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Figure Drawing Lessons

Updated on May 12, 2015

Drawing the Figure

In my teens I left home to attend art college. Throughout history figure drawing has been an essential part of an artist's training but not at that time. Art schools where only into concept art not representational art. At the time only abstract art was taught in art colleges but luckily for me I majored in Fashion Design. I had all the basics included in my curriculum like color theory, three dimensional design, art history and figure drawing. The hours I spent in life drawing of the figure where invaluable. Drawing gestures, comparing proportions and improving my observational skills all contributed to my growth as an artist.

My art training has served me well and I am now a full time artist. I never forgot the lessons I learned and the importance of figure drawing. Even now I will take the time to attend an uninstructed figure drawing class at the Art Directors Guild around the corner from me. Like a tuneup for a car, it rekindles my drawing skills.

Michelangelo Studies For The Libyan Sybil, (See the painting below at Great Figures of the Past)

The Gesture

When first learning to draw the figure the best way to start is with quick gesture poses that are one or two minutes long. You may think, "What can I possibly draw in one minute?" but this limited time frame will force you to edit, observe and make rapid decisions. It is the best way for you to improve your drawing skills.

To capture the gesture first lay down a line that depicts the action of the figure. This line will show the direction and force of the models movement. By focusing on the mass and flow of the pose you will record the essence of the figure first. As you become more comfortable with the figure, you can expand to longer poses adding details.

By practicing gesture drawing you will not only get better at recognizing certain aspects of poses, but you will also build a visual library of characters and models.

One Minute Gesture Poses by Chris Legaspi

Action is Key - Exaggerate The Action Line

From The Human Figure Drawing Tutorial

How to Draw the Figure - Learn from the best

Here are my five favorite references for figure drawing.

Figure Drawing with Dan Thompson: Gesture II (American Artist)
Figure Drawing with Dan Thompson: Gesture II (American Artist)

Found this guy on YouTube and I like his demonstrations. He is talented and has a nuts and bolts approach to drawing the figure.

 
Drawing the Figure in Motion
Drawing the Figure in Motion

Rob is a modern day master who has lots to show you. His understanding of anatomy and skill makes this one you will go back to again and again.

 
Figure Drawing for All It's Worth
Figure Drawing for All It's Worth

This book has most artists voting it the best figure drawing book ever. It is from the fifties but as the saying goes, if it ain't broke don't fix it.

 
Dynamic Anatomy: Revised and Expanded Edition
Dynamic Anatomy: Revised and Expanded Edition

MY FAVORITE. I think this is the best anatomy book ever written for artists. Lots of great drawings that have usable comparisons to help you get the proportions right.

 

Figure Drawing Improved My Art

I am first an artist and second a teacher. As I continue my artistic education, I hear and read one recurring theme. Every serious artist agrees that drawing is the single most important way an artist can improve.

With that in mind, a few years ago I decided to attend an uninstructed figure drawing class at the Art Directors Guild. The four hour class was only $10 and I felt that I needed to reawaken some drawing skills. It was one of the best investment of time and money that I ever made for my artistic growth. I kept going back every week and gradually saw a radical improvement in my painting.

One of the result of those figure drawing classes was a method of analyzing any subject by reducing it into basic shapes in order to understand the composition, and values. In the series of photos below you can see the steps I used leading up to my final painting Dragon Stance.

The Making of Dragon Stance

Click thumbnail to view full-size
First Step: I painted Dragon Stance for a specific show so I went to the Pacific Asia Museum and took a ton of photos. When I took this photo I really liked the shapes that where created. It was the starting point for my award winning painting DragonSecond Step: I cropped the image and created a black and white notan from the photo image. Reducing the subject to simple shapes helps to understand the composition and values.Third Step: I added a third value to the previous black and white image which further defines the composition, helping me visualize the finished color painting.Fourth Step: This thumb nail sketch allows me to work out any problems in the composition before I start to paint.Final Step: Dragon Stance completed in oils. Because of the preliminary steps, I completed 90% of the painting in one sitting. Working this way keeps the painting fresh and spontaneous, not labored over.
First Step: I painted Dragon Stance for a specific show so I went to the Pacific Asia Museum and took a ton of photos. When I took this photo I really liked the shapes that where created. It was the starting point for my award winning painting Dragon
First Step: I painted Dragon Stance for a specific show so I went to the Pacific Asia Museum and took a ton of photos. When I took this photo I really liked the shapes that where created. It was the starting point for my award winning painting Dragon
Second Step: I cropped the image and created a black and white notan from the photo image. Reducing the subject to simple shapes helps to understand the composition and values.
Second Step: I cropped the image and created a black and white notan from the photo image. Reducing the subject to simple shapes helps to understand the composition and values.
Third Step: I added a third value to the previous black and white image which further defines the composition, helping me visualize the finished color painting.
Third Step: I added a third value to the previous black and white image which further defines the composition, helping me visualize the finished color painting.
Fourth Step: This thumb nail sketch allows me to work out any problems in the composition before I start to paint.
Fourth Step: This thumb nail sketch allows me to work out any problems in the composition before I start to paint.
Final Step: Dragon Stance completed in oils. Because of the preliminary steps, I completed 90% of the painting in one sitting. Working this way keeps the painting fresh and spontaneous, not labored over.
Final Step: Dragon Stance completed in oils. Because of the preliminary steps, I completed 90% of the painting in one sitting. Working this way keeps the painting fresh and spontaneous, not labored over.

A Moving Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words: Video Tutorials

Everything You'll Need to Draw the Figure

Who Needs Figure Drawing?

Figure drawing, far from just being a classical art form, has many different applications. From book covers, graphic art, comic books, fantasy art, movie production and game design the figure claims a dramatic role in every one of these art related media. Every day we encounter enhanced human images, computer manipulated forms and invented species, all initially derived from the human figure and transformed into reality by an artist.

If you are an artist or want to be in an art related field, drawing the figure is the best starting point. I am forever grateful that I majored in Fashion Design in school. Figure drawing was an essential part of my curriculum and later fashion illustration. I attended Parsons School of Design in New York City but there are many good schools around the country. I now live in Los Angeles and am proud to teach classes at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art.

Figure Drawing by Sharon Weaver

Detail of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel
Detail of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel

Drawing Super Heroes

Michelangelo Painted the First Super Hero

I love sci-fi, comic books and fantasy. The talent that goes into the making of a movie like The Life of Pi is remarkable. I am awed by the imagination needed to invent a new species, design an imaginary world or give life to a tiger. How do they do that? Somewhere, somehow, an artist came up with the idea for the creatures in Avatar.

From Bart Simpson to The Avengers, the figure is used throughout the art of animation, film production and video. Lots of movies are inspired by comic books and video games have pioneered animation methods. If you want to be an artist in this special genre, you first have to start with what you know; the human figure. Understanding how to draw a super-hero is a specialized type of figure drawing.

Detail of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel

Animated Artists Use the Figure Too

If your passion is to draw the next big animated film or comic book, you'll need to study these great books.

Draw from Life

The Best Way to Learn How to Draw the Figure

Experience has taught me that drawing or painting from life is the best way to learn so whenever possible I do just that. That is me painting on location at my easel. Of course, if necessary I will use photos for reference but I know they are a poor substitute for the real thing. If you start by using a photo you loose a lot in the translation. After all a photo is a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional reality. so if you only use a photo here are some of the problems you have to compensate for.

1) A photo will darken the shadows, turning them black and flat. In reality shadows are filled with color. Black is a man made color, so remember there is no black in nature.

2) It changes the real colors. Most photos will be too blue or too orange.

3) A photo brings everything into the same perfect, sharp detail. Our eyes are amazing. They focus on only one thing at a time and allow the rest to fade out from that focal point.

4) A photo flattens everything into two dimensions so you have to interpret the depth.

There are lots of ways to pursue your drawing experience from life. Ask a friend or family member to pose for you or set up a mirror and draw yourself. Go out to the mall or the park and do quick poses. The library or a restaurant can be a great place where people hang out for a longer time allowing you to do some longer sketches. Find an uninstructed or instructed life drawing class and always practice, practice, practice.

Greatest Figures of the Past

Inspiration comes from many places but learning from the masters through art history is a must.

In high school, my love for art started with the Greeks and Romans. Not many drawings from that time are still with us but we can see their dedication to the figure in the thousands of statues that survive. I used to love to draw the torso, a foot or a hand of a statue from the art history books in the library.

But I think for me the artists of the Renaissance where the giants of the human figure. The exquisite beauty of Rafael's Sistine Madonna, the unmatched power of Michelangelo's David and the silent calm of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, captured my admiration and awe. I learned a lot from studying these guys.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to travel to Rome where I immersed myself in the art of the city. Amazing to see these towering artistic achievements in person.

Michelangelo Sistine Chapel, Libyan Sibyl (see the sketches for this painting at the Intro module)

The Artists of the Renaissance Loved the Figure

Who is your favorite? Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo?

Michelangelo

Michelangelo

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    • davenjilli lm 4 years ago

      Michelangelo

    • Gayle Dowell 4 years ago from Kansas

      Michelangelo's "Pieta" is my favorite!

    • LadyDuck 4 years ago

      Leonardo was a great architect, but as painter I prefer Michelangelo.

    • Stephen J Parkin 4 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

      I think Michelangelo as he was the first to be so anatomically correct.

    • Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      @lionmom100: It is a tough choice. They were both such giants.

    • lionmom100 4 years ago

      Both. They were both amazing artists. I had a chance to see a lot of Michaelangelo's work last year when I went to Italy. And several years ago the Art museum in Victoria BC and a wonderful exhibit of Da Vinci's work.

    • Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      The work of Michelangelo is so powerful. I love it.

    Leonardo da Vinci

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      • Sharon Weaver 3 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

        @flycatcherrr: You make a convincing argument. Maybe I will have to change my vote.

      • flycatcherrr 3 years ago

        Leonardo, for his range of talents. An amazing mind.

      • kathysart 4 years ago

        Leonardo da Vinci for all his other ventures as well. Such an example of being curious about everything around you.

      • anonymous 4 years ago

        da Vinci - because he was also an inventor.

      • sketchedmoments 4 years ago

        Tough choice. Da Vinci takes the edge, love his sketches.

      • shane85 lm 4 years ago

        I'm a Da Vinci fan. Because his painting was only a portion of his talent

      • Ardyn25 4 years ago

        Leonardo, but also love the works of Michelangelo.

      • Ardyn25 4 years ago

        Leonardo, but also love the works of Michelangelo.

      • Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

        @Elsie Hagley: I hear you. He was a very diverse and talented artist.

      • Elsie Hagley 4 years ago from New Zealand

        Yes I like the Mona Liza, so it has to be Leonardo da Vinci,

      • Peregrina-JK 4 years ago

        Leonardo da Vinci and his Mona Lisa

      Art Masters and the Figure

      Looking at the work of past masters, the figure was an important subject. I have spent hours studying the way Caravaggio caught the light on a figure. Inspirational.

      Let Me Know About Your Favorite Figure Drawing Lesson

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          Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

          @goldenrulecomics: Thank you. I hope she enjoys reading my different articles on drawing, painting and being an artist. Good luck to her.

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          goldenrulecomics 4 years ago

          The younger half of Goldenrulecomics is taking drawing lessons at the Joe Kubert School of cartooning and she is really developing well! I'll point our your resources to her. Thanks for sharing!

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          Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

          @allaneaglesham lm: Thank you. I hope it is helpful.

        • allaneaglesham lm profile image

          allaneaglesham lm 4 years ago

          I am a complete non-artist so far but am always looking for inspiration to start. This lens is very practical!

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          Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

          @centralplexus: Drawing the figure is a discipline that helps all artists. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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          centralplexus 4 years ago

          I sculpt polymer clay dolls and I could sure use a few (or more..) lessons on figure drawing. Your lens is full of info and inspiration on the topic, thanks for sharing them with the rest of us. Take care and well done!

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          Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

          @MaureenCee: Thank you. I am glad you enjoyed it. Drawing the figure is a great way to train your eye and improve.

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          MaureenCee 4 years ago

          What a wonderfully informative and interesting lens, thank you. I would love to be an artist and in my minds eye I am but in reality my drawing is about that of a 3 year old, never I can appreciate it and that's all that matters.

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          Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

          @mcspocky lm: Thank you very much. I am glad you found them too.

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          mcspocky lm 4 years ago

          Your lenses on art are a real treasure, I'm glad I found them. :)

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          kathysart 4 years ago

          I like the action line, such a great base for exploring movement. Wonderful work btw.

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          Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

          @shellys-space: I am so lucky to have found my passion because I love to draw and paint. Thank you for stopping by.

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          Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

          @Stuwaha: The art instruction on the internet is really great and access is worldwide. It really has changed how we learn. I am teaching two online classes and one of my students is from Dubai.

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          anonymous 4 years ago

          Thanks for the directions for how to add action to a stick figure, which is all I'm qualified to draw anyway :-). Enjoyed your lens.

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          Shelly Sellers 4 years ago from Midwest U.S.A.

          Oh my, I stink at drawing and prefer to other people's art :) You have a gift, keep on drawing!

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          Stuwaha 4 years ago

          Every person has a different learning style and I find that I personally can't stand classes but I learn really well from internet tutorials :) deviantart.com provides many fabulous tutorials from artists all over the world and it's amazing what you can find with a simple google search. Persistence and the desire to improve are absolutely key. Great lens!

        • Sharon Weaver profile image
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          Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

          @anonymous: Glad you enjoyed the article and everything starts with a simple idea so don't under estimate those stick figures.

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          Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

          @ikrave: Glad you were inspired. Thanks for liking my lens.

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          ikrave 4 years ago

          Great lens! It definitely makes me want to continue drawing...thank you!!

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          Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

          @sketchedmoments: Thank you for stopping by and leaving your comment. Much appreciated..

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          sketchedmoments 4 years ago

          Wow. Thank you for creating such a detailed lens. Lots of useful information. I'll be checking out your others.

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          nickybutler 4 years ago

          Fabulous lens, thank you so much for sharing. I read things like this, it gives me inspiration, I go get my tools and I sit down and draw/paint. Then I remember just how bad I am at art! haha some very useful tips here though, perseverance is the key I guess :)

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          Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

          @LadyDuck: Thanks. I am a big believer in the power of perseverance. Most who succeed are the ones who stick with it.

        • Sharon Weaver profile image
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          Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

          @Dressage Husband: There are so many great teaching tools through the internet that finding what works for you takes a little searching but you can always find something that will inspire you.

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          Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

          @Ardyn25: Thank you but of the five things an artist needs, talent is #5. Practice, practice, practice is how you get there.

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          getmoreinfo 4 years ago

          These Figure Drawing Lessons are really nice and a great way to learn dimensions too.

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          LadyDuck 4 years ago

          I love painting, but I am not very good, you make it look easy. I will try to improve my style.

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          Stephen J Parkin 4 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

          I never thought I was any good at art but the video lessons here make me wonder if it was just bad teaching that stopped me?

        • Ardyn25 profile image

          Ardyn25 4 years ago

          You make it look so easy, I have nil for artistic talent in this area but love the work of those who do.

        • Sharon Weaver profile image
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          Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

          @getmoreinfo: Figure drawing helps in every aspect of art, whether you paint landscapes, still life or people the discipline is helpful. Thanks for your comment.

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          Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

          @Bobski606: Thank you. It is always nice when I can help another creative person. Designing clothing is very enjoyable and quite demanding since you have to think in three dimensions. Good luck with your designing.

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          Bobski606 4 years ago

          A fantastic lens. Back when I was in school I was contemplating becoming an artist myself but in the end decided that it wasn't for me. However, I find myself coming back to figure drawing as I've started to design my own clothes so I obviously need to sketch them out first. These are some wonderful tips to help me improve my designs, thank you.

        • Sharon Weaver profile image
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          Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

          @lionmom100: You know I live in the SFV too. Small world. I teach at the LA Academy of Figurative Art. I was in Italy three years ago and was so thrilled to see the Sistine Chapel and David. Everyone else was ready to leave and I said no way. Who knows if I will get a chance to see it again. I could have stood there studying for hours. There was so much to see. Thank you for sharing.

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          lionmom100 4 years ago

          A wonderful lens. Years ago I had some art courses at LA Valley College in the SFV. The art history gave me an appreciation of art through the ages, especially for Renaissance art. Last year I had the chance to go to Italy where I had the privilege of seeing much Renaissance as well as pre and post Renaissance art. Three moments that literally took my breath away were on seeing Boticelli's Birth of Venus, Michaelangelo's David and Michaelangelo's Cistine Chapel. Truly amazing.

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          Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

          @artbyrodriguez: Thank you. I have only just started to explore the figure in my painting although I have been drawing the figure since college.

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          Beverly Rodriguez 4 years ago from Albany New York

          Beautiful art and beautiful lens. Drawing the figure is a special talent all by itself. Thanks for sharing.

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          Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

          @SusanDeppner: Thanks Susan. I love to share my art. It not only helps others but clarifies things for me too.

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          Susan Deppner 4 years ago from Arkansas USA

          Outstanding! What a gift you have not just for drawing but for teaching others. Well done!

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          Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

          @kerbev: Thanks kab. I think you are right. I will start a new lens and take your advise.

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          kab 4 years ago from Upstate, NY

          I loved seeing the stages of the the Dragon Stance painting. That could be a lens of its own.

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          Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

          @trishafly: Thank you Trish. As a teacher I learn a lot when I teach so it is a double reward.

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          trishafly 4 years ago

          Very informative lens. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

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          Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

          @anonymous: Thank you for stopping by and leaving comment. I appreciate it. People will often say to me "Painting must be very relaxing." I will respond, "Not if your doing it right." Being an artist is work.

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          anonymous 4 years ago

          Great lens. Amazing to know that so much thought goes into these drawings.