Figure drawing from life – more tips and tricks

This is my second quick tutorial guiding you through a series of steps I take to produce a classical figure drawing. This particular method is adapted from various classical drawing studies in Florence, Italy.

Foundations of a figure drawing

The ‘construction’ process described in this post serves as a solid anchor when working up a sketch into a more finished rendering such as my drawing below. The measurements, gesture, and constructs are all extremely important as a foundation for classical realism.

Three week life drawing.
This graphite (pencil) drawing was drawn from life in the studio in Florence. This is from a three-week pose, and therefore is quite highly finished.

Construction Stage

The construct outline and shadow shapes form the next stage. A 2B graphite pencil is kept sharpened like a needle of graphite, as it facilitates more precision. It is safest to work on the paper as lightly as possible so that there is room for adjustment with the putty rubber if needed.

Example construction sketch of seated female nude

The outline of the forms which the figure makes are carefully observed, and the previous gesture stage gives a decent (albeit simplified) measured base to use for guidance with this construct stage. The construct lines should be lightly-sketched small straight lines around and along the gesture lines, indicating changes in direction.

Straight lines

Gesture construction life drawing female nude

It is best to use straight lines to help minimise over-bulgy looking outlines. Subtle curve-like outlines can be constructed from these straight edges. Just as the gesture stage helped guide the line drawing in the construct stage, these line constructs are in turn used to help guide the articulation stage.

Shadow shapes

Seated figure drawing with no shadow shapes
Example seated figure drawing before shadow shapes are articulated.

The shapes which the darkest shadows cast on the figure are lightly outlined in a similar manner to the construct stage for the outlines of the figure. They can help with spotting potential errors in proportion that have been made when drawing the outline shapes. A good way to think of these so-called shadow shapes, is as skewed cartoon silhouettes, thus visualising the shapes abstractly and making them easier to adjust.

First-stage shadow shapes articulated on a seated figure
Example seated figure drawing with main first-stage shadow shapes now articulated, and partly shaded.

Consistent shadow shape tone

Seated figure drawing (charcoal cartoon) with shadow shapes drawn
Seated figure drawing (charcoal cartoon) with shadow shapes drawn. Note that the shadow shapes should be shaded in the same tone initially.

Once the line drawing construction of the shadow shapes is completed, these shapes are carefully shaded with a dark, flat tone. The image highlights the shadow shapes. The shadows are shown being evened out to a consistent tone. This helps with reference for the more subtle tones and ‘modelling’ phase.

Creating smooth and even shading

A good method for smooth shading is to start with a very sharp 2B pencil with a long lead. With the pencil held at an obtuse angle, an even pressure is applied with some force, but not enough to indent the paper. Care is taken to constantly maintain the sharpness of the pencil with a sandpaper pad.

Once the area is filled, it is filled again, over the top of the first tone, but in an opposite direction. After this, the pencil is used at more of a perpendicular angle to the paper, carefully picking out any areas of lightness, as to smooth the tone. The putty rubber is used in the same way as the pencil to bring out areas that become too dark.

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