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.

Monday Morning Art School: how to draw teeth and other anatomical details

Work big shapes to little shapes, and don’t perseverate on the details.
Skeleton, by Carol L. Douglas. Most of the time, our teeth are concealed behind our lips.
I’ve been in Buffalo this weekend. My son-in-law—the one who discovered Line-of-Action, the online figure-drawing class—showed me his sketchbook. One page was of human mouths.
“How do you draw teeth?” he asked me. The question points up one of the differences between working from a model and working from photos. People grin into photographs, but when painted from life, their mouths are almost always closed. It’s hard to hold a smile for any length of time. It rapidly degenerates into a rictus of pain.
I have a lot of old figure drawings and paintings on my laptop. I went through them looking for any teeth drawings. The only one I have is of the skeleton above. In fact, the only toothy paintings I can think of are those of Frans Hals, who made a specialty of laughing people. I don’t know his working method, but I assume he spent lots of time sketching people as they got smashed.
Michelle and I talking about polygamy, by Carol L. Douglas. Most of the time, we don’t show our teeth. This was a sketch I did while my model and I were chatting; as you can see, her hands are more important than her teeth.
The answer to Aaron’s question is the same for hands, ears, feet and other anatomical parts we generally skip right over: work from big shapes to little shapes. The hands, for example, have four very individual fingers, but they tend to fold and move in unison. You can always draw a rudimentary hand by thinking of it as a large folding shape with an appendage (the thumb) attached. Toes move in even closer coordination. Once you’ve established the big flipper shapes, break them down into smaller ones.
We perceive the human face as flat, because that’s the way it looks when we’re talking to another person. The face, however, isn’t flat, cylindrical, or even round. It’s a complex shape that can only be described by drawing.
Feet, by Carol L. Douglas. As individual as our toes are, they still tend to move in unison.
The front part of our teeth, however, form a cylinder. The visible edge of the biting surface of our teeth, then, is not a straight line, but part of the ellipsethat’s made by any round thing in space. In other words, it curves very slightly. Our top teeth close neatly over the bottom ones, making the lower ones essentially unseen.
You could draw each tooth individually, but teeth are very light in value compared to anything else on the human body. Because of this, we don’t pay much attention to their contours. Focus on cast shadows instead, and do not overstate the teeth.
Boy sleeping in church, by Carol L. Douglas. I miss those somnambulant teenagers every Sunday. Fingers fold as a unit, and the ear’s all-important.
Ears are far more important. Getting their position right is more than half the battle. The ear is behind the farthest attachment of the jaw. Immediately behind the ear is the mastoid process, where the muscles of your neck attach. The top of the ear lines up (more or less) with the brow, and the bottom with the bottom of the nose.
In fact, our ears are just about centered on the skull, and they’re pivotal, both figuratively and literally. We understand the movement of the head from the position of the ears as much as from anything else. When the model looks up, the ears seem to drop. When the model looks down, the ears are higher.

Monday Morning Art School: figure drawing for the busy person

Line-of-Action won’t make you a figure artist, but if you can’t get to a weekly model session, it’s the next best thing.
The Anatomy Class at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, 1888, François Sallé. Courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales.
My son-in-law Aaron has the makings of a very fine artist. Yesterday, he snapchatted me some figure gestures with a note that said, “I practice online when I can’t come to your class.” (He lives in Buffalo.) They were quite good.
The website he’s using is Line of Action. It’s a bundle of reference photos that can either play as a slideshow or in a class format. The latter is like a figure session, starting with 30-second gestures and working up to longer poses.
Bathers on the Seine – Academy, 1874-76, Édouard Manet, courtesy São Paulo Museum of Art. 
I clicked through the figure photos. For the most part they were poses I might see on an average Wednesday night at Camden Life Drawing. In some cases, the photos exaggerate perspective due to barrel lens distortion.  But that’s a quibble. For someone wanting to draw comics, lens distortion might help create dynamism. The viewer can choose gender and whether the model is clothed or unclothed. Nothing I saw was remotely sexualized (a danger with working from photos on the internet).
There are other categories of images as well: animals, hands and feet, and faces. I’ve done gesture drawings of horses in motion, cows, and sleeping dogs and cats. However, animals, as a rule, don’t pose well. Too often animal portraits are static because they are generally done from photos.
The drawing class, 1660, Michiel Sweerts. Courtesy Frans Hals Museum. The formal class has been around for centuries because it works.
There’s a landscape drawing section currently only available to subscribers, but there are better ways to get there. I’ve written before about painting from a moving vehicle. My watercolor workshop on the schooner American Eagle is all about landscape gestures. Even the most prosaic suburban apartment complex has things to paint and draw, so all you need is to go out there and do it.
If you choose to play the slides in class format, you will experience the models as seen in a typical figure drawing classroom. This mode includes built-in breaks. You can practice drawing just as you might practice cello.
Modelo de Academia, date unknown, Manuel Teixeira da Rocha. Private collection.
Typically, figure-drawing classes start with brief gestures. These help the artist draw kinesthetically, putting his whole arm into the process. Short gestures fire up a kind of sympathetic drawing, which can be more accurate in measurement than more formal systems. And short gestures are unsettling, so the artist can’t get into a rut from the start.
From gestures, most classes move through longer and longer poses. The final long pose is where the artist begins to explore detail. Anatomical accuracy is usually the primary concern in a figure class. But equally important are composition and the relationship of the figure to its (mostly unarticulated) ground.
Line-of-Action won’t make you a figure artist—you need lots of time with live models for that. But if you’re in a place where you can’t get to a weekly figure group, or a point in life where going out to draw is impossible, it’s the next best thing.
You can use their basic photo library and the class format algorithm for free. There are two basic subscription levels. Since I don’t need feedback from their artist community, I’ll just be dropping by as a casual user.

Coda: Last week I wrote about gender disparity in the arts. Last night at Cape Elizabeth Paint for Preservation, the highest auction price was set by Jill Hoy. The tide may indeed be turning!

The servant stairs

My diet is in tatters but I’m on schedule with the portrait.
I spent most of my time yesterday moving the coffee table from place to place trying to make an interesting geometry of that bottom left corner.

Mary Killen tells the story of Antony Armstrong-Jones (Lord Snowdon) and his lifelong enmity to Colin Tennant. It began when Armstrong-Jones was told to go to the tradesmen’s entrance while photographing Tennant’s wedding to Lady Anne Coke. The two men had been at Eton together.

I’d assumed it was a story of injured amour-propre. This week I’ve spent some time on the servants’ stairs of a Georgian townhouse, and my sympathy for Lord Snowdon has increased (albeit marginally). I would not have enjoyed hefting the absurdly-heavy photography equipment of 1956 up and down those narrow stairs, skirting past the maids and footmen I ignored in everyday life.
I’ve rearranged the furniture, set up my easel, and otherwise made a terrible mess of the drawing room. That’s a James Morrison landscape overlooking my shoulder there; a happy omen, if you ask me.
The house in which I’m working has had many iterations since its construction. The main staircase, very grand, rises in a beautiful spiral from a first-floor vestibule. There is a modern staircase, added after the building served a stint as offices after World War 1, when the house was converted to flats. This staircase connects the first floor with the basement floors into a three-story unit. But in its original form, the public rooms of this house—the first floor, the piano nobile above it, and the bedrooms above that—were effectively sealed off from the tradesmen’s entrance by this lack of public staircase.
The only staircase which ran the height of the house was a stone one, intended for servants. Despite my familiarity with historical English novels, I didn’t fully grasp what this meant until I’d trotted up and down them a dozen times.
It’s easy to feel how intimidated a homeowner would be at the idea of running down those service stairs to check on the operation of his own home (if such an outlandish idea had even occurred to him). The stone steps are set as far back as is possible without actually being in the garden, and they’re not easy on the feet. They are narrow and turn fast in their circular shaft. The humble historical housemaid must have had legs of steel.
I captured my subject briefly for a quick drawing and managed to make her look all of fifteen years old. The bones are right, however, and I’ll try again today.
The modern Scots who live in these terraced houses are more fit than their American cousins, with our easy, lazy two-story homes. The stone stairs are now the main stairs between the garden-level kitchen and the main rooms of the house. Our host, a man in his fifties, regularly trots up and down them. I’m working in a drawing room, and I’m not as strong as a Regency lady’s maid, so I recruited my husband to carry my easel and kit up for me.
This room is a symphony of indirect light and beautiful paneling. The setting is very lovely, but I don’t want to allow it to dwarf my subject. I spent the day carefully measuring and plotting my composition.
I’ve also managed, occasionally, to sit my subject down for some preliminary drawings. I’m afraid I’ll need a butterfly net and some duct tape to fully capture her. She’s a very energetic woman.
Then there is the city itself, which is hilly and congested. It was a foggy, rainy evening, and our hosts graciously took us to dinner. We took a cab there and walked home; the trips took the same length of time, and walking was frankly more pleasant.
I had Shetland scallops, served very differently from the bay scallops at home, with a dry white wine along the lines of a vinho verde. This was followed by a nightcap of a private cask single-malt whisky. My diet is in tatters but I’m feeling less guilty than you might think.

Monday Morning Art School: how to do a gesture drawing

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

Michelle reading, by Carol L. Douglas

Drawing sometimes seems like the “eat your vegetables” of art lessons. It’s what students need most, but they believe its unpalatable. So we teachers are always hiding it in our painting lessons. Once you start drawing from life, however, you realize it’s tremendous fun. I’m constantly sneak-drawing in unlikely places: the train, waiting rooms, or in church.
The single best exercise you can do to get better at figure-drawing is the one-minute gesture drawing. When I taught figure, I started my class with ten of these, 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 how 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. You’ll still benefit from drawing clothed figures. 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?

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.

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.

 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.

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.

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.

#metoo and the artist’s model

Rules for working with the nude women in your life.

Couple, by Carol L. Douglas. It’s no big deal to ask a figure model to model clothed, but it’s decidedly a big deal to ask a portrait model to strip.

I’ve written before about working with model Michelle Long—ironically, in the wake of sex abuse allegations against photographer Terry Richardson. That was in 2014, before #metoo. Today, artist Chuck Close is in the spotlight for making models uncomfortable with inappropriate comments.

The balance of power is vastly disparate between a superstar painter and his models. However, whenever one person is clothed and the other is nude, the relationship is always unequal. Stupid comments, gestures and suggestions that would be trivial in any other setting take on different meaning when one person is clothed and the other isn’t.
Death of Boudicca, by Carol L. Douglas
It rolls both ways, by the way. I vividly recall a model discussing her boyfriend’s schlong from the model stand. She was never called back. There are other models whom I used downtown but not in my home studio; they creeped me out a little too much to have them know where I lived.
Michelle, of course, was always the consummate professional. That’s more than just an attitude about students; it means she could take and hold a pose, was reliable, and was a partner in the intellectual process of developing the painting.
Artnet recently published The Dos and Don’ts of Working With Nude Models: 6 Steps for Keeping Things Professional. If you work with nude models, it’s important reading.
Reclining figure, by Carol L. Douglas
Communicate up front whether or not the model will pose nude. 
The assumption for most figure-drawing classes is that the models will pose nude. For portrait classes, the assumption is that the model will be clothed. Don’t switch this around without discussion.
Don’t touch the models.
There are times you just want to grab the model’s foot and pull it forward three inches. But you simply don’t manhandle other people. Be patient. I’m not a hugger, which saves me infinite trouble. The same affectionate gesture that’s meaningless between two clothed persons is different between a model in a thin robe and a fully-clothed artist.
The Beggar, by Carol L. Douglas
Put the model’s comfort before the artist’s interests.
The model for The Beggar was physically strong. I expected she would tell me if she was in pain, but she didn’t. She came out of that pose in tears. That was when I realized that some models won’t complain no matter what’s asked of them; their perception of our relationship is different from mine. Never again did I ask a model to hold such a difficult pose. I also rigged up a trapeze so that models could support their bodies in vertical poses.
It ought to go without saying that you provide space heaters, you wash linens and the model stand between every session, you pad the model stand, and you provide a private changing space. You prohibit traffic in and out of the studio while the pose is in session.
Don’t ignore red flags.
I had an idea that I’d wrap my models in plastic to paint them (it didn’t work out like I thought it would). I talked about it with them beforehand, because treating a human being like a vegetable was, frankly, weird.
Decide what environment is most comfortable for you.
I know there are studios that strictly enforce a ‘no talking’ rule. That wouldn’t be mine; you try keeping high school students silent. I have ended up knowing every model I’ve worked with. They’re not slabs of meat. Other artists and models prefer silence.
Don’t take pictures.
Artnet said “don’t bring your cellphone,” but what they really mean is, “don’t take photos.” I have broken this rule when something has confused me in a live session. But I never revisited these photos anyway. Taking photos of the model is a ghastly faux pas and an invasion of the model’s privacy. It should never be done in a classroom setting. Never.
Note: I’ll be at What’s Nude in Boothbay Harbor Saturday, February 10 from 5:30 to 7:30 PM.

A #2 pencil is a pretty cheap way to find your joy

Put down your cell phone and pick up a pencil.

A quick sketch of captive models, by Carol L. Douglas
On Friday, I suggested a list of drawing books for those who want to improve their drawing skills but don’t have access to a class. Reader Michael Schaedler of Jay has the traditional Maine opinion that it’s silly to spend money on something you can find for free. He located a text online and has been faithfully doing its exercises. It’s Dorothy Furniss’ Drawing for Beginners and it runs through all the basic subjects.
Looking at old drawing texts, I’m reminded of what an unlettered generation ours is. We want the technical stuff, fast, and don’t want to waste time on rhetoric. I’m as bad as anyone; I buy art books mainly for the pictures. Still, in this week of enforced solitude, I’ve found myself reading and appreciating these older writers and their thoughts on the craft of drawing.
Teenage boy sleeping through church, , by Carol L. Douglas
A reader asked me for tips about figure drawing. That’s a separate subset of knowledge from drawing inanimate objects.
George B. Bridgman (1865–1943) was a Canadian-American artist. He taught anatomy for artists at the Art Students League of New York for 45 years. His books were the standard for 20th century instruction on the subject. They can still be purchased today. Start with his Complete Guide to Drawing from Life.
Most of the time, you’ll find very boring stuff when you wait at doctors’ offices. But occasionally, you’ll find a skeleton. By Carol L. Douglas.
I think every studio should have a copy of Frank H. Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy. It’s useful to know how things work. Pressured by his family, Dr. Netter left a career in art to go to medical school. The Great Depression had the last laugh; there was more work for a medical illustrator than there was for a doctor. His anatomy book is a masterpiece, and it explains to the visual learner what parts go where.
Bailiff at Hall of Justice, by Carol L. Douglas
My reader should be practicing gesture drawings constantly—one or two-minute sketches of people done from life. Gesture drawing is very personal; it’s an impression of a form. There’s no ‘right way,’ but it should be fast. If it goes more than two minutes, it’s no longer a gesture drawing.
The only true gesture drawing I have on my laptop is of a horse. Figures. By Carol L. Douglas.
The more he draws people, the more skill he will develop. Modern life presents all kinds of opportunities to draw surreptitiously. They just require that we put down our cell phones and pick up a pencil.
Note: This week, art conservator Lauren R. Lewis shared resources for those of you dealing with hurricane clean-up, here. Since then, she found this fantastic resource. It includes hotlines as well as tips for first-phase cleaning of flood-damaged artwork. May nobody need it.