Figure Drawing for Artists Who Don’t Have a Figure

Figure drawing strategies for artists who want to draw the nude (or nude-ish) human figure but don’t have a model.

Figure Drawing

Figure Drawing

My First Nude
Figure drawing is a tradition in fine art education. The first time I drew a live nude model was in college. She posed for us on the second or third day of class in the Drawing 101 course. For a shy Midwestern girl like me, it was both shocking and fascinating to see someone take off their clothes in public. My artistic mind-set took over quickly, though, as I studied the model’s figure and made the first few charcoal marks on the big sheet of drawing paper that was propped up on my drawing horse.

To artists, the human body is mesmerizing. The adult body has core proportions which are nearly the same for everyone no matter if the body is skinny, fat, young, or old. Once you know those proportions, drawing any person is much easier. You can study charts and graphs of human proportions, but there’s really only one way to learn them so well that you can draw them instinctively; you need to draw nude human figures. Because most of us don’t have access to life drawing courses, here are some alternatives that have worked well for me.

How About You?
The most easily accessible model is you. All you need is a full-length mirror, a warm room with good lighting, a few sketching supplies, and a locked door. The bedroom is a good place to set up because you probably feel pretty natural being nude in there. If it’s daytime and you have any windows that aren’t too revealing, open those curtains and see how the light looks. Arrange a chair so that the light is shining on you in a way that doesn’t cast a shadow across your sketch pad as you hold it. A freestanding full-length mirror would be perfect for this exercise, but if you don’t have one, take yours off the wall so you can move it around. Experiment with the placement of the mirror until you can sit in the chair (or on the bed), hold your drawing pad in a comfortable drawing position, and see enough of your body to make an interesting pose. A pose that’s slightly to one side or the other will give the best body view since the drawing pad will be in front of you. Now, lock the door, doff your clothes, and draw!

Drawing yourself is a psychologically revealing thing to do. Very quickly, you “hear” all the opinions you’ve ever had about your body, good and bad. We don’t really “see” ourselves, and it can be insightful to just sit with yourself, while you quietly observe how you really look, as you draw what you see.

Your Significant Other
While drawing yourself is good practice, you’ll eventually want to draw other people, too. If you have a significant other, they might be persuaded to pose for you. If shyness is a problem, or they don’t like to be “stared” at, a strategically placed lightweight sheet gives a “covered” feeling to the poser while revealing enough of the body to be interesting to the artist. My own sweet husband doesn’t have a shy bone in his body but can’t sit still through a drawing session of any reasonable length, so I often draw him while he’s sleeping. He sleeps very soundly and wears very little to bed, so, I just pull back the covers and, well, you get the picture.

Really Good Friends
I have two wonderful drawing buddies. In the beginning, we got together because they were interested in drawing and wanted me to show them how to get started, but drawing with them quickly turned into much more than just that. I learn a lot by sharing what I know, and they really make me think about how I draw when they ask questions. I’m sure, when we progress to the point of figure drawing, we won’t have a bit of hesitation about being each other’s models. If you have a group of drawing friends, suggest that you get together and sketch each other. If you don’t feel brave enough to bring up the idea of full nude figure drawing, suggest that you all take off your shoes and draw each other’s feet. Feet, hands, knees, and elbows, are notoriously hard to draw, so, even if you only draw those parts of each other, everyone benefits.

Reference Photo
If all else fails, consider using a digital camera to take some photos of your model and then make a print yourself. Working from a photograph is not the same as drawing from life, but if you want to draw the human figure, and that’s all you have to work with, you can make the most of it by not using any drawing aids except those used in traditional life drawing. Make a commitment to draw from the photograph entirely by sight, without copying or tracing in anyway. Make the photo large and tape it to stiff backing so that you can prop it up in a vertical position. Arrange yourself and your drawing tablet in front of the photograph so that you can take measurements with your pencil and thumb just as you do when drawing from life.

Figure Drawing Software
If you can draw from your computer screen comfortably, there’s a good visual reference software called Virtual Pose. The original version’s CD contains two nude models (male and female) in nine different poses each. You can rotate each pose 360 degrees so you really have many different angles to choose from. There are several different versions of Virtual Pose available now, with both clothed and nude models. They work on both Windows and Mac OS

You gotta see ’em to draw ’em.
Figure drawing is essential to the development of your fine art drawing skills. If you want to draw people well, either clothed or not, you need to study how the human body is made. Even if there are no life drawing classes being offered near you, you can still find models to draw if you use a little creativity, sensitivity, and humor.

When I’m drawing from life, I don’t like to take a lot of supplies with me. Here are my favorite sketching tools for this type of drawing session.

  • Cretacolor Monolith Woodless Pencil- 2B – for quickly laying down wide swaths of graphite.
  • Canson Classic Cream Drawing Pad 14×17, or Strathmore 400 Drawing Pad – 14×17 – an inexpensive paper that works well with graphite.
  • Gray Paper Stumps or tissues – for quick blending
  • Faber-Castell Dust-Free Vinyl Eraser