Lesson 5 Life Drawing: Design and the Figure


Design, in terms of linear drawing, is the pattern of essential shapes and lines seen in your subject and emphasised in your drawing.   Think of them as being often verbally definable - for example: “this strong vertical against all these slanting lines of similar angle.” They are an abstract set of relationships within the figure, helping us to see intelligently in essentials rather than passively copying edges, which gives strength and simplicity to the drawing, making it satisfying to look at.  As observable patterns in the pose, they also provide another way to check accuracy, and focussing on them can be a powerful way to organise the drawing accurately from the beginning.

Since design is all about pattern finding, I think we can include artistic anatomy as a type of design - patterns that are consistent between all human bodies or some subcategory such a sex or age.

The final and probably most important reason to consider design in the drawing is that this is where we begin to speak the language of composition - both within a single figure (as in the case of drawing or sculpture of a single figure) - and between figures and other elements in more complex compositions.

Activity 5: Double Envelope

2 x 4 -5 side envelopes to conceive of the figure as a simple pattern of two juxtaposed shapes

Look for the general shape of one part of the body to the general shape of another: 

- the broad or plump shape versus the elongate

- the shape leaning left versus the shape leaning right

- A vertical or horizontal shape stabilising the whole design against the more energetic or unstable direction of a diagonal shape

Try to think of these shapes as two "sentences".  The meaning of the "paragraph" (the whole figure) is largely in the relationship between the two sentences contained in it.  (see what I did there? ;) )

This way of thinking takes your focus of edges or even specific relationships  (eg the angle between two extremities) and has you look at them as part of the whole.  In other words, you need to look carefully at the angle and proportions of the sides of the shapes you are drawing - but before you start drawing them, you have an awareness of the whole shape.  Your observation of the edge informs the shape you can already envision, rather than observing a series of edges and voila! the shape arrives.

Activity 6: Projecting straight Design Long Lines

This really applies the techniques of projection and alignments used previously, except in this case it is done prior to the figure being blocked in at all.  In other words, rather than being a way to check and refine the figure it is a way to organise and establish the figure.

As with the previous activity of the "double envelope", Activity 6 intends to build on previous experience of organising the figure, placing the emphasis on the broadest possible relationships of:

- alignment of edges into one line (the left shoulder to ankle in the diagram at right)

- orientation of masses (as distinct from edges because the whole mass might move in a similar direction without the edges lining up)

As well as these alignments of 2D direction, we can think in terms of other relationships of lines 

-Parallel lines (eg the top of the right side of the hip and the and the angle of the right arm in the diagram)

You might say that horizontals and verticals are a specific example of this, since they have a relationship to the edges of the page, which is to say the angle at which the viewer sees the image).  The frame or edge of the page provides a strong, simple window through which to see the picture, and horizontals and verticals echo this strength and stability.

C, S and I: the fundamental lines

At this point we will begin to use C and S curves (along with the straight lines investigated in the previous Activity 6), to define the overall pattern of the pose and organise each of the parts.  The purpose is to reduce complexity to essentials, to geometricise infinitely complex surfaces of form. When we include c and s curves, as well as the straight lines we are already using, we multiply the number of patterns that we have available to organise the drawing, and so have the potential tocapture a great deal very efficiently.


There are 2 main types of Design Long Line to look for:

1. Anatomical Patterns and 2. Patterns specific to the pose

These are dealt with in more detail below.

1. Anatomical Patterns:

The figure repeats certain general sweeps - 

    -the s curve of the front of the leg from the side, 

    -the c curve of the back of the arm, or the front of the face (minus the nose), or the front of the torso, 

    -the straight line of the inside of the leg seen from the front or back.  


2. Patterns specific to the pose:

Where the anatomical patterns mentioned above provide a way to quickly represent a limb or torso in its proper place and in terms of its essential movement, Pose Specific patterns connect these patterns together, relating the parts, seeing the whole figure as an integrated design. 

Extensions: The body often extends the anatomical patterns further into the pose, creating an even longer line.  For example, the s-curve of the front of the leg from the side extending into the front of the torso. 

“magic” alignments: Sometimes though, a long connection can occur between points that seem to have randomly “or magically) aligned into an arc, or other line.  For example, we might find an arc connecting the head, shoulder, knee and hand, though there is not one physical line between.  Another good example of this is in a seated or reclining figure having an angle between extremities - an axis sitting in space.

both together: Finally, sometimes both types of pattern occur together - an s curve flowing through the front of the leg and front of the torso, might “jump” to the chin and continue around the face.

Activity 7: Five Long Lines

Using both anatomical patterns and pose specific patterns, use 5 C, S or I curves that could simplify the whole figure from top to bottom, followed by “the second pass” that finds the other side of each mass, and completes the figure, followed by defining the torso mass as simple form, and then the limbs. 

Activity 8: 3D design of the figure

Conceive of the figure in terms of C, S, and I 3D masses, emphasising the essential relationships of those large masses

Design in painting composition.

In the examples below you can see how the contrast of specific edges of tonal shapes or the overall movement of figures and objects set up various harmonies and contrasts, with effects that sometimes stabilise the image and sometimes generate movement.  Ultimately, I believe the aim of composing in this way is to utilise the abstract movements in service to the psychological or conceptual idea of the picture.

There is of course more going on in these pictures in an abstract sense than is captured in these diagrams - for example tonal design, and the division of the picture plan into areas of varying size.  These diagrams are intended to link some of the ideas about design in the figure that we investigate in this lesson to how they can be applied in terms of composing paintings with multiple figures/ subjects.  I hope also that seeing these ideas in this context can help to reinforce the idea that particular design elements have certain psychological effects on the viewer, which might not be as clear when seen in the context of a single figure - for example, the stabilising or calming of horizontals or verticals, versus the movement generated by a 3D spiral. 

I also wish to illustrate how design elements (for example a set of parallel diagonal lines) is really a certain relationship between those lines.  There can then be relationships between design elements (for example one set of diagonal lines opposing a set at a different angle).  




"Rehearsal Space #7"

Dark green indicates actual vertical edges

Pale green indicates more subtle implied verticals extending some of the verticals

Dark red indicates the dominant horizontal

Pale red indicates several implied horizontals

Pale Pink indicates two spirals that are implied in space and their implied movements

Dark Pink indicates two sets of radiating lines and their implied movements

Purple and Blue are actual (dark) and implied (Pale) sets of diagonals that are of less importance but nonetheless contribute to the harmonisation of the design

In this picture, the central sitting figure is the most important.  The radiating dark pink lines and 3D spiralling pale pink lines seem to flow towards and around this figure, and provide movement.  The two sets of diagonals (Blue and Purple) create movement as well, while the horizontals and verticals calm the space in which the action takes place, providing a relief from the chaos.

"Inland Sea"

Red indicates the dominant 3D spiral in the picture, with the second image with red lines indicating secondary movements that reinforce the movement of the main spirals

Purple indicates the 3D S-curve movement back through the figures into the distance

Green indicates the repeated 2D diagonal movement that creates a downwards energy in sympathy with the movement of the spiral in red.

Both the red and green movements are opposed by the 3D purple movement and the 2D yellow diagonals.  The yellow lines, leaning back against the green and red movements are led by the central dominant one that connects the face of the main figure to the lone dead tree.  

This visual tension was intended to support the tension of the figure's introspection.