Figure Drawing is Important in Today's Art

Self Portrait in Watercolor

Watercolor self portrait by Robert A. Sloan
Watercolor self portrait by Robert A. Sloan

Why Figure Drawing is Important

Figure drawing is as important today as it ever was for artists. It can help even for landscape and animal artists. Figure drawing teaches good observation and sketching, it's very easy to see what even minute errors cause in the way of distortions and it is the best way to break down the social filter and learn to see the way artists do.

Most people interpret and filter what they see through its social meaning. They look at a human being and read the cultural signals of clothing and hair style, read expressions and body language in an instinctive way. Some disabilities can impair this capacity with disastrous consequences) and then if they try to draw a face -- will draw a smiley or something like that which abstracts it down to the expression without any accurate proportion or details.

Two spots and an upturned crescent mean the same thing to a human child anywhere in the world.

But an artist must look at things the way they really are and not by symbology. An artist has to see the actual shape of the mouth is not an upturned crescent even in a smiling mouth, has to tell that the adult head is only a seventh of the height of the person and other proportion details -- or the drawing won't look real. My self portrait above is as recognizable as a photograph because I didn't change or hide the weird things about my face.

My face is long and narrow, my eyes a bit small and narrow, nose long and sharp, forehead short. There are a number of features in my face that aren't standard or classic. This is true of all faces -- and true of some of the best looking people. These differences, both in structure and in expression, create character and make a person recognizable.

In the same way, every tree, mountain, cat, dog, horse, mouse or flower is that unique and individual. The angle you look at the subject of your drawing is unique and changes how it looks. The direction of the light gives it depth and changes how it looks. Figure drawing teaches an accuracy of observation that leads to being able to draw or paint any subject there is. From there, understanding abstraction makes more sense.

This way of seeing like an artist means a complete transformation of perception. I can still remember the difference between what I saw looking at faces before and after I learned to do portraits. I'm surprised I was able to recognize anyone at all before I learned to draw people.

Everything you need to learn to be able to draw anything else can be learned by observing and drawing human beings. They are the most common subject for drawing that anyone ever sees, and they are one of the top subjects in art that people are interested in seeing and buying. 

Abstract and nonfigurative art has been popular through the twentieth century, but figurative styles including photorealism have been gaining ground as the art world gets tired of all art resembling the art that was first intended as a rebellion against a stuffy artistic elite.

If you know how to do figurative drawing well, then your skills at creating nonfigurative art will be stronger and deeper. You also won't be caught short if the style or your mood changes and you won't be limited to drawing only copies of your previous successful art. Sadly, sometimes artists succeed commercially before they've learned the full repertory of artistic skills.

They became locked into the styles that made them famous and did not continue learning, which loses a lot of the joy of art anyway. Figure drawing is a powerful, important skill that can help any artist improve any style of art and it will also improve the artist's perceptions in life.

I find it much easier now to tell when people are lying -- when their eyes aren't smiling and their mouths are, the distortion is very obvious where it wasn't before. Figure drawing continues to be important throughout life because a real master is forever a student, always reaching, experimenting, learning. There is always something new and cool to discover in art, that's what makes it a satisfying profession.


How to find models for Figure Drawing

The best model you have available is yourself. You're the only person with enough patience to sit still through as many attempts as it takes to get the likeness. Many artists over the centuries have done self portraits, including nonfigurative artists like Picasso.

So the best face to practice on is yours. With a full length mirror you can also do body sketches of yourself drawing. Or snap a photo using a webcam, do a short video of yourself moving around and choose individual frames from it to find interesting poses. 

Using a webcam or video camera to get photos of models is a good idea when your friends agree to pose too, you can preserve a good record of their posing and get more poses. But also try drawing your friends from life. Ask them to pose. Many times people will let you draw them just because you're learning art.

Classes are a great source of finding good models. Paid artists' models get practice at sitting still for fifteen or twenty minute poses, sometimes difficult ones. The cost of a skilled model is pretty high, so that cost is split up when all the students are paying for her or his time. Also sometimes in classes, students take turns posing. You also gain some expert help from the teacher who already has that skill.

Getting together with other artists for a life drawing group is free or cheap. Either the group can pool resources to hire a model or take turns posing, but the net result is a scheduled life drawing session at regular intervals that will steadily improve your skills.

Carrying a sketchbook and drawing in restaurants, cafes, public places like university grounds and malls can be another good way to learn figure drawing. Being able to do a quick gesture sketch while someone is walking away is a very powerful skill. This can strengthen your ability to do abstraction directly, because you can only get in a few lines before the model's gone.

Do many short life drawings. Don't worry about whether they come out bad. A lot of them will, it doesn't matter. What matters is that some part of a bad sketch came out right and that if you practice constantly, always observing and trying to sketch what you see, you will get a lot better at drawing what you see. 

Books can also help a lot. Jack Hamm's book "Drawing the Head and Figure" is an inexpensive Dover classic that covers all the essentials of figure drawing. The book is very dense with information. Skim it first, then either look up what you want to draw and start anywhere with just that page, or systematically work through it page after page trying the exercises and copying Jack Hamm's drawings.

Figure drawing can also be improved by copying the masters. Just go online to any art museum website and look at great art of the past -- then try to copy it. Many art students have studied by copying great art throughout the history of Western art, so that's another good place to start. This is also true in Eastern art, they were different masters but the concept of studying by copying masters is an old tried and true method of learning to draw well.

The materials you need for figure drawing are cheap and easy to get. Any sketchpad will do, any kind of pencil or charcoal or drawing implement. You can practice figure drawing with a ballpoint on the backs of business letters and junk mail, to get its benefits. 

One advantage to sketching in pen is that you can't go back to correct mistakes. You have to just accept them and keep going, keep drawing. Yet if it's on improvised materials like paper napkins or the backs of junk mail, you're not as worried about using up good art supplies so it's easier to relax and just draw what's in front of you.

Hands and feet are so difficult that there are entire books devoted to doing hands and feet. If you like working from books, I seriously recommend "Complete Guide to Drawing" by Giovanni Civardi, an Italian artist working in the tradition of the old masters. His sketches are elegant and easy to follow, his lessons interesting and full of depth. 

When you've mastered the ability to draw what you see, then learning how to create powerful abstractions that communicate well and grip attention becomes a lot easier. Design principles start to matter more and become more understandable as you learn to see the reality of the human figure instead of the idea of a figure.

It's the difference between the word "body" and seeing one. 

Talent is enthusiasm. If you enjoy drawing and painting, the practice comes easy and your skills grow with every new sketch. But no matter what style of art, modern or traditional, your skills at creating it will grow if you master figure drawing.

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Comments 24 comments

Christa Dovel profile image

Christa Dovel 7 years ago from The Rocky Mountains, North America

Thank you for this valuable information. I didn't realize that the adult head was only 1/7 of the overall height of a person. Getting the arms long enough has always been the difficult part for me.


robertsloan2 profile image

robertsloan2 7 years ago from San Francisco, CA Author

Christa, that sort of thing is exactly why drawing people from life and getting a good figure drawing book helps. Once I learned the basic proportions and got used to them, it was easier to see it when someone's proportions (mine) weren't right. There's a lot of variation. Fashion drawings are 8 heads tall to attenuate the figure, but Masai people really have that proportion while stockier, shorter ethnic groups may only be six heads tall. Children's heads are very large in proportion to their bodies.

Getting the arms long enough is something you can measure and test. Stand in front of a full length mirror, arms down at your sides. Look at where your fingertips are in relation to your crotch, knee and thigh. Your arms are probably normal, but you can also look at photos of people or at Leonardo da Vinci's famous drawing "Vitruvian Man" where he's got two sets of arms drawn in, one outstretched and one set down at his sides.

All these proportions are counter intuitive. Intuition exaggerates features with emotional importance -- eyes and mouths huge, noses small, because noses aren't as expressive. Foreheads vanish. Arms shorten because we're used to people's hands being up gesturing instead of down at their sides. All sorts of distortions are natural and instinctive if you follow an emotional-cultural view of body proportions -- but when you get them accurate, your drawings carry more emotion and more recognition.

It really helps to measure parts of the body against other parts of the body. Like the length of the head is a common measure for full body proportions because it's easy to see where the chin ends. But necks vary in how long they are, some stocky men don't even seem to have necks when their shoulders are way up by their chins and necks are as thick as the head.

Copying drawings by old masters is a very educational exercise, but if you measure out the proportions in them, the copies come out better.


Laura Spector profile image

Laura Spector 7 years ago from Chiang Mai, Thailand

Thank you for this article. The importance of figure drawing is something that is not readily acknowledged in contemporary art. Over the past two decades, I think basic foundation skills have been lacking in work created by many contemporary artists, and my art institutions in general (perhaps because many of the teachers that are teaching also lack skills). Practice is not inherent in art making for post modernism. I've met a tremendous amount of my peers in the art world that don't know how to draw and have a very weak foundation in color theory, even if they paint. I have a great appreciation for the process of learning art. Of course, there is such thing as too much process and head study, and not enough of the subjective realm and follow through! I enjoyed reading your article and passionately adore figure drawing! And, it IS so important! I hope more artists get back to it.


robertsloan2 profile image

robertsloan2 7 years ago from San Francisco, CA Author

Laura, I agree with you that often there are serious gaps in basic drawing, color theory and other traditional art skills. A huge element of post modernism, of 21st century art, is good representational art and a great flowering of realism in new, genuinely modern mediums -- acrylics, colored pencils, oil pastels as well as new oil mediums to use with the old pigments. There's a website dedicated to classical art,-- http://www.artrenewal.org -- that carries this idea to the extreme. They're very anti-modernism and the arguments against modernism are eloquent.

One of the interesting things I discovered a few years back is that the Army has a really good art instruction program! If you're in the Army and you specialize as an artist, they give you a brilliant intense training program. A young friend who drew dragons went in the Army and got that specialization. I watched him post his class assignments -- they were difficult and powerful. Almost all the subjects were military naturally, but he was doing good realism and grasping the principles of good drawing so rapidly it was wonderful.

All along, commercial art schools have taught these traditional skills because they're needed if you're going to design cereal boxes -- or paint movie posters and illustrate books. All the stuff that will wind up in art history classes in another century as typical of their century just as textiles and pottery and church decorations fill the classes now do take accurate rendering -- and they get life drawing. So it's really been a subset of the art world, the fine art world, that got caught up in rejecting figurative art and then trained a generation or two of teachers who didn't understand how to do figurative art or life drawing.

I think that it's coming back in a big way. I've seen way too many galleries filled with gorgeous realism in watercolor, colored pencils, acrylics, oils, oil pastels, various mediums including those invented in the 20th century. So maybe we'll see a new crop of teachers that do get one kid posing and 20 of them drawing at a time throughout the semester and help them learn proportion and shading as well as design principles.


Christa Dovel profile image

Christa Dovel 7 years ago from The Rocky Mountains, North America

I've done much of what you suggest, but it doesn't come naturally, then too, I have drawn ever so many more children than adults. Most of my adult drawings have been partial.


robertsloan2 profile image

robertsloan2 7 years ago from San Francisco, CA Author

Christa, that makes sense. If you love doing children then it stands to reason you'll draw children more often. Studying figure drawing doesn't mean avoiding your favorite type of figure!


waynet profile image

waynet 7 years ago from Hull City United Kingdom

Figure drawing is very important for almost any aspect of drawing as it can make a landscape placed into perspective and a certain type of scale for the figures and the surroundings that it certainly does make sense to study this part of art drawing.

When I studied at art college we had a life drawing class every fortnight and I found that to be one of the best practical drawing experiences,especially looking at other artists drawings in the room as they add a slightly differing angle on the subject, so you could go around and learn from other interpretations.

I've never considered drawing myself as a portrait, to learn a bit more about certain drawing positions and such, you did a good job on your portrait as you've captured a good light source and achieved a great skin tone with your watercolours.


robertsloan2 profile image

robertsloan2 7 years ago from San Francisco, CA Author

Oh that sounds so awesome, a life drawing class every fortnight would've helped me so much! Much more than all the required classes, most of which were on art history and theory and one semester entirely on modern art in styles I didn't like or care to ever paint. I came out of it forgetting most of the names and dates I memorized and maybe understanding a bit more of why I didn't like those styles, but no more liking them than when I went in.


jill of alltrades profile image

jill of alltrades 7 years ago from Philippines

I always find your hubs very informative. I am learning here what I would have learned if I went to art school.

When I used to make some drawings, I never could get the hands and feet right. I always resorted to hiding them just so I will have no problems. Ha ha. It's good to know that I am not the only one with this problem.


robertsloan2 profile image

robertsloan2 7 years ago from San Francisco, CA Author

Modernism and nonfigurative art were so popular for so long that generationsl of even respectable teachers never learned basic drawing -- that gap has caused still more generations to discover only the principles that work for abstractions and never be able to apply them to figures, scenes, imagination.

I used to do the same thing, hide the hands and feet.

You'd be amazed going into a museum how many of the moderns past a certain point do just that and have limbs taper off into pointed stubs.


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA

So much in the art world today is "style" over "substance"--perhaps a by-product of computer-generated art, where clicking buttons replace grasping the elements of composition and color? I have studied the human figure for the last 30 years and am still learning, still discovering--it is the most unique subject matter around, and (for me) the most fulfilling.

Thanks for your post.


robertsloan2 profile image

robertsloan2 6 years ago from San Francisco, CA Author

Mike, I think the point of "style over substance" came before the middle of the twentieth century. I think something happened when artists started getting nonrepresentational. A bewildering amount of confusion between art that was good but inaccessible without an art degree, art that was bad but popular in critical circles and ant that was deliberately ugly to make a point (often done by people who could draw and compose perfectly well who were going beyond just Bad into Deliberately Horrific) resulted in traditions of naive-looking (or genuinely naïve ie doesn't know how to draw), inaccessible or outright ugly and depressing art.

Snob appeal overrode personal taste to an amazing degree and a lot of people wound up living with art that was meant to draw attention to social problems in exhibitions... without understanding its message.

The figure and figure drawing are immediately accessible to anyone. Do that well and you've got the means to communicate anything to anyone anywhere. But there's all the digital photo manipulation going on now. If you can draw it well, that liberates you from the camera's limits. There are still many limits to cameras as there are limits to any mediom.

But in another sense "style over substance" may have plagued the art world throughout history, from the point there was an art world, from the point there was a city at all and comparisons between different styles of art. Something wonderful that's not in style gets ignored and neglected regardless of quality while something trendy and derivative winds up getting a lot of attention. That may just be something about cities and culture.


roswebb profile image

roswebb 6 years ago from Ireland

Brillant hub ; I draw the figure but you have given me new insight ... thank you.


Cheeky Girl profile image

Cheeky Girl 6 years ago from UK and Nerujenia

Love the Hub, and the art and comments here! I am a Big Art Fan, I attend lots of galleries! Its a great thing to be able to draw or sketch! : )


robertsloan2 profile image

robertsloan2 6 years ago from San Francisco, CA Author

Thanks both of you! Some topics I just feel passionate about. Figure and portrait drawing changed everything about how I look at people. It's profound, it also improved my ability to read expressions and judge character.


networkandy profile image

networkandy 6 years ago from Connecticut

It all starts with a line. Nice painting by the way. I suck at watercolor. Hey can you give me alittle critic on my hub how to draw anime characters


Terri Bruner 6 years ago

This is a nice article. I have been a portrait artist for 35 years and your work is nice. To have the talent of being an accomplished portrait artist is to have mastered one of the toughest styles of artwork there is. Would love for you to also view my work on Facebook. Love to share with fellow artists. Good Work!


amewu godwin k. profile image

amewu godwin k. 5 years ago from Ghana - Accra, West Africa.

hi, l will be very happy if you can teach me colour application in artistical way. colour combination is also my problem.


Silver Poet profile image

Silver Poet 5 years ago from the computer of a midwestern American writer

I can do animals pretty well but I have never been any good at doing people. I will keep your tips in mind.


jim crawford 5 years ago

jcrawjc@aol.com when drawing a face shape in its most basic form. How do you determine placement of the width of the forehead and the width of the jawline. i know the basic is 5 eyes across for the center of the face. but i cannot find any information related on what you can use for proportions of the upper and lower face width. can you help me with this.. i have a class to teach in three weeks and cant find the reason to substantiate the width of the center face and with the eyes and nothing for the forehead and jawline.. thanks jim crawford


philipandrews188 profile image

philipandrews188 5 years ago

Excellent article! The above drawing is awesome. It's like a carbon copy of you, robetsloan2.


Robert J 4 years ago

You would have a job reading my expressions Robert millions have failed. I have one of those faces where I always looks worried or hard to read. Perhaps why I find self portraits the hardest though the model is willing...sometimes.

Great article, I have been studying drawing and painting for the last 3 years now though I have drawn all my life. I'm always drawn more towards studying people than anything else. I start to draw a building and i find i lose interest.


tobinvance profile image

tobinvance 4 years ago

I couldn't agree more. I consider figure drawing to be "exercise" for the artist.


AnneMay92 5 months ago

Very great article!

To carry my scetchbook around and draw people while sitting in busses or restaurants where an excellent advice, even if some scetches were totally ugly^^

Just the noise in the city were a little bit annoying, but I use to listen to this now^^

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wd1fO68axBo&list=P...

Thanks for your cool advices, enjoyed reading your Hub! :)

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