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Life Drawing Lesson 1

Introduction to figure drawing in this course

These lessons in life drawing introduce each of the main areas of study that I consider most fundamental for successful figure drawing that emphasises gesture and form.  This is an approach to drawing that can capture an enormous amount of information quickly and efficiently. This is particularly suited to short pose life drawing (ie poses from 1 min to 1 hour) which has been a key training ground for fine artists from the Renaissance to this day. Part of the reason for learning to draw in this way is also to develop the capacity for drawing from imagination, which is key to grand tradition of figurative art, in which the the artist is able to visualise arrangements of the multitude of factors (space, design, pose/body language, light, etc) and wrestle/massage these elements into a harmony. This topic is addressed in Lesson 5, which relates the design principles of figure drawing to the design principles of painted compositions.

I believe that artists who successfully represent and interpret the figure usually balance the areas discussed here in some way, though often with varying emphasis.  The areas are: accurate shape, form, design, anatomy, and gesture. While the human model themselves is an integrated whole and cannot be divided conceptually without some loss of beauty, we as artists investigating the figure and aesthetic representation more generally, cannot hope to do everything all at once, and are obliged to choose to see the figure in different ways to develop the habit of sensitivity in each area.  The aim is to divide and conquer - to investigate each area so that it can be partly passed to subconscious control, freeing up mental bandwidth so that more sophisticated combinations can be handled. And, paradoxically, drawings that have a relatively narrow intention, are often the most beautiful as drawings, because of their clarity of intention, their integrity.


These images represent some of the aspects to be considered in life drawing: Accuracy, Design, Rhythm/animation, Form

Working with these Practises

The intention of this course, while introductory, is not that the activities are done once and left behind, but rather that they form the basis for ongoing figure drawing practise from the life model.  By consciously investigating the figure in a variety of ways (choosing from the menu as it were, rather than trying to figure it out each time you go to draw) we can avoid falling into one single habitual way of drawing – which really means one way of seeing the figure.  In this way one can avoid neglecting an area of study.  Apparently basic activities such as blocking in become more sophisticated as the artist develops sensitivity to form or gesture, for example.

Even when the student moves to the next course in this series, some of the activities depicted here will be revisited.  Drawing is a practise of sensitivity and physical engagement, not a thing to be learned once.  Over time, the hope is that the aesthetic vision of the artist begins to emerge naturally through the intuitive balancing of the aspects this course covers.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” - Aristotle


Life Drawing Activity 1:

While two dimensional accuracy is certainly not the only, nor the ultimate aim of drawing, it is integral to developing visual sensitivity, discipline and focus.  Emphasis and exaggeration are more successful by those who are intentionally and purposefully deviating from what they are literally seeing rather than it happening accidentally. 

We begin with a basic tool box of comparative drawing techniques (as opposed to sight size) for developing an accurate drawing, and more importantly an accurate eye, followed by approaches to drawing the figure that utilise this toolbox and develop this way of seeing.

Once again : ACCURACY IS NOT THE POINT OF DRAWING but is important to develop and work to maintain if you wish to draw freely.

For students who are quite experienced and have already developed a fairly accurate eye, I encourage you to take these activities seriously nonetheless.  Your extra skill, as well as having the experience of how costly unintentional inaccuracy (ie. sloppiness) can be, can make these activities even more powerful - a chance to focus on this aspect of drawing.  Because you have habits of the way you draw, by having a very specific process to follow, you can reset your habitual way of drawing to some extent.  You will be offered different approaches during the course and I encourage you to take the perspective of each, at least in the class.  I personally have several different methodologies I follow regularly that I find are good for improving various aspects of my drawing.  This activity I find surprisingly helpful though it is simple on the surface.

Note that the purpose is to see and notate relationships between parts of the figure, not to merely replicate it.  Make your drawing "about" these abstract relationships.

Accuracy Toolbox

General Points

1. make your initial lines light and straight, particularly on 5 minute plus poses, to allow adjustment and refinement.

2. “3 Rs” Retreat, Reflect, be Ruthless:

Particularly once you have a figure on the page, but before you get carried away with drawing fingers and toes, STOP! Ask yourself whether your first lines are achieving what you want - the scale of the figure, the proportions and accurate organisation, the design and dynamics.  Drawing is bit like a dance, we must get into the habit of going in and out between directly, and efficiently working and reflecting on where it is going.  The will power to change between these modes is really the hardest part of drawing.

3. Close one eye to remove the 3 dimensionality of binocular vision, in order to see the figure as a flatter shape and minmise how forshortening will bias the accuracy of your shapes.  Often squinting down (seeing through your eye lashes) also helps by reducing the tonal range, which serves to resolve the subject into flatter shapes.

Accurate Angles 

1. Judge the angle between key points such as bone landmarks and the centre of the ends of masses, by visually comparing the angles close to vertical to a vertical, and the angles close to horizontal to a horizontal (by holding a pencil horizontal or vertical if necessary).  This will develop your capacity to judge angle without the need to actually measuring the angle itself with a pencil or long instrument.  Measuring the angle itself is something I favour for checking or if you are really in doubt.  Trying to "dead reckon" by eye the angle of specific relationships is key to conscious, active way of drawing.

2. Horizontal and vertical alignments – rather than comparing angles to a vertical or horizontal mentally to draw an angle, you can draw a vertical from a key point and see what it hits.  If it happens to follow an edge or locate another key point, so much the better - this will probably be a very reliable relationship.   


1.  Find half way:  Particularly on the longest axis of the whole subject, this is very useful to correcting the overall proportions.  It is very useful for working from life, when the perception of space and form is so compelling that it can be extremely difficult to see the amount that part of the body is foreshortened.  As soon as we estimate a middle point, and then physically check, we are thinking two dimensionally, and training ourselves to be aware of this point.  The Bargue drawing course uses this point as the basis for the whole drawing, whereas here we apply it to the direct estimation we have just made, thereby training our capacity to see the overall arrangement directly.

2. Compare length to width of a mass or shape, or between any two measurements.  Try to use distinct points such as the "horizon" or edge of a form, or a distinct mark, and see how many times the smaller measurement will fit into the larger.  Always try to make a mental guess at a proportion first before using physical measurement techniques, so that you give yourself the chance to improve your estimation ability - "throwing the rock at the tin can" by estimating - then the actual measurement can confirm if you hit it.  Remember it is all about becoming more visually sensitive - not merely replicating the way something looks.

"Chunking" the subject into shapes

1. By this I mean zooming out to general collection of shapes, and considering each shape as one unit. Useful for judging proportions as above.

2. Compare areas of individual masses, the shapes of collections of masses in comparison to others, and the negative spaces between masses.


When refining the edges of masses, take note of the distribution of high points between the two sides – the counterbalances

Linear tools for making the figure more 3-dimensional:

1. Centre lines

 - centrelines apply not only to the symmetric forms of the torso and head, they also apply fingers, knees and the neck.  In most parts of the body, we can find a way to describe that form by imagining a line down the middle of the front or side most planes. 

2. Cross Contours

Angles across masses, and ultimately cross contours - Cross contours can define not only the orientation of forms in space relative to each other, they can say more subtle things about the roundness or flatness of the form in a particular place.  For example, the ribcage is usually broader than it is wide, with a clear front plane compared to the side plane, though both these planes have a degree of curvature to them as well. 

3. Major plane breaks of masses

Some parts of the body such as the upper thigh are fairly cylindrical or conical, with more subtle definition of planes, but some parts are more boxy, such as the knee, ribcage or skull, with clear front, and side planes, divided by a region of sharper turning.  Defining this by a line, in conjunction with a cross contour that tells the same story is a very powerful way to define the major forms.