Figure drawing can, at first, seem like a challenge. However, figure drawings can be broken down into their constituent steps to make the task seem more approachable.
In this guide, we’ll give you a process to help you improve your figure drawings instantly, to create lively figures with accuracy. Then, we’ll also give you some tips to help you understand the anatomy of the figure and how to make your practice more efficient.
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What is figure drawing?
Figure drawing is the act of drawing a human figure or form. This can be done from life, using a live model, or from reference materials such as photographs or video. Usually the whole figure is included, drawn in various poses and postures, as opposed to just a headshot. Artists will use any kind of drawing media to create a figure drawing, graphite, charcoal and coloured pencil being just three examples.
Figure drawing art history
Figure drawing has been practised by artists for centuries, with the earliest examples dating back to ancient Greece and Rome. It was a crucial skill for artists during the Renaissance period, as they were commissioned to depict religious scenes and portraits of important figures. Today, figure drawing is still a fundamental part of traditional art training and can also be seen in contemporary art, in various styles and mediums. For example, the relatively recent art movement of Classical Realism aims to depict the human figure in a realistic and lifelike way, using traditional drawing techniques and materials.
Famous figure drawing studies
Leonardo da Vinci is known for his numerous figure drawings, including his famous Vitruvian Man, which explores the proportions of the human body. Michelangelo is also renowned for his figure drawings, as well as his sculptures such as the iconic David. Other notable artists known for their figure drawings include Edgar Degas and Egon Schiele.
Anatomy and proportions
To create a convincing figure drawing, it is important to have a basic understanding of human anatomy and proportions. This includes knowing the location and function of various muscles and bones, as well as how they interact with each other to create movement. It also involves understanding the general proportions of the figure, such as the size of the head in relation to the torso, legs and rest of the body. This knowledge can help inform the accuracy and realism of your figure drawings, but it also allows for more stylised and expressive interpretations. Whilst it helps to have knowledge of anatomy, it can also help to start a drawing with more simplistic forms, then render details as and when you need them. Check out our guide on the best anatomy books for artists to find a comprehensive list of instructional textbooks and workbooks.
Figure drawing references
There are a number of places to find references for figure drawing, here are just a few.
Mannequins (or manikins) are poseable wooden or plastic figures that represent the proportions and range of motion of the human body. You could even use props with your mannequin to help you further develop the reference in order to translate it to your artwork, and position lighting so that the light source is hitting the figure in the same direction as in your drawing. Although mannequins are simple in form, they can be useful as a basic reference. Of course, you may need to supplement details in your figure drawing by looking online at reference images.
There are also virtual mannequin software programs available, such as Magic Poser. These digital references allow you to easily pose your mannequin and adjust factors such as lighting in a similar way to using physical mannequins. However, the range of motion on the Magic Poser app is much better than with a regular mannequin. Plus, they have a free web version available that has lots of features and is easy to use.
There are a wealth of reference images available online, from photographs to video references. Websites such as Posemaniacs and Line of Action provide free figure drawing references, with a range of different models, poses and lighting setups.
Working from a live model is arguably the best way to improve your figure drawing skills. You can observe the figure in real time, capturing the subtleties of movement, lighting and gesture. Many art schools and community centres offer life drawing classes or sessions, often with a variety of models who hold a pose for a set amount of time.
Measure and sight your reference
Whilst drawing from reference, it is important to remember to measure and sight in order to accurately convey the proportions of the figure in your artwork.
This can be done using a pencil or brush, holding it up against the reference image or model in order to gauge size and placement on the page. You could also use gridded paper for more accuracy.
Figure drawing process
Create a gesture drawing
The first step in creating a figure drawing is creating a gesture drawing. Gesture drawings serve well as the first step of the process, because it allows the artist to capture the gesture and pose quickly and accurately, before working on filling the rest of the figure in.
The first step, then, is to mark the top and bottom of the figure, draw a line halfway between the body vertically and horizontally, as a point of reference.
Line of action
The line of action shows the positioning of the body and how weight is displaced. It should follow the angle of the spine through the torso and through to the leg that the reference is leaning on. The line of action in the drawing above is the darker vertical line that is slightly curved.
Mark the angles of the form horizontally to show how the shoulders, hips and knees tilt. From the line of action and these angle lines, you can build the figure.
Create the outline
Draw the basic outline of the figure and outline the main shadow masses. Because we’ve already mapped out the positioning of the main joints and angles of the body’s position, it’s mainly a case of joining it all up.
Shade the figure
Next draw the halftones of the figure, then slowly increase the contrast in areas that are darker. Use a tortillion to blend the midtones into the lighter areas and the shadows into the midtones. Continue refining the light and dark areas to create a three dimensional appearance. You can add as many details as you see fit. Try using some alternative shading techniques, like cross hatching or stippling to add interest to the drawing.
Tips to improve at figure drawing
- Learn anatomy
- Refine your process
- Practice gesture drawing
- Work from a variety of references
- Attend life drawing classes
- Study artworks by old masters
- Get a sketchbook and start a regular drawing practice
Gesture drawing exercise
Set a timer for 2-5 minutes and do quick gesture drawings of a figure, focusing on capturing the action and movement rather than rendering details. Repeat this exercise with different poses and references.
Take a break from references and try creating figures based on imagination and memory. This can help improve understanding of anatomy and proportions, as well as allowing for more creative figure drawings.
Challenge yourself by incorporating foreshortening or dynamic poses into your imaginative figure drawings, or try drawing complicated clothing and textures. Keep practising and experimenting to continue improving your figure drawing skills.
Figure drawing books
For further study, there are a variety of books to read, ‘Figure Drawing Atelier: Lessons in the Classical Tradition: An Instructional Sketchbook‘ by Juliette Aristides is a fantastic workbook. Juliette offers insight into the atelier approach and methods that show artists how to successfully draw the figure.
Another great book is ‘Figure Drawing for Artists: Making Every Mark Count‘ by Steve Hutson. This book will walk you through drawing a figure from start to finish, from the very first marks you make on the page. Learn the elements of drawing, from the structure to gestures and perspective, so you can confidently capture the form of your subject in your drawings.
Figure drawing classes
Taking figure drawing classes with a live model is an excellent way to improve your skills and acquire knowledge of anatomy and proportions. However, there are various online courses available on Skillshare.
This comprehensive Skillshare course: ‘Gesture / An Introduction to the Art of Figure Drawing‘ by Brent Eviston covers everything, from the line of action, to rendering each part of the body, to shading in the light and shadow. This is a popular drawing course and offers over 11 hours worth of instruction. Learn from anatomical diagrams and photographs and receive award winning instruction. If you’re interested in learning more about drawing, check out our complete list of drawing tutorials.