The Beauty of the Figure

For centuries, artists have been shutting themselves in their studios for a single purpose: to draw the human figure. With all these figure studies you’d think there would be nothing left to learn, but in fact it’s an endlessly rewarding exercise. With all the subtle variations among human bodies and their infinite varieties of poses, you can experiment with all sorts of drawing techniques?creating depth, texture and shadow, to name just a few.


The Studio Light: In addition to the light on this model that creates the shadow in the lower right, the secondary light source from the upper right creates nice additional highlights on the figure.

To make the best of a figure drawing exercise, however, give yourself a head start by having the right materials ready, and by that I mean the materials that are best suited to your sketching goals. In addition, it helps to know how to get the most out of a drawing session by knowing how to set up it up and work with a model. Here are a few tips to make your figure drawings everything you hope them to be.

Starting the Session
Figure drawing in the studio usually requires artificial light as an alternative to natural light, and track lighting affords more control of the highlights and shadows than just about anything else. The amount and the direction of the light projected on the form of the model is the first step in determining the values—and, more subtly, the atmosphere—of your finished figure drawing or portrait. I always start my figure drawing sessions with careful attention to how the lighting in the studio reveals the form and proportions of the model.

Working with a good figure model is also important to the success of the drawing, as it’s the harmony of the pose and the directions of movement that make the figure dynamic. A great way to start a drawing session is to arrange a sequence of six related poses for the model to change into every 30-60 seconds. I call these quick movements gesture poses, and loosely sketching each one—however incompletely—allows you to warm up your visual and technical skills.

I recommend taking a short break after twice going through the sequence of six poses, during which you can observe and critique your visual responses to the poses. Look at these sketches as records of your first impression of each pose, and it’s worthwhile to study what you found most striking. Where are the strongest lines in your sketches, and the weakest? What features demanded your attention, and how did they change from pose to pose? These exercises naturally require rapid movement, and the ability to capture a lot in your drawings with just a little effort can’t be overestimated.

The Right Tools
Newsprint is an excellent drawing material for warming up your skills with quick gesture poses. It’s inexpensive and expendable, which allows you to draw without much hesitation or worry over permanence. I prefer the large size of 24×36 because it allows plenty of room to work out a composition, and I usually select a newsprint paper with a rough surface to hold soft charcoals, pastels and Conte crayons—these media are great for the loose style and energy that characterize these gestures. More detailed figure drawings require much more time and effort to produce, of course, and for these I use a heavier-weight charcoal paper, but newsprint is perfect for the first step.

For the more permanent figure drawing, I suggest starting with only charcoal lines to define the overall characteristics and outside edges of the model’s pose. Then observe the lighting and switch to a pastel or crayon color that’s bright and that relates directly to the studio light that falls on the form. Use this color to place your figure in relation to the light source and add a bit of dimension.

The third color you choose is the most critical to the overall presentation of your finished figure drawing, but it’s not the color of your charcoal or pastel—it’s the color of your paper. Letting the paper show through in areas of your drawing can provide a middle value to complement the charcoal and the bright color you’ve chosen. There’s a wide variety of toned charcoal paper available, and some of my favorite colors are pearl (a warm fleshtone that works well with soft black charcoal and soft white pastel), tobacco (a rich, dark middle tone that provides a stark contrast to white pastel) and hemp (a warm earth tone that makes an excellent middle value). Again, I recommend papers that have a rough texture and some tooth to their surface because they respond well to the touch and feel of the drawing and to varying degrees of pressure.

Making It Strong
As the drawing progresses, I like to work back and forth with the black charcoal to represent the cast shadows, and I apply the soft white pastel sticks as a final touch to the drawing to enhance the harmonious contrast that’s a major part of the anatomical structure of the human figure. And when you’re done, a workable spray fixative will secure your work while still permitting some reworking if necessary, while a permanent fixative will make the drawing complete.

For some artists it might not be so easy to find a cooperative model, but any chance you get to do figure sketching will be worth the investment because it’s such a good way to build your fundamental artistic skills. You’ll be amazed at how much there is to discover in the human form, and you’ll be impressed by the art you’ll create.

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