Life Drawing Pointers 1 Lines of Enquiry

Text and images © Nicholas Ferenczy 0ctober 2010

Before you start drawing, ask yourself the following:

life drawing1. How long have I got? What can I achieve realistically within the time?

A rapid gestural drawing, or a more precise study of (say) an eye or nose would easily fill a two-minute slot. Twenty minutes might allow you to plot the whole figure with just a suggestion of the features or to make quite a careful study of (say) the hands.

If you’re over-ambitious and try to ‘cram a quart into a pint pot’ you’ll end up frustrated. So try to plan to fill the slot entirely but evenly with concentrated drawing.

life drawing2. Am I making the best of the pose from my point of view?

Remember you don’t have to stoically swallow what you’re given. If you’re able, walk round the model looking from various viewpoints. What might at first seem a rather uninspiring pose could be completely transformed when viewed from a different angle. Obviously, if you don’t want to draw a seated back view, walk round the other side and look for a better prospect.

But also think ‘hi-lo’: try sitting on the floor and looking up at a standing figure or leaning over a reclining figure and see how the perspective changes and how new possibilities are presented by this.

life drawing3. Am I the right distance from the figure, or put another way: is what I intend to do, consistent with where I am?

Obviously you need to be able to see what you’re doing. If you’re making a portrait or a study of a part of the body, you generally need to be closer than if you wish to draw the whole figure.

If you want a nice even drawing of the figure from head to foot, you should position yourself so as to be able to take in the whole at a glance (about 4 figure-lengths would do it).

A commonly-made mistake is to get too close, so that you are almost overwhelmed by the figure. (That said these rules are here to be broken, as we’ll see…)

biro portrait4. Am I working on the right scale?

This is absolutely crucial. The sides of the paper are limits within which you tend to restrict your movements. These are the combined movements of your wrist, elbow and shoulder (other joints too if working on a really large scale). These movements underpin the whole character of your drawing.



In general, a smaller scale (A4 say) will yield a tighter, less fluid, edgier result than working on a large scale (upward of A3, indian ink life drawingsay) which will allow for more fluidity.

(Bear in mind that if you’re working in a sketchbook, the actual working area will be smaller than the page size – simply because once your hand reaches the edge of the book it tends to fall away and you lose control.)

There is not ‘right scale’ – you can work on the size of a postage stamp so long as you’re aware of the demands it will make on your drawing.

But to start with, as a rule it’s best to work A3 and up. That way, if you want to make a small drawing you still can.

indian ink drawingAlso, remember that a larger line drawing will leave larger clear areas that call out to be filled with information – such as shading or hatching. In a smaller drawing, this won’t be the case. But a small drawing will require you to be far more precise in your positioning and proportioning. For instance, you can see why trying to get even a passing likeness on a head that is only 10% life size becomes almost impossible when the slightest movement of the tip of your pencil is perhaps a nose-width’s distance.

gel pen portrait

Remember too that you can (within practical limits) draw the model or a part of it on any scale you like. You might do the head at (say) 130%. So then you’d need to sit or stand quite close and work at least at A2.



Conte figure drawing5. Am I using the right materials for the scale I intend to work at?

Choice of material is linked to the scale and speed of movements you wish to make. For example, pen and ink (be it a biro, dip pen or gel pen) would work fine with fairly fluid movements of the elbow up to about A3/A2. Larger than that and the line might be too thin and spidery and the pen unable to yield ink generously enough to make the medium practicable. You could make a thick bamboo dip pen or simply use a softer, more yielding material such as Conté, charcoal or soft pencil.


image0096. Can I handle the materials in the time available?

As with most things it’s best to keep it simple. If you have only 10 minutes you really haven’t time to mix paint. Certainly, if you have 5 minutes it’s much better to use (say) a pen – a waterproof gel pen, for instance (which is self-contained and won’t require sharpening) –  than scrabbling about with watercolours.

With practice you’ll find you can achieve more and more in a shorter duration. So given 20 minutes, say, you might be able to make a rapid pencil and watercolour study that captures the dynamics of the pose and hints at the light and shade, say.

Make sure you have what you need at hand – in the heat of the moment it’s easy to fail to notice that were you to simply move your materials from one side of you to the other, you’d instantly save time.

image0107. Have I got my paper the right way round?

This might sound an odd question to ask because you could simply draw what’s in front of you at a scale such that it fits on your paper. But if you want to develop your skills in picture-making alongside your skills in figure drawing, you ought to think about composition.

One way of doing this is to relate the figure to the edges of the paper. (Compositionally, the edges and corners of a picture are important because your eye moves out from the figure to them and back in from them.)

A small figure in a big space will appear disquietingly isolated – which might be just what you want!

figure watercolourBut a figure that just fits the paper with perhaps a little of the surroundings – a lead-in from the foreground and a hint of background, say – will provide a stable composition that looks planned. The result is that the drawing starts to work ‘pictorially’.

If you don’t always do it, you should at least sometimes try to make the figure fill most of the paper.

figure painting gouacheTo this end, check the extremities of the pose and see where they’ll come on the paper. As a general rule, avoid having the edge of your paper chop off limbs, hands, feet and heads. That said, the rules are here to be broken…

Generally a landscape format will best contain a reclining pose and a portrait format a standing one. But a great many poses (and usually most sitting ones seen from the side) are contained within a square, in which case you can have your paper any way up.


figure painting watercolourSeveral figures drawn on the same sheet can be very effective. Again it pays to plan. Think about how many you want to have on there and about the gaps or overlap between them and how they’ll relate. Choose your scale and then position each figure accordingly.





While drawing, ask yourself the following:


gel pen figure1. (For a standing figure,) have I got the feet planted correctly in relation to one another?

Check where the heel and toe of one foot come in relation to those of the other. The feet bear the weight and the figure grows out of them in the way that a tree grows from its roots. Better to make the feet slightly too big in relation to the body than too small. That way, the figure will at least look as though it is ‘planted’ and not as though it’s going to ‘fall over’.

Starting to draw always from the head down mightn’t be the best approach. Because this way, the tendency is to make the head (which to us psychologically seems important) too big and the feet, too small. Try ‘growing’ your figure by drawing from the feet up.

chalk life drawing2. Can I see a line of action through the pose?

For a standing pose there’s often a principle line that runs from a supporting foot up the leg through the torso to the head. (If the figure is seen from the rear, this might also take in the line of the spine.) If you can see this it will give you the dynamics and rhythm of the pose and help you to find the vitality in it. There might be more than one line.





watercolour figure3. Do I have the main joints correctly related?

Check where the knees come in relation to one another. If one leg is in front of the other, one knee will appear higher than the other. If the weight in a standing pose is on one leg, the hips will be tilted – check you have them at the right angle. If the hips are tilted then the shoulders will be too – one higher than the other. Check that and check too, the positions of elbows and wrists.

Check the vertical position of the head (chin, say) in relation to the feet.


gouache figure painting4. Are the spaces created between, limb, body and floor the correct shape and size?

Spaces created between limbs – such as between the legs, and between the torso and an arm resting hand on hip, say, can be very helpful. These spaces provide a quick means of cross-reference. By checking these negative spaces are the right size and shape, you can tell if you have the positive spaces (the body) in the correct position. (It may be a quick ‘text book cheat’ – and not what I’d suggest for figure drawing on the edge – but it can help.)

image0185. If any limbs pass in front of one another, do they align correctly in my drawing?

A hand clutched by the other behind a back, arms crossed, seated cross-legged poses, reclining poses – all of these can, depending on your viewpoint, present partially obscured limbs.

Always make sure that the limb is drawn continuously. That’s to say, even if you don’t draw it in, make sure that what appears on the other side (a hand or foot, the continuation of the same limb, say) comes out in the right position. If necessary, do draw it in.

image019The whole point about making a drawing as compared with taking a photo is that you aren’t making an image of the whole figure simultaneously. An observational drawing is a journey of exploration and discovery. By revealing the thought processes in the making of your drawing, these ‘exploratory’ marks will often make your drawing all the more engaging.

That’s also a good reason (at this stage) for resisting the temptation to rub out ‘wrong’ lines.




hand_16. Have I given due attention to the hands and feet?

A common mistake is to give the larger parts of the body and facial features so much attention that the hands and feet are neglected.

Being at the extremities, the hands and feet are really important in satisfactorily completing the figure. But more so, hands in particular are most amazingly expressive. They speak to you about the character of a person – a physically vigorous person will have hands to match – they also help evoke the mood of the pose.

The trouble is: hands are quite complex structures and the fingers are small in relation to the rest of the body parts. It’s easy to draw them badly such that they let down the rest of your drawing.

male life drawingThey key to drawing them well is simply to give them the time it takes to get them right. Look at where the line of the knuckles comes, where the fingers start, then where the first and second set of finger joints come and finally, where the fingertips end.

Hands are one part of the body that will stand a little exaggerated stylization. In fact this can, with practice, provide a solution to drawing hands quickly. (For examples, take a look at just about any hands drawn by Egon Schiele and by those in Picasso’s etching Le Déjeuner also called Le Repast frugal.)

The feet can be treated in just the same way, looking at where the toes start and locating the joints.

image0217. Does my drawing capture something of a likeness?

If you made a portrait, it really ought to, but a figure drawing is a different beast altogether.

Yes you should try to get some kind of a likeness of the facial features if you have time but what’s perhaps more important is to capture the essence and mood of the pose and the person’s physique as well as taking the drawing somewhere else in terms of your handling of the subject and materials.


It’s more important to draw a head that befits the body than to try to grab a likeness.

image0228. Are the overall proportions in your drawing correct?

Now things start to get interesting because you might also ask: what exactly are the ‘correct proportions’?

Sure bodies have a certain proportion but what I’m making is a drawing. How should my drawing match up with what I’m trying to represent?


The fact is there is no ‘right way’ to draw! Many drawing systems have evolved to try to show the world in 2-D – using what is the so-called ‘art of illusion’. The ancient Egyptian approach of showing the best (most informative) representation of each part of the body (hips, legs and feet seen side on, torso front-on, head in profile – so the nose reads – but with an eye almost from the front) – is no more ‘correct’ than the renaissance flair for creating the illusion of depth using perspective, or the Cubist’s knack of showing more than one point of view simultaneously, or the graphic novel illustrator’s bag of tricks that might provide all of these on a single page as well as giving characters speech and thought bubbles! When it comes to drawing (and painting) and contempoarary Fine Art as a whole, anything is up for grabs – that’s what makes it so exciting!

But bear in mind: there’s still such a thing as a good drawing (and conversely, a bad one). So the final piece of guidance here is this…

Each drawing you make will, from its point of departure, have (for want of a better phrase) a ‘visual logic’. A good drawing usually follows that logic through consistently.

So if, for example, you set out exaggerating the perspective of (say) the hand on the knee nearest you, so that the figure beyond it dwindles away rapidly in size, you might expect the head, when you finally reach it, to be tiny. And as counter-intuitive as the smallness of that head might seem to you, if you have the courage to follow your logic through, your drawing might take you to a place you never knew existed.

reclining figure drawing


That is why I mentioned in guide 3 in preparation for starting to draw, that the ‘rule’ that if you want to draw the whole figure you should position yourself at a distance such that you can take it in at a glance, is one to be broken. Because if you went very close up and drew the whole figure, you might achieve a tremendously startling distortion such that the figure was still perfectly in proportion.

watercolour figures


1st October 2010 © Nicholas Ferenczy all text and images














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