Lesson 7 Life Drawing

- Warm up with exaggerating gesture activities

Activity 9: Line of Action/ 3D sweep

Activity 10: Building from the torso outwards into Long Lines

Activity 11: Beginning with 5 Design Long Lines, and then modifying them to exaggerate the gesture


Acitivity 12: "Draw Responsibly" Activity

Activity 13: Gestural and anatomical studies of parts of the body (Arms and shoulders in this session)



We have now covered the bulk of the aspects that I have found to be most significant in my drawing development, and in those that I have observed or taught.  It has only really been a crude introduction though - and with the end of the course approaching, you will be left to your own devices  keep on doing the activities of life drawing and the studies of form and anatomy that we have only begun here.

Below I will discuss several topics that I consider important to managing your own practise into the future - which is ultimately more important than any one teacher who can only point you towards the way forward or particular errors that might be holding you back.

  1. Managing your practise and keeping the basic tools sharp

  2. Balancing the aspects of drawing

  3. Psychology, emotion and poetry

  4. Chasing your authentic voice


Managing your practise and keeping the basic tools sharp

To the extent that you wish to explore and achieve in representational drawing, painting and sculpture, you need to dedicate regular effort.  These are difficult skills and if they are not going forward they are going backward.  You can learn something every time you draw, if you go at it with an intention to push skill, area of study such as an area of anatomy, or a quality of drawing - you either succeed or you learn (provided you stay in the right mindset - see “3. Managing your psychology and emotions” below).   

A great way to externalise the practise and make it regular is to find an untutored life drawing session to attend - each week, come rain, hail or shine, you show up.  Do what you can, even if you are tired or it is not flowing.  Let those times be a chance to become more aware of what is not working - sometimes they are the best learning times, in my experience.  Do your best to be at your best on those days.  Take a nap beforehand, get enough sleep, drink water, bring food.  I know it sounds silly to say, but it all helps, and you are responsible.

Make your practise intentional and focussed - at least for some of the time (other times can be a more freeform approach to the subject, responding however you feel).  You can work through each of the activities of this course, perhaps a couple per session.  Or use some other activities from a book or of your own devising, or simply reflect on what your biggest weakness is at that moment and go to town on that.

That will set you ahead of the majority of people I see going to life drawing sessions - who, to their credit, do show up, but often don’t have a plan, something to work on.  You might find you end up modifying from the plan, but at least your mind was engaged with an intention that can take you away from simply trying to replicate the appearance of the model.  I see people drawing the same way for years - without making much progress - because they are not confronting the particular weaknesses they need to.  

And finally - and this is key - a life drawing session does not stop with that session.  At the bare minimum, look through your drawings when you get home and reflect on them.  You can investigate areas that were a problem, dissect them, make diagrams, refer to anatomy texts, apps or models.  Try to redraw a particular pose from memory, constructing the torso bony structures and soft tissues, as well as the flow of the pose.  This is what musicians learn to do - take apart the problem areas and fix them, and then re-integrate with the whole piece.  Being logical and analytical is not against the expression and the music, it is precisely because the music is so important that you are willing to do this work.

The Muses will not forget your efforts, and will probably reward you at the very next session.  In any case, you are doing something for your future studio practise - your work independent of any session or teacher.  

As a first step, the weekly life session is a great place to start - the inspiring subject, the social pressure and shared commitment and values encourage you to go.  Then, when you realise that you have stalled in your progress, one session per week becomes two, or something else, such as drawing from imagination, from the landscape, or a long pose session.


Balancing the aspects of drawing

Drawing is a subtle balance of things, it is never solved once and for all - instead requiring constant maintenance to keep the basic tool kit sharp.  We wander in and out of having that balance work to say the things we wish to.  The sense of knowing what you want to do, being able to taste it will dissolve and you are left with a deeply unsatisfying result and even unsatisfying experience of drawing.  


Table of Aspects to balance in life drawing

Drawing, like other art forms, sports and skills that rely on an intuitively felt “sweet spot” is a kind of balancing act - one wavers between mistakes that lie to either side of the balance point.  Noticing and compensating for this is one key to productively practising drawing.


What other aspects do you feel yourself trying to balance in your drawing practise?


Psychology, emotion and poetry

A bit like a sport, figure drawing will bring up the best and worst of you - your ego (depending on how you define that term), your negative thought patterns - anxiety, comparison to others, attachment to outcome, the desire for instant gratification.  This is an enormous area - but one that we all need to take responsibility for - identifying where your negative or unhelpful patterns are, accepting them but also finding ways to reduce or manage them.  I consider art, and the specific field of figure drawing to be important in my own psychological maturation, giving me insights about myself, and developing skills that have applied to nearly every other aspect of my life.  If you have more skills in another field and are coming in to drawing the figure, see if you can use the analogous qualities within drawing.

Alex Kanevsky:

“Build up your self esteem to the level that might seem unwarranted. This will help you ignore both positive and negative responses to your paintings. Both are usually misguided, since they come from the outside. Be your most severe and devastating critic, while never doubting that you are the best thing since sliced bread.”

I have noticed, in myself at my better times, as well as in artists of all types that I admire - a quality of innocence from the usual motivations of society.  Instead there is a sense of intensely valuing a mysterious poetry that you can’t quite see, but you can feel, that teases you and then vanishes, but if you are prepared to chase it then it can unexpectedly throw you onto the ground with its intensity - and in the next moment it can give you this power.   It is the one thing that is real, the ache of dawn sunlight haunting each new moment.  It is not done for anyone else's benefit - not for prestige or approval.  There is a vast freedom in the beautiful thing - in the doing of the drawing or painting or whatever  - in itself, for its own value.  For making that poetry as the purpose of one’s life. Everything else is the devil trying to seduce you with shiny, meaningless trinkets.  But from any moment you can feel that energy the fight is already won, there is relief and joy.  For all normal people, I suppose this looks just weird - but I’m pretty sure some part of them senses it too.  


Chasing your authentic voice

You probably know what I am talking about above.  If not, consider a drawing or painting that delights you, or a subject, a form or a light falling on a particular subject.  That delight is the wide open sense, the feeling of poetry that I am talking about.  That is the authentic part of an artist in my opinion, and it is difficult to find and to keep returning to.

I continue to believe that if I do work that delights me, that moves me, that contains at least a little bit of the sad joy I am talking about, it will move someone else too.  I trust that it will matter to someone else.  There is no formula for this, because it depends on you, and your particular way of seeing the world now.

Responsibility for line

One of the points that my teacher of life drawing, David Paulson, impressed on me was to have responsibility for my line.  This was most compelling in his many demonstrations, in which I was inspired by the intensity of his care for line, for the way his line caressed or forced simplicity into the drawing, his ability to build the form with elegance and directness.  This does not mean that drawing “by correction”, and working from light, broad marks to specific contours is wrong - in fact I have found this incredibly useful and important to my drawing practise.  But I have also found it extremely useful to practise a mode of drawing in which one places marks in a very direct, confident way, straight onto the contours.  This means essentially skipping all the steps of finding broad shapes and forms and fitting more specific forms into them, before finding the final contour: we go straight for the final contour, drawing by dead reckoning, building from one form to the next, taking a risk and trying to manage the whole thing by the skin of our teeth.  I find that this way of working is important for keeping me really engaged with drawing, rather than relying on the idea that everything can be corrected.  At first this is uncomfortable - we are demanding a lot of ourselves - lots of focus.  We are asking our subconscious to do more work, to solve multiple problems at once, that our conscious mind could not possibly hold all at once.  Yet this demanding seems to push the “feeling of form” to a higher level, even if we don’t get it quite right.  There is something magical that can happen when we engage in this way.  


I think that one of the powerful things about building the figure with very specific lines is that in order to do this we are forced to strategise the placement of lines - too short and we can’t see the relation to the whole figure, but too long and we can lose the form and accuracy.  I find that building from the torso outwards, but with an awareness of the long lines of the figure is the basis for success in this approach.  In practise, this looks like a combination of the last two activities from last chapter.  Note however, that in the end there are no hard and fast rules - just useful guidelines, things to come back to.  For instance, if a pose relies on the figure leaning on a shoulder, we might start building from this point in order to make sure that this tension is captured.  Or if the figure has a large sweep or twist to one side, lines capturing this quality might be the first to be placed down, with the next lines building the volumes of the torso in relation to the original marks.


Activity 12: Responsible Lines 

Start with one side of the ribcage and try to depict the mass of the torso with clean simple lines, building outwards - trying to do as much as possible without going back.

Activity 13: Studies of Arms and shoulders

With the gestural flow, the anatomy, the design and the orientation of masses in mind draw studies of arms and shoulders in various positions.

Of course you can apply this to making studies of various parts of the body - this can be a relief from trying to handle the whole figure, and can allow a deepening study of and opportunity to find the rhythms and gesture of that particular part.