5 Simple Tips for Improving Your Figure Drawing Skills

1. Get your setup right

Figure drawing is done best when you’re fully immersed in capturing your subject. A good way to stay present for the full length of your drawing session is to prepare your workspace ahead of time, and eliminate as many distractions as possible.

First, ensure you have the tools that are right for you. Some common figure drawing supplies include hard and soft charcoal sticks; graphite and charcoal pencils; kneaded erasers; and low-cost non archival paper, such as newsprint. As you do more figure drawing, take notice of which materials you use most. If you’re constantly running through sticks of soft charcoal and pausing the session to replenish them, avoid breaking your concentration by making sure you have plenty of charcoal sticks at your workspace before you begin.

2. Warm up with 20-second drawings

Beginning a drawing can be daunting, and you may be asking yourself the following questions: “Where do I start?” “Should I outline the body first?” “Should I focus on one section?” Alleviate your anxieties by giving yourself just 20 seconds to make a drawing. This may seem counterproductive, but the rush of knowing you have such limited time to fill your page can help to quiet looming thoughts.
Use a pad of newsprint and set your phone’s timer to 20 seconds. Each time the buzzer goes off, move on to a new piece of paper. If you’re having a difficult time drawing the entire body in this short amount of time, try using a drawing utensil that runs smoothly across the page, like pastels or a stick of soft charcoal. And instead of attempting to render details, try drawing quick lines that capture the shape of your model.

3. Don’t fixate on one part of the figure

After completing the timed warm-up exercise, you may move on to longer sessions and find yourself focusing on rendering your model’s face or another part of the body, while the rest of the figure is only slightly sketched in. It’s natural to want to spend an inordinate amount of time perfecting one detail of your drawing, but you should resist this impulse.
In order to avoid hyper-fixation on, say, drawing your model’s ear or shading their arm, try drawing the figure holistically, treating each part of your drawing equally. Grimaldi advises that you should distance yourself  “far enough away, so that the entire surface of the drawing is visible in a single glance.” This allows you to organize the drawing’s larger components—like composition, proportion, and gesture––instead of individual parts.

4. Forget the fixed proportions you learned in your high school art class

MFA students working in Michael Grimaldi’s life drawing class at the New York Academy of Art, 2018. Courtesy of the New York Academy of Art.

Some art educators ask their students to memorize fixed body proportions—such as that the length of the body is roughly seven-and-a-half times the length of the head, or that a person’s elbows should approximately line up with their belly button. It’s probably best to ditch those ingrained rules while sketching from life.
Instead, make sure you’re focusing on the real figure in front of you. One of the best parts of drawing from a live model is the fact that they’ve given you time and permission to study their form—so make the most of your session and really look.

5. Don’t get too comfortable

One helpful exercise for those that struggle with shading might be to play with dramatic light: If you place harsh lighting onto your model’s body, it becomes difficult to ignore the intense shadows. Whereas, for those who’ve mastered proportions, a fun challenge would be to draw from a drastic perspective, such as on the floor, or from above. Another option is to draw on a piece of toned paper; when your page’s color is a shade of gray, for example, you are forced to draw with new tools that are both lighter and darker than the paper.


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