Life drawing, also known as figure drawing, is the act of drawing a living person. Normally this means drawing a nude model in real life – i.e. not from a photograph or from memory or imagination.
You may wonder why the model is usually nude, and perhaps the easiest answer there is that clothes aren’t alive. Looking at a living thing, and particularly a living person, has a very different energy to it than an inanimate object. Capturing the life of the model is an important part of life drawing and this is better done without covering up the living parts of the person with dead bits of material.
Secondly, the human form is especially meaningful and fascinating for us because we are human beings. We don’t often have the chance to appreciate it in a non-sexual way, since it generally is covered up. The third reason is about history. The masters of old like Leonardo da Vinci clearly believed it was a good idea, and if it’s good enough for them…
Drawing clothed people also results in fantastic artwork of course, and the folds of clothing are great things to draw in their own right. Best of all, outside of life drawing classes you are probably more likely to convince friends and family to model for you if they are allowed to keep their kit on (depending on the types of people you hang out with).
While many artists insist that drawing from photographs is a waste of time, others have found it a useful way to practise. Those against would argue that life drawing is about drawing a three dimensional living creature and a photograph is a 2D inanimate object. The photograph is already a picture, so there seems little value in copying it. However, there are many techniques that can be practised from photos, and not everyone always has the luxury of regular access to a variety of models. If you are interested in drawing from photographs, there are many books and online resources to help you – try Pixelovely for example.
Life drawing doesn’t necessarily refer to human beings. As I mentioned above, an essential part of the art is giving the viewer the feeling they are looking at a living, breathing creature complete with bones, blood and emotion. That’s certainly possible with animals. Many animals are really good at just being still for hours on end and if you don’t count fur, they’re nude already. This site is focused on humans, but no disrespect is meant to the other excellent forms of life out there.
You might argue that it is less interesting and authentic to draw a posing model than someone that is in a more natural state, like sitting on the underground worrying about the day ahead or tensely watching their favourite team play the cup final.
Many people enjoy taking their sketchpads out and drawing people in such natural states – you may have spotted them around town. This is also great practice, though some people might be upset if they notice what you’re doing! Also, you generally have to look at your pad more than the person (so it’s not so noticeable) and that’s a bad habit to develop. Many life drawing gurus advise that you should spend at least 50% of your time looking at the model instead of spending all your time pouring over every line on your page – the living, breathing model is the source of all the magic after all.
To build a solid foundation of life drawing skills, have a look at our 2017 online course for beginners.