Good Body: Figure Drawing Fundamentals

Figure drawing is the study of the human body in all of its various states of being: standing, sitting, laying down, and in all forms of active movement poses. Usually, the main goal of figure drawing is not the human subject itself, but rather, the human form itself. Figure drawing is considered one of the more difficult drawing techniques to master, because the human form is a complicated and dynamic subject, constantly changing and moving with life.

Tip: When you are first staring out, it is important to use models and images of humans that have few if any clothing. Nude models give you a better reference for the body and its postures and details. Clothing tends to distort the body's proportions, and can be difficult to draw from if you are not already very familiar with body proportions and characteristics.

One of the most important elements of figure drawing is understanding the proportions of the human body. Traditionally, the body is, on average, 7 1/2 heads tall, but the classic masters of sculpture depict the human body as 8 heads tall, which gives the figure more presence and a more pleasing proportion, and this is often called the Heroic Figure.

Lines of Action
The first step to successful figure drawing is to identify the line of action in the subject you are studying, whether that is an actual live model, a manikin, or a reference image. The line of action defines the shape of the body's pose, and will guide your drawing more accurately than attempting to render the body piece by piece. The line of action also helps establish pose and proportions. To find the line of action, draw a line from the subject's pit of the neck to the groin, or bottom of the torso. If the pose is more action oriented, or more dynamic, then the line of action might include the subject's head and the leg in which the body's weight is resting. Once you establish the line of action--also called the gesture line--draw that line on your paper with one smooth, solid stroke to evoke the fluidity of the figure. Fill out the rest of the pose with smaller gesture lines that define the arms, legs, shoulders, and hips. Be attentive to the lengths of the limbs in relation to the body; for example, legs should be longer than arms, and forearms should be shorter than upper arms. Make sure these lines are strong, straight, and solid to give you a solid figure foundation to build on.

Once you have established the lines of action that define the subject's pose, you can now build on the dimensional aspects of the human figure, and give it depth. This is where we use the traditional geometric shapes to define the pieces of the body, also called blocking. There are four basic shapes of life drawing: sphere, cube, cylinder, and cone. Use these four shapes to block in your figure. If you are using the 7 1/2 heads rule, pay close attention to how the appendages relate to that proportion, especially when blocking in the figure. Envision each part of the body as one of the four life shapes, and determine how that shape is positioned. If the figures arms are going away from the viewer, then they will appear more foreshortened (see below) and you will see more of the base or top of the cylinder, and less of the side, that mimics their life shape. Once you become more familiar with figure drawing, this step might become less necessary, unless the figure's pose is more difficult and has strong foreshortening in the limbs. Once you've blocked your figure, double check the proportions to make sure the figure is as close to accurately rendered as possible.

Blocking serves as the foundation for the dimensional figure, but drawing in the silhouette is a good way to test negative-positive space balance and composition. Silhouetting is a common technique used by comic book artists and storyboard artists to check focus and balance of the overall frame.

Foreshortening is one of the harder drawing techniques to master. This occurs when any element of the figure's body is extended toward the viewer or artist, when the extended body part appears shorter than it would from the front or in profile because its entire length is not fully visible. Accurate foreshortening takes practice, so challenge yourself with difficult, dynamic poses so you can develop an eye for foreshortening.