Monday Morning Art School: an introduction to figure

Fast, effortless drawing is the artist’s most important skill. It’s easy to learn and lots of fun.

Michelle reading, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas

I’m not going to teach you to paint the human figure in a short blog post. It takes years to master. I can, however, introduce you to the one-minute gesture drawing. This is the basis of all figure drawing and painting.

Ultimately, all figure drawing comes down to three basic steps:

  1. Plan—determine the general axis of motion and what space the figure will occupy on your paper;
  2. Create basic shapes—connected by the joints and comprised of simple elements;
  3. Connect with an outline and shading—this is where you create ‘realism’ in your drawing.

When I taught figure, I started my class with ten fast gestures, progressed to a five-minute drawing, then to a twenty-minute drawing, and from there to the long pose everyone believed they were most interested in.

Gesture drawings not only free up your hand, they teach you to measure painlessly. If you’ve never done one, conscript a friend or family member to model. The more twist and curve in the pose, the better. After all, they only have to hold it for a minute.

Gesture drawings are conventionally done nude, but that’s not really necessary. The important thing is that you use a timer and not exceed one minute per drawing.

The paper and pencil you use are unimportant. In fact, gesture drawings of your co-workers are the best possible use for your pre-printed meeting notes.

There is no right or wrong way to do a gesture drawing. On the other hand, the method I outline below is fast, easy and accurate, so why not try it?

The axis of motion.

Draw a single line indicating the axis of motion. My model had an extreme torso twist, so I got a little more engaged in this line than I usually do. Usually this is just a simple angled or curved line.

Where is the strength and power coming from in this figure?

Next, scribble in the shapes of the pelvis and the shoulders. One of my students called these “atomic string balls.” The term fits. The two most powerful joints in the human body are the pelvis and the shoulders. This is a fast way of indicating their angle. By scribbling a ball, you also give them volume and energy.

The joints are like little bundles of energy.

I then make smaller power balls at each additional joint, locating them quickly in space. I don’t lift the pencil up much, but drag it along between joints. As rough as this looks, you already have most of the essential information about the pose.

Once the joints are in place, the limbs are revealed as essentially simple shapes.

From there, it’s a simple matter to add volume. Use the remainder of your time to shade and refine. However, you shouldn’t really take time to erase.

And, voila! A one-minute figure.

A gesture drawing by nature emphasizes the torso at the expense of details, extremities and the face. Once you’ve mastered the one-minute gesture drawing, you can move along to the five minute drawing, as shown below. That’s a continuation of a one-minute drawing, but it allows time to develop more detail.

From there you can graduate to a five minute figure sketch… and onward.