Figure Drawing
Sketching the Human Body.

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Life Drawing Class in the Vatican.

FIGURE DRAWING CLASSES
For details of colleges who
offer courses on life drawing,
see: Best Art Schools.

Figure Drawing
Techniques, History

Contents

What Is Figure Drawing?
Techniques
What Happens In a Life Drawing Class?
Typical Figure Drawing Course
History of Figure Drawing
Italian Renaissance: Golden Age of Drawing
Greatest Renaissance Exponents of Figure Drawing
Drawing Media Used by Renaissance Artists
Modern Drawings of the Human Figure
How Much is a Drawing Worth?

For more about draughtsmanship, in chalk, pencil, charcoal, pastels, and pen and ink, see the art of drawing, and the art of sketching.



Vitruvian Man (c.1492)
Academy Gallery, Venice.
Leonardo da Vinci's graphic
illustration of the human body
derived from the geometry and
human proportions outlined by
Vitruvius in De Architectura (1486).

HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT
See: History of Art Timeline.

What Is Figure Drawing?

The term 'figure drawing' usually refers to the instructional class (known as drawing from life, or life class) taught in many academies and schools of fine art, such as the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, during which students study and draw a live model sitting in front of them.

This classic method of representational art is regarded as the best way for aspiring painters and sculptors to acquire the skill of drawing the human body and mastering its line, shape and depth. By comparison, copying the human figure from photographs or from memory is traditionally seen as inferior by most arts teachers. (See also: Pencil Drawings as well as Charcoal Drawings and Pen-and-Ink Drawings.)

Drawing remains the foundation for all types of fine art, including painting and sculpture, as well as architecture. Other types of art that benefit from good figurative draughtsmanship, include: illustration and illuminated manuscripts, as well as caricature art and cartoons.


Phrygian Sibyl (1511) By Raphael.
British Museum. One of the finest
chalk drawings.


The Blue Dancers (1899) By Degas.
Pushkin Museum. One of the greatest
pastel drawings. For another graphic
medium, see: Conte Crayon Drawings.

Figure Drawing Techniques: Foreshortening

Most art students, and even professional artists, typically will do almost anything to avoid drawing figures in motion. A figure in motion is one that is in the middle of an action, moving from point A to point B. It may be running, pulling, pushing or grabbing Torsos that twist and bend and arms that reach send waves of panic through students in most art classes. Why? Because drawing a body in movement presents far more technical challenges than a static body rooted to the spot. To be convincing, the artist needs to skillfully render correct weighting (which leg bears the weight of the movement?) and muscle action (which muscles are strained and which appear relaxed). He will also need to determine the directional relationship of the limbs to each other. In addition, we have the problem of foreshortening: that is, the dimensional distortion of a limb that is closer to the viewer (one limb for example may reach out to the viewer while the other is thrown behind in the opposite direction).


Reproduction drawing III (2009-10)
By Jenny Saville, famous for her
depictions of obese female nudes.

Even more challenging is to draw a figure in motion using deep foreshortening. That is, a figure seen from above or below. Seen from below, for example, the chin and nose are the dominant form; from above, the dome-shape of the cranial mass becomes dominant. When it comes to sketching a figure in motion, the torso is of key importance. Because any movement of the torso will throw the legs, head and arms out of their previous relationship, and into a new one. The slightest movement of the ribs immediately shifts the head and arms. An important drawing aid is what is known as the centre line. This is an imaginary line that runs through the body. It helps the artist keep the relationship of different parts of the body in alignment. After the torso, the legs are of next importance (more so than the arms) because legs express weight and tension. If they are not accurately rendered they make the drawing look unstable and unconvincing. The correct positioning of the feet and ankles in supporting the legs is also critical. Of third importance are the arms. While movements of the arms do not cause great displacement of the torso or legs, they are capable of a wide-range of unique movements. They should always be considered as a single unit, never individually rendered. Artists are taught to visualize an imaginary line running from one arm, over the collarbone and down to the other arm.

Drawing a figure in motion accurately is a highly technical skill, one that was forever practiced by some of the greatest Old Masters of our time, including Michelangelo, Tintoretto and Leonardo da Vinci.

What Happens In a Life Drawing Class?

Also called Life Drawing, most figure drawing classes involve drawing a naked model. Without clothes the model can be rendered in a timeless fashion. (See also Female Nudes.) Stripped of culture and place in time, there is no difference between those figures drawn today and those created in a Renaissance classroom. The nude figure, depending on pose and artistic skill, can suggest every aspect of humanity from the pathetic to the narcissistic or heroic. If you attend a figure drawing class, you are participating in a tradition that is hundreds, possibly thousands of years old. The structure of your class will depend on the venue and person offering the course. Some teachers prefer to let students render their own sketches, offering tips or corrections as the work progresses. Other teachers take a more instructional approach - first doing and then encouraging the students to try. The latter approach is more appropriate for beginner students.

Typical Figure Drawing Course

The following is an outline of a typical 6-stage figure drawing course. During the class, a variety of media can be used to represent the model's body, including: pencil, pen and ink, charcoal, crayon, pastels, chalk or mixed media, although pencil is the classical tool. (See also: Pencil Drawings as well as Charcoal Drawings and Pen-and-Ink Drawings.)

Stage 1
Basic proportions of the human body and how all the parts relate to each other.

Stage 2
Drawing a live model in 3D form, grasping measurements and center line.

Stage 3
Creating a convincing silhouette and learning to draw the head, torso, legs and arms accurately.

Stage 4
Continue practicing the human figure, also adding tones and shades for a more convincing modelling and shadow casting.

Stage 5
Practice drawing the hands and feet from different angles and work on your modelling and rendering skills.

Stage 6
Create finished drawings ready for group exhibition or for your portfolio.

History of Figure Drawing

The earliest known drawings of human figures were created as part of the prehistoric tradition of cave painting, from about 17,000 BCE onwards, in France and Australia. In France, the earliest drawing of a man - a prone stick-like figure - can be seen in the Shaft of the Dead Man (15,000 BCE) at Lascaux Cave, in the Dordogne. On the other side of the world, human forms first appeared in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Known as "The Bradshaws", this unique style of aboriginal art, at least 17,000 years old, consists of stick-figures (up to 6-feet in height) drawn in fine detail with accurate anatomical proportions. Despite animals being drawn in quite a life-like fashion, Paleolithic drawings of humans remain rigidly non-naturalistic. Not until the late Mesolithic era (c.6,000 BCE) do we see more natural-looking pictures of humans. However, the fact that these drawings of matchstick men have survived at all, is a miracle, and owes a great deal to the fact that artists sketched on rock.

Ancient art from the early civilizations of antiquity (Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Greece, Persia, Rome) also featured drawings of humans, but typically these were sketched on less weather-proof media, such as papyrus or wood panels, and few have survived. The only type of figurative art which survived antiquity in any significant amount, was statuary and relief sculpture, although Ancient Greek sculptors succeeded in inspiring later generations of stone masons, painters and draughtsmen. (See also: Greek Art.) In particular, they championed the idea that the human body was the ideal subject for a work of art: a view echoed and developed further by the masters of the Italian Renaissance, notably Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael.

Italian Renaissance: The Golden Age of Drawing

It was these three artists in particular, that made drawing - or disegno - respectable, since up to then it had been regarded as merely preparatory design work - rather than an independent form of fine art - or, it was used to simply record and copy finished works of art, including paintings and statues. The wider availability of paper after 1550 also meant that drawings could more easily be produced and collected. Leopold de Medici and Giorgio Vasari both amassed a great collection of sketches (Medici had amassed 12,000 drawings by 1689). The Renaissance era (c.1400-1600) unquestionably represented the apogee of drawing as an art form. Workshop apprentices working for painters, sculptors and goldsmiths absorbed the fundamentals of sketching from working with drypoint and metalpoint on wax tablets, before proceeding to more expensive media, such as chalk or charcoal.

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)
Leonardo was a master of topographic human anatomy, executing a large number of detailed sketches of muscles, tendons and other anatomical features. He intended to publish his drawings in a treatise on anatomy, but on his death in 1519, the drawings remained unpublished among his private papers. Their significance was lost to the world for 400 years but today they can be viewed in the British Royal Art Collection at the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace. He strove to depict the universal nature of man. Among his drawings he listed 'joy, with different ways of laughing', as well as the 'cause of laughter'. He strove to capture the different movements of killing, 'flight, fear, ferocity, boldness' as well as 'weeping in different ways'. Not happy with depicting the human figure on the outside, Leonardo wanted to know what made them tick on the inside. In the 1500s the Black Death plagued Europe, and the artist made the most of the opportunity by dissecting as many corpses as he could lay his hands on. He was probably one of the first artists to accurately draw the human reproductive system. Other masterpieces by Leonardo include: Head of Girl, (study for Virgin of the Rocks 1483) executed with silverpoint on light brown paper; Five Grotesque Heads (1494), pen and ink drawing.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)
Michelangelo, too, was a prolific draughtsman, sketcher and exponent of figurative art. After the death of Raphael in 1520 he dominated Renaissance art for another 40 years. His primary interest was the male nude and he relentlessly sketched figures in different poses in an attempt to undercover the essence of their spirit. He executed numerous preliminary studies for his two masterpiece sculptures, the Pieta and David, as well as copies of sketches for his landmark Genesis fresco (1508-12) and Last Judgment fresco (1536-41), painted on the ceiling and altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. (See also: the Creation of Adam.) Michelangelo's other drawings encompass works in pen and ink, pen and wash, charcoal as well as red and black chalks. He never intended most of his drawings to be exhibited in public and would have been horrified at the thought. Biographers speculate it was perhaps because he wished to conceal the amount of preparation work he did for his major works. In fact, just before he died he burnt a lot of his drawings. One exception perhaps was his drawing Tityus (1533, Royal Collection, Windsor Castle). Tityus was a gift and one of the first drawings to be considered an artwork in its own right.

Raphael (Raffaello Santi) (1483-1520)
Raphael, another master of human anatomy, often began his figure sketching with an under drawing using a stylus. The sharp tip of this instrument left faint impressions on the surface of the paper. He then drew with red chalk over the impressions when he was satisfied with the outline. An example is his study for the Phrygian Sibyl (1511, British Museum). This female figure is wearing classical drapery and has very masculine arms and legs (she was probably drawn from a male model). Many of Raphael's drawings are finished to a high-degree, with white highlights and shading. He often relied on drawings to refine his poses for his paintings, and judging by the large amount of surviving sketches, he was more prolific in this area than Michelangelo and Leonardo.

Greatest Renaissance Exponents of Figure Drawing

Pisanello (1394-1455)
Fra Angelico (c.1395-1455)
• Jacopo Bellini (1400-1470)
• Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-69)
• Benozzo Gozzoli (1420-97)
• Gentile Bellini (1429-1507)
Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516)
• Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506)
Botticelli (1445-1510)
Luca Signorelli (1445-1523)
Pietro Perugino (1445-1523)
• Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)
• Filippino Lippi (1457-1504)
Vittore Carpaccio (c.1465-1525/6)
• Fra Bartolommeo (1472-1517)
• Michelangelo (1475-1564)
Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556)
• Raphael (1483-1520)
Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547)
Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530)
Titian (1485-1576)
Correggio (Antonio Allegri) (1489-1534)
• Giulio Romano (c.1492-1546)
• Baccio Bandinelli (1493-1560)
• Pontormo (Jacopo Carrucci) (1494-1556)
Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540)
Parmigianino (Francesco Mazzola) (1503-40)

Drawing Media Used by Renaissance Artists

Here are just a very few examples of the media used in Renaissance drawings and sketches in order to obtain precise effects.

• Metalpoint and brown wash over black chalk heightened with white on salmon-pink paper.
• Metalpoint heightened with white gouache on lilac-grey paper.
• Brush and brown wash with ink, traces of red wash, on parchment.
• Pen and brown wash, heightened with white over traces of black chalk on blue-green paper.
• Brush drawing in grey-brown and white distemper on linen tinted dark grey.
• White highlighting and brown gouache over metalpoint on ochre paper.
• Black chalk, pen and ink with brown wash and white highlighting.
• Black chalk with touches of white highlighting, pen and grey ink on grey-beige paper.
• Pen and ink and faint brown wash over black chalk on pink-tinted paper.

Red chalk was another popular drawing medium during the Renaissance era, as it was the preferred medium for nude sketches because of its malleability and ability to portray human flesh.

Modern Drawings of the Human Figure

Since the Renaissance, nearly every art movement, including Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassicism, Realism, Impressionism and Expressionism, has featured artists who were supremely talented at sketching, and who executed drawings in a wide variety of media. Here are a tiny handful of great sketchers with examples of their works.

- Albrecht Durer: Madonna with Many Animals (1503, Albertina, Vienna)
- Rembrandt: An artist in a Studio (1632, Rijksmuseum)
- Nicolas Poussin: Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1656, Met Museum NYC)
- Watteau: Study for L'Indifferent (1710, Rotterdam)
- Francois Boucher: Vertumnus and Pomona (1760–70, Met Museum NYC)
- Jacques-Louis David: Male Nude (1764, Louvre)
- Jacques-Louis David: The Three Horatii Brothers (1785, Musee Bonnat)
- Pierre-Paul Prud'hon: Seated Female Nude (c.1795-1800, Met Museum NYC)
- Goya: Three Men Digging (c.1800, Prado)
- Edouard Manet: Deux Religieux Agenouilles (1857, Musee d'Orsay)
- Honore Daumier: Literary Discussion in Second Class (1864, Le Charivari)
- Honore Daumier: The Third Class Carriage (1864, Walters Art Museum)
- Edgar Degas: Dancer Adjusting Her Slipper (1873, Met Museum NYC)
- Edgar Degas: Woman Bathing in Shallow Tub (1885, Musee d'Orsay)
- Edgar Degas: Blue Dancers (1899, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts)
- Edgar Degas: The Dancers (1899, Toledo Museum of Art)
- Henry Moore: Women Seated in the Underground (1941, Tate)
- Francis Bacon: Turning Figure (1959-62, Tate Collection)

How Much is a Drawing Worth?

It's only a sketch on paper, right? What can it really be worth? Well, in 2012 a sketch of a man's head entitled Head of a Young Apostle (1519) by Raphael sold for a record £29.7 million at auction, smashing its pre-sale estimate of £10-15 million.

Educational Resources

Art Evaluation: How to Appreciate Art
How to Appreciate Paintings
How to Appreciate Sculpture

 

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