If you’re like many beginner artists, you may be putting off learning human anatomy. After a few attempts at what you think should be intuitive, you conclude that perhaps your talent only applies to drawing animals and objects.

I avoided drawing people for years because I thought that my talent must not be great enough if I couldn’t draw them from the outset. That was before I learned that by mastering some basic fundamentals, anybody could draw anything! In this blog post, I will share some techniques that I learned in art school figure drawing, and the examples are my real homework!

One of the best exercises for warming up your observational skills is blind contour drawing. You look at your reference, but not the page, and you have to make the whole picture in one continuous line. 

You may feel foolish about your final result, but this is an unfair judgement on yourself because these drawings are a warmup exercise. Even people who practice them a lot do not get as precise of results as they would if they looked at the page.

The activity is meant to get you to observe the human form more consciously instead of relying on your brain’s shorthand way of interpreting visual data. If you want to take a deep dive into Blind Contour Drawing, you can check out our blog post here or Pedro Loureiro's Mini Workshop

The following exercise is the timed gesture drawing. Generally, these can be timed anywhere between one minute and an hour, depending on the level of detail. This one was a three-minute pose if I remember the day correctly. Draw from the shoulder instead of the wrist, and draw large.

This keeps the work free-flowing. It helps with proportions if you draw an “envelope” around the “corners” of the form before you fill in the actual lines.

You can see my “envelope” connecting the right knee of the model to the right elbow, and in some other places too. Basically, draw a loose polygon that the figure could fit into snugly, which helps place the forms.

As you become more experienced with timed gesture drawings, you can include more detail. The secret to getting more visual information onto the page in less time is to start with the largest shapes and shadows because those convey the most information in the least time.

When you are through with those, add the second-biggest details, and so on. Only do small details when you are done with bigger details. This way, you don’t end up with a three-minute pose where you only drew a foot!

Another lovely exercise is to sketch people in public. I recommend using a pen so that you can’t erase it. So that you think more about getting the main shapes correct rather than getting bogged down in details.

(Side note: You can see in my notes on this assignment that I was very, very self-critical. In retrospect, I think these drawings are fine, even though I’m better at it now. Don’t be too hard on yourself!)

It is beneficial to do focused drawings of essential body parts that are difficult to get right. Do some detailed drawings of your own hands, friends’ hands, and reference images of hands in online databases.

Hands are less complicated in complex drawings when you know how they work based on simple studies like this.

Also, working on toned paper with black and white charcoal can elevate your ability to perceive light and shadow. It will be more valuable since you have to draw both instead of focusing only on shading.

This was my final assignment in figure painting. I had one other figure painting class and four figure drawing classes. I share specific details about my homework like this because I want you to know that figure drawing is so important in art.

My college required more classes devoted to it than to any other subject. My time formally studying figure drawing added up to a full calendar year. Even now, there is room for much improvement.

Practice gesture and anatomy often, and remember to keep your movements loose as you draw or paint so that the figure stays lifelike. Remember your fundamentals, such as perspective and light, because those apply to any subject you draw. Everything can be broken down into basic shapes, even hands.

Remember that for every beautiful drawing of a figure that someone posts on social media, dozens of less beautiful ones are buried deep in sketchbooks from years past. Figure drawing will come easier the more you practice it, and it isn’t even scary once you have gotten yourself to start.

Elsa Wahlstrom is an illustrator and graphic novelist based in Minnesota. She specializes in all things cozy and calm, but adds humor where she can. When she isn’t drawing, she enjoys playing musical instruments, but you’re more likely to see her staring at some silly tree or something. 

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