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Drawing live humans

The wolf takes a break in North East Scotland, and sets out a plan to regain some lost drawing skills.

Recently I’ve been too busy illustrating to take the time out to do life drawing. This is an irony, as life drawing improves general drawing skills and this would of course improve my illustration, meaning I could finish projects to my satisfaction earlier – and free up time in the evenings to attend fun life drawing sessions…

Bah. Grrr.

When I do get to a life drawing session, I somehow expect to draw brilliantly, and imagine wowing the other artists: “Who IS that?” they will ask. “Such a trained eye! Such a confident style!”


The wolf's life drawing expectations

The wolf’s life drawing expectations

But then, half an hour in, I’m scanning everyone else’s work out the corner of my eye. Look at the way that woman in the apron uses charcoal! And that large, rustling fellow with his creamy, top-quality oil pastels. And the quiet chap who shades in pencil; all his drawings look a little similar perhaps, but they’re so GOOD!

By comparison, my work should be a lot better than it is. It doesn’t seem to have improved much over the years. Occasionally I’ll photograph the odd drawing before binning it (there’s not a lot of storage space in the wolf’s lair), but there’s nothing worth hanging on to. So, like the unpractised dancer at a party, I try out the stylish moves of the people around me… and end up in a shambles.

Kevin, the model, reflects my feelings on this drawing

The creative reality: Kevin, the model, reflects my feelings on this drawing (this is one of the ‘good’ ones)

This is why I’ve been making plans, while sipping the odd whisky and staring at the slate-grey North Sea (it’s a very attractive shade of grey). Time to remind oneself of a few facts:

How to make the most of an untutored life-drawing session

  • Get your hands on “The Book”. “The Book”, btw, is Bridgeman’s Drawing From Life. It is not too long, and can be read in depth, or skimmed just before a life drawing session. It covers the basics of technique and approach, but also incorporates muscle and skeletal studies to give a complete idea how a human body behaves in rest or in motion. There’s even a section on drawing fabric folds.


  • bridgeman-cover

  • Go in with a plan. Decide what you want to get out of the session. It’s too much to expect to make great advances in one session, so focus on one or two things. Maybe this is the session where you practice hatching with a pencil, or on creating flowing lines with charcoal. Maybe you’ll focus on getting feet right, or working out the relationship between the neck and shoulders.


  • For this session, I decided to use ink only, and to concentrate on form and areas of light and dark.

    For this session, I decided to use ink only, and to concentrate on form and areas of light and dark.

  • Get there in plenty of time. This allows you to bag a good spot, set-up properly and start the session feeling more relaxed.
  • Bring materials. Lots of sessions provide materials, but they may not be what you need on the night.
  • Loosen up. During the early poses, which should typically be short ones of 1-5 minutes to give the artists time to warm up, try some different techniques – such as blind drawing (where you don’t look at the paper at all during the drawing) and/or drawing with your opposite hand. Also practice holding the pencil or charcoal loosely, from the end rather than near the lead.


  • For this 5-minute drawing, I sketched the outline without looking at the paper, then added the foot and head after.

    For this 5-minute drawing, I sketched the outline without looking at the paper, then added the foot and head after.

  • Think before you draw. Before you start, take a moment to consider the shape of the model and the space they occupy. Imagine yourself in that position and feel where the weight of the body falls.
  • Try breaking the body down into solids. Cylinders, spheres, cones and boxes are a good starting point. Keep the marks you make simple and try not to get carried away with light, shade and tone at first, concentrating instead on understanding shapes and proportions.


  • Section from Bridgeman's Drawing From Life, showing how the body can be broken down into simpler forms

    Section from Bridgeman’s Drawing From Life, showing how the body can be broken down into simpler forms

  • Don’t rub out. But instead redraw until you feel you have made marks you are happy with. The drawing will have more vigour for all the marks that weren’t quite in the right place anyway.


  • A bunch of 2-minutes studies. No time for perfection.

    A bunch of 2-minutes studies. No time for perfection.

  • Move your position if you need to to make your composition more interesting – but don’t move just because it’s a hard angle from which to draw. Foreshortening needs to be tackled!
  • Tricky angle? Distance yourself from what you’d expect to see. Try to break down what’s in front of you into blocks and shapes, or draw the negative space between and around the body.


  • This was a really tricky pose to draw and, while the drawing isn't stunning, the proportions are close to correct. I tackled the pose by outlining the spaces between the limbs first.

    This was a really tricky pose to draw and while the drawing isn’t stunning, the proportions are close to correct. I tackled the pose by outlining the spaces between the limbs first.

  • Don’t go too far too fast. Try to learn as much as you can using pencil or charcoal before moving on to paints and pastels – that way you’re more likely to gain a proper understanding of line, tone, light and shade.
  • Finally, don’t expect to create a masterwork. Life drawing should be about process, not product. You’re developing your drawing skills, not creating perfect drawings to sell (Ok, I’ve known one or two people who do this – but they’re exceptionally well-practised).



Why all the fuss?

I think life drawing is vital for children’s illustrators, even if we’re drawing in a simple style. It helps build skills – to communicate movement and personality. Using simple lines, an illustrator should be able to give a character a real sense of life and individuality; there needs to be a whole body of knowledge behind those lines…

And when creating characters from our imagination, we still need to be able to draw them three-dimensionally – so our characters feel like they exist in a ‘real’ – or at least consistent – world.

In book illustration we need to consistently draw the same character using the same forms, proportions and details, as if we’re drawing the same model over and over again. This is why learning how to break down a figure or character into the simple forms of construction, such as the sphere, box, cylinder and cone, is such a useful skill – both for life drawing and illustration.

BUT

What makes life drawing (and any drawing) so wonderful is… you can ignore all the above, and just focus on making marks on the paper, or dripping paint, or the rhythm of the figure, or the people in the background – as long as you do it wholeheartedly. Here’s a couple of drawings of mine that I actually like, where I focused on rhythm and shape and didn’t try too hard. Perhaps I’m regretting stuffing them in the bin…

bridgeman3

pat-rhythm

reg-rhythm

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2 Comments

  1. June 28, 2016 - Reply

    Right, I’m getting that book. and this friday night I’m going back to life drawing class. you’ve reminder me of how much i love it! Great post! Hope Scotland is brill. xo

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