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.

Lesson and tips on academic figure drawing

Vertical alignments

The first step is to search for a decent vertical alignment like the one shown in my line drawing below, after Charles Bargue. It can be useful to incorporate a stationary object into your vertical alignment, like a chair or box. This is because they will serve as reliable reference objects that should not differ in position over the various sittings a life model will make during sessions that can sometimes span over several weeks.

Gesture line drawing of a man walking. After Charles Bargue.
Gesture line drawing of a man walking. After Charles Bargue.

Once at least one series of vertical alignments is found, an imaginary line can be seen through them and represented on the paper with a lightly drawn vertical line (plumb-line).

The topmost point of the figure is lightly marked near the top of the plumb-line, leaving about one-sixth of the paper clear at the top. Also, a point is marked near the bottom of the plumb-line, again leaving about one-sixth of the paper clear at the bottom. This tends to give roughly two-thirds of the paper in which to draw the figure.

Measured Placements

The marked plumb-line serves as a known place which relates to the vertical alignments in the observed figure. The next step is to measure how many times the measurement from the top of the head to the top of the shoulders goes into the height of the figure.

In a standing pose this is often between six and eight. Note that generally this won’t be a whole number, so don’t force your drawing or measurements to try and fit one. In fact in my experience, I’ve found that it is common to observe something like 6 + 2/3 heads that go into the total figure height for many adults in the 20 – 40 year old age range.

It is important to measure as accurately as possible as many other measurements are gauged from this. The drawn plumb-line is then divided into the number of head heights. The plumb-line was divided into six in the gesture sketch below.

Plumb-line vertical guide

The vertical plumb-line in the above sketch should be faintly visible. It is now possible to measure the height from the top of the head to the top of the shoulders. Observe how this smaller measurement goes into the plumb-line six times.

This measurement is also used to gauge horizontal measurements from the plumb-line. For example, the left side of the neck to the outermost of the left hand is as wide as two of the vertical head measurements.

The comparisons between vertical and horizontal measurements ensure that the figure in the drawing is not too thin, wide, short, or long. Constantly compare horizontal and vertical observational measurements to these same proportional measurements in the drawing. This will ensure that the drawing stays in proportion to the visual observation as it progresses.

Keep measuring, throughout

A variety of large and small measurements are taken from the figure, and compared both horizontally and vertically. Always take larger measurements, to help retain proportions more accurately. For example, the mid-point of the figure, and marking the corresponding mid-point on (or offset from) the drawn plumb-line.

Eventually, a number of faint crosses are placed. These resemble key landmarks on the figure, which have been measured and checked. These landmarks can frequently be the top and sides of the head; mid-point of the figure; the bottom and sides of the feet; knees, elbows, shoulders and other parts that outline visible forms of the figure.

Gesture and Rhythm

These measured placement crosses are accurate guides used throughout the gesture drawing. The aim of this is to be a concise and simple depiction of the figures’ gesture. Use the pencil as gracefully and lightly as possible, to give you more flexibility when adjusting measurements or line rhythms.

Ghostly C-curves and S-curves should be used alone with a minimal number of small straight lines for the complex parts. Drawn the largest curves first, as they help to govern the overall gesture. Here are some more examples of gesture sketches.

Practice over the top of existing master artworks, as a great gesture exercise. Use a sheet of tracing paper fixed with masking tape over reproductions of master figure drawings and paintings.

Demo 2D platform game level video and sketches

Here is a fairly old scan from a rough sketched drawing from my moleskin notebook. I have a few that are dotted about at home and in the studio to capture ideas for parts of environments, platforms, objects and characters that I am pulling together for interactive apps and games.

Coloured hand drawn platform game level
Digitally painted watercolour over sketched platform game level drawing.

Being a simple sketch, I spruced it up a bit with some digital paint. I made some simple custom pencil and paint brushes in PhotoShop to retain the hand-made traditional art look.

Pencil drawn platform game level
Rough pencil sketch platform game level scanned from moleskin notepad.

I have created several prototype pencil-drawn games in Adobe Director and Flash over the past few years using a game engine I wrote in an old programming language called Lingo (it’s very similar to JavaScript). When I get round to it I’ll do a screen capture compilation video of these at some point.

Here is a demo screen capture video I made of the hand-drawn demo game level drawing from above. It’s got a rusty acoustic guitar riff I played over the top just to add a bit of atmosphere to the demo footage.

Quick look at a level design process

First of all I came up with a really rough concept level design on a scrap of paper. Some tweaks were needed, but this concept contains the basic ideas for puzzle mechanics within the level design.

Biro sketched level design by Peter McClory

After I was satisfied with the level design, I planned it out a little more accurately on an A4 piece of squared paper. Graph paper has too many squares. In fact it is worth getting hold of squared paper that is as feint as possible, so that there is more contrast with your drawn design.

This step helps to ensure that the player character can make certain jumps up to platforms, and across gaps.  You don’t want to player to find it either impossible or nearly impossible to access certain areas, unless that is intentionally part of the level design.

Draft level design on squared paper by Peter McClory

The draft level was adjusted in places on squared paper, then tested in the game engine, playing with the character to ensure that the various areas were the right height and widths etc.  This squared paper version was then photocopied for use as a template when drawing the final level.

The final level was drawn using tracing paper, masked to a photocopy of the squared level drawing, so that there was an accurate guide for where the platforms, walls and ceilings should be placed.

Zoomed close up of a hand drawn platform game level by Peter McClory

Zoomed close up 3 of a hand drawn platform game level by Peter McClory

The drawing was done starting at the top-right of the image, across and downwards, to minimise smudging.  The rough details were placed with 2B pencil, and then filled in with extra detail over the course of the drawing.

Complex hand drawn game level by Peter McClory