she is sitting on his/her bottom, then start at their bottom. I tried this out, and found it easier to just start at the head. However, Mayko advised that it’s good practise to think about which part of the body is bearing weight and where gravity is acting strongly, even if you don’t start the drawing there.

Get the pelvic bone right

This is a very practical piece of advice. A lot of tutorials in books and online use an anatomical approach in which the body is broken down into its parts and you can build your picture from these parts or at least better understanding what you’re seeing. This approach involves learning the bone and muscle structure of the body, plus the standard relative lengths of limbs and where body parts line up with each other. This approach can work for some and not for others – it depends on your style and how you think.

We’ll explore this approach in future articles. However, for the time being, one thing that could benefit everyone is to pay special attention to the pelvic bone – where it is and how it’s angled. This will determine much of how the legs and torso are angled and how they join to each other. One great thing about the pelvic bone is that, on most models, it will be visible. The boney bits just under the waist tend to jut out on everyone, telling you which way the bone is angled and where it’s positioned. This is a good central point that will help you get the rest of the body right.

To build up a solid foundation of life drawing skills, including capturing the whole pose and getting in key points like the pelvic bone, have a look at our free beginner online course First Steps.

We hope you’ve enjoyed these tips. Please post a comment below and let us know your thoughts, your tips and your experiences with these topics.

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