In the Spring 2009 issue of Drawing magazine, artist-instructor Dan Gheno will discuss at length figure drawing and the tricky issue of foreshortening–or the way the full length of a human limb is not seen when you are viewing it straight on, instead of sideways. Think of how little of the arm's length you see when someone points a finger at you, compared to how long the limb is perceived to be when people hold their arms straight out from their sides.
In the following passage, which we had to cut from the print article for space reasons, Gheno explains how you have to pay attention to detail when life drawing. Specifically, the tanned portions of a nude model seem to stand out and push forward, and he reiterates the value of studying individual body parts. We couldn't let this vital information just lay unused on the cutting-room floor! Enjoy:
Pay close attention to the local value differences of each individual body part. Arms, legs, necks, and faces regularly get more exposure to the sun and appear darker than the rest of the overall figure. If you see this in your model as you draw, don’t ignore it; any foreshortening in the limbs will become magnified when you draw a slightly darker arm or leg silhouetted against a lighter torso. Even a slightly darker neck will seem to push forward as a mass when viewed against a slightly lighter shoulder mass. But remember, this effect is subtle, and as always, primarily trust your eye.
I often encourage my students to study individual, isolated body parts to help them better understand human anatomy and amass a working vocabulary of figure forms that will aid them in seeing detail more quickly and precisely. As constantly happens when you draw something out of context, your sense of foreshortening becomes hampered when drawing a leg or an arm detached from the torso. Don’t let yourself unconsciously correct the foreshortened proportions while drawing a bent limb. If the upper arm looks a lot smaller than the lower arm, draw it that way, and it will have more life and dimension.