Figure Drawing

Silverpoint drawing by Steven Assael

Many consider figure drawing to be the holy grail of representational art.

And why not?

We are figures, so it's natural that we are drawn to use the figure to explore the many facets of our human condition.

Even in itself, drawing the figure is a humbling challenge that can be approached in many ways.

While there are as many ways to draw the figure as there are people, three approaches resonate with me the most:

Figure drawing can be approached from a place of knowledge, observation, and interpretation.
These three approaches are most effective when used in combination with one another. Each approach adds a unique dimension to the drawing process, and to the drawing itself.

Figure Drawing Knowledge

Approaching figure drawing from a place of knowledge means understanding:

  • how to conceptualize the major forms that make up the figure

  • the movements the body can make, and how to draw them convincingly

  • the basic proportions of the body

  • the skeletal anatomy of the body, and

  • the muscular anatomy of the body and how it relates to the skeleton (where the muscles originate and insert on the skeleton, how they move their respective areas of the body, and the like).

How does this knowledge improve your drawings? It adds a logic and believability, and helps you create the illusion of three-dimensionality and solidity in your figures.

You also gain the freedom to create the figure (at least partially) from your imagination and memory. While drawing from memory may not be your ultimate goal, it's an extremely useful skill, particularly when something is unclear or obscured on the model.

This happens more often than you might think! When this occurs, your knowledge will allow you to "fill in the blanks" instead of being completely dependent on what you can see.

You will also be able to "edit" the figure in front of you when drawing from life, and alter it in ways to better suit the intent of your picture.

Pages Related to Figure Drawing Knowledge

5 Ways to Start a Figure Drawing

One of the challenges of drawing figures is that it is a problem solving activity that requires us to be flexible in our approach. In this lesson, learn 5 ways to start a figure drawing!

Step by Step Figure Drawing Tutorial

A step by step tutorial on blocking in a figure drawing.

7 Figure Drawing Proportions to Know

In order to draw a believable likeness of any subject, no matter what or who it is, we must draw the proportional relationships as they appear on that specific subject. Keep in mind these 7 proportions during your next figure drawing.

7 Studies to Improve Your Figure Drawings

A great way to improve your figure drawing is to draw analytical studies before settling into your long-pose drawing. Learn 7 useful studies to conduct on this page!

Figure Drawing from Observation

By Marie-Suzanne Herfeld, 1903

Drawing from observation can infuse our pictures with vitality and life. It gives us the opportunity to notice the unique, unpredictable moments that occur in life: the rhythms, subtle fall of light, imperfections, oddities, and specifics that add character and individuality to a model or drawing scenario.

No two drawing scenarios are the same! Even two sittings of a model in the same pose are not identical. We just have to become sensitive enough to notice the differences.

This is why relying purely on knowledge and memory drawing, without observation, can produce a drawing that is structurally correct, but generic, as it will lack these unique moments that must be observed and experienced.

Another reason to draw from observation? You can never predict what will inspire you until you see it! That is such an exciting part of drawing: that potential to see something that moves you to want to communicate it.

However, observation cannot replace having an understanding of what you see.

Observation becomes most sensitive when complemented with a knowledge of the figure, because it is much easier to see what you know is there.

A lack of understanding of the structure and anatomy of the figure often results in poor construction that looks unnatural.

Relying on observation without understanding what you see is like learning to pronounce a foreign language without understanding what you are saying.

Drawing is not (or should not be, in my opinion) merely mimicking or copying. It is a means of communication, and we cannot effectively communicate what we do not understand.

By Jean-Eugene Buland, 1873

Interpreting the Figure

Hopefully I have convinced you to develop both your knowledge and your eye for figure drawing.

However, I would like to point out that this formal study can be a means to an end, and not necessarily an end in itself.

Ultimately if we use our knowledge and skills to interpret the figure, it can become a unique and personal form of self-expression.

With everything there is to learn about drawing, it can be easy to forget that creative self-expression is what compelled us to create art in the first place! One way to keep this in mind is to consistently ask questions that guide our artistic practice, such as:

What fascinates me about the human figure?

Why am I compelled to draw it?

What is meaningful to me, that I am driven to communicate?

What will the figure help me express in my artwork?

Even if you are unable to concretely answer these questions, just considering them may guide you in new, more personal directions. As fascinating as the study of figure drawing is in itself, it can be even more engaging, both for you and your audience, when it also becomes a study of yourself and the world around you.

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