Constructing The Figure From Life
Where to Begin

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By Dan Gheno

There is probably no task or subject that appears more intimidating and complex than trying to draw the live human figure. As all artists young and old know, there is almost too much to consider.

Where do you start your drawing of the human figure from life? With a jar, you can start with the midline and work the curves around it. You can start a landscape with the horizon line, but where do you put the first lines when drawing the human form?

There are probably as many ways to begin a figure drawing as there are artists. The "artist in training" should try several different approaches before settling on any one system. I've been drawing for over thirty five years, but it's rare that I start a new drawing the exact same way as my last drawing.

Yet I do feel that it's important to always stay flexible in the beginning, even if the ultimate intention is to do a highly polished rendering. As you can see in the accompanying demonstration, I often begin my own sketches from life in a very light and loose scribbling manner, trying to establish a foggy gestural imprint for the more finished drawing.

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I feel that no one line or measurement stands on its own as being correct or incorrect. I believe that after many lines have been tentatively positioned, one can then adjust and reconfigure earlier lines for greater proportional accuracy.

I find it very helpful to mark on my paper the top, middle and bottom of the figure. Finding the mid-point of the figure, one can draw back and forth from the top to the bottom, working towards the mid-point. Only when I'm satisfied with the general placement and action of the figure do I begin to zero in on individual forms and details, and only then do I begin to optically measure the proportions of the model.

How to Measure

There are many ways to assess the proportions of the figure in front of you. The most immediate and obvious approach includes lining up forms upon vertical and horizontal guidelines. You can also use some anatomical detail like a head as a unit of measurement. Measure the length and width of the figure against this head unit. Hold a pencil or ruler at arm's length, parallel to you line of sight, and brace  your arm at your elbow with your other hand, so that you don't accidentally bend your arm.

When using these exacting systems, you must try to be as precise as possible, or you will only succeed in confusing yourself. If your arm bends or your measuring stick tilts away from your imaginary picture plane, you could end up with a figure that seems to measure 3 heads tall, even though your eye and common sense tells you otherwise.

It's a good idea to repeat each of your measurements at least twice to reconfirm accuracy. Then cross check your head measurements by comparing large anatomical units like legs against arms, or torso against leg units, or overall figure length against width.

Find That Mid-Point

At all times, be sure to find the middle point of the figure- --- Where ever that may be (usually near the crotch on the standing figure). And don't forget to mark it lightly on your paper. That way, if the upper part of your figure begins to grow larger as you concentrate on the details there, you'll catch your mistake before you run out of paper for the feet or you turn your model into a modern-day version of Toulouse-Lautrec.

I also find it's quite helpful to ascertain the quarter points of the model. On the standing, classically proportioned figure, these points often fall at the nipples, crotch and at the knees. These landmarks always vary for each individual, but they give you a reference point that allow you to determine where the model varies from the "canon" or proportional norm.

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Look for the center of gravity, falling through the pit of the neck on a balanced standing figure (A). Mark off the top, middle and bottom of the figure. It's especially important to look for the middle of the figure (B).   Look for the contrasting angles of the shoulders and hips (C). Notice the high point and the low point of opposing contours. They are almost never located evenly across.------In this case, the outer curve of the lower leg is usually higher than its inner curve (D). Mark off angle of the foot/floor placement (E).

Proportional guidelines are not limited to rigid vertical or horizontal guidelines. One can also look for variable angles that sweep across forms, making implied connections between arms, legs, ankles or any anatomical landmarks you wish to compare. Look for the big shapes that these imaginary, oblique lines create, comparing their relative length and angles.

 Stay Loose

Don't try to make these quick guidelines too rigid and don't worry if your beginning sketch looks messy or indecipherable at first. You can refine your observations in time, as you lay in and compare more lines. Keep your sketch intentionally loose and improvisational in the beginning, so that you can better shift and rearrange your lines later.

Let your lines ramble and criss cross (see angular line up image above), charting not just the positive human forms, but also the empty negative space that envelops the figure. Even if you think there is no apparent connection to the lines, just let it happen, and allow the lines to accumulate. Soon this seemingly incoherent collection of lines will begin to reveal a complex, weblike rhythmic interconnection of forms.

 The Speed Reading Approach

This sweeping approach is very similar to many popular techniques of speed reading. When initially learning to read more quickly, you at first increase you span of vision by passing your finger quickly over whole sentences, then paragraphs and finally whole pages, training your eyes to follow your finger's lead, training your eyes to gulp up greater masses of information in one snatch. Eventually, your eyes can do the work without the crutch of the finger.

Likewise in your drawing--- You can train your eyes to automatically roam across the human form without necessarily laying in a messy mass of coagulating guidelines. You will probably always want to lay in a few angular guide lines, but after a few weeks or months of practice in front of the human figure, you will find yourself using them less and less.

 As Simple as Still Life?

As you concentrate further on the nuances and details of your model, you need to remind yourself that at its core, the human figure actually isn't any more complicated than a jar, apple or a tree. It just seems that way, because, as hermetic as most of us artists are, we are more familiar with our fellow human beings and thus more sensitive to their depiction.

Look for the basic, cylindrical structure underlying the arm, leg and neck structures. Notice the overall spherical shape of the head, the mitten-like, planar shape of the hands, or the barrel shape of the chest and the more angular, squared-off shape of the pelvis.

And think about it. You probably wouldn't draw the design of the label on a wine bottle before you were happy with the basic construction and shading of the bottle's cylindrical form. Your also probably wouldn't draw a bottle without first dropping a line through its center so that you could compare the two opposing curves.

Similarly, I find it very important to find and place a center line on the figure, especially in the torso. If I'm working on the torso, the anatomical center line helps me to determine the foreshortening of the figure, how much more is showing on the near side of the figure, compared to the far side. If the model moves slightly, this reference line acts as a reminder not to change one side of the figure without altering the other side, any more than you would change one side of a jar without changing the other contour.

The Line of Action

As you continue to zero in on detail, look for what the consummate draftsman, Thomas Eakins, called the "action lines" of the forms. These are not center lines limited to the actual anatomical core of a singular form like an upper arm. "Action lines" follow the directional movement of a series of forms like the upper and lower arm and hand, or sometimes the entire sweep of the figure. Determine the angle and sweep of this inner line and use this as a reference point to the more complex set of outside contours and surface details.

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Eakins' line of action (by Eakins)

At first glance, your drawing might look like a rendition of a stick figure, especially as you chart the direction and length of the limbs. But that's okay, since it's a good deal easier to see and repair proportional problems when the drawing is at this schematic stage.

When drawing smaller forms within the arms and legs, use the line of action to better measure the actual angle or slant of each of the body's curves. Unlike a jar, there are no equal or symmetrical curves on the body. Each curve has its own unique tilt, length and apex. Ask yourself, "Where is the crescendo or peak of the curve?" Is it high or low? It is almost never in the center.

While it's always useful to start your drawings in a loose gestural approach, at some point you should step back from this improvisational strategy. Compare your drawing against the other more specific measurement systems that I mentioned earlier, making revisions where necessary. Also, try looking at your drawing in a mirror, or look at the drawing from the rear side of the paper. This reverses your image, so that you can see your drawing problems with a fresh eye and greater objectivity, as if you were viewing another artist's work.

As time passes and with practice, your eyes and hands will become more confident. Try to make more and more or your initial observations with your naked eye. Only then, cross check your own observations by resorting to quidelines and measurement systems. This sequence, trusting your eye and estimating proportions first, will help you to test and stretch your powers of vision, so that you don't become overly reliant upon visual crutches.

 The Use of Memory

The artist in training will also find that as time and experience goes by, one's visual subconscious will replace some of the need to make systematic measurements from the model. Like a dancer or a musician, the artist's hand inevitably develops a muscle memory with practice, so that the artist almost automatically begins with a particular sized head or torso that often seems to approximately fit a particular size of paper or position in a composition.

The more you know about the figure--- the more you research anatomy and experience the three dimensional effect of the human form through sculpture---the more your subconscious eye will influence how you begin the drawing process. While some artists seek to suppress this subliminal force, it is something that I yearn for.

It's important to keep your memory from taking over and dictating to your eye. But if you're careful and true to your visual sight, your use of "memory" can often give you a running start. You may find that it can invigorate your drawing, freeing up your conscious eye to more rapidly chart the rhythms of the figure, allowing your hand to quickly respond to the ins and outs of the form with a reflective vocabulary of thick and thin, harsh and soft lines.

I tried very hard to develop my visual memory as a child. In fact, I desperately wanted to learn how to draw the figure completely out of my head. Looking to the heroic figure work of Michelangelo as one of my earliest inspirations, I began to study anatomy with a passion. I still have my first anatomy book, edited by Schider, that my mother bought for me when I was ten. In addition, I spent many of my early years copying incessantly from old master drawings as well as from the anatomically learned comic book artists of the 50's and60's.

 Visual Mnemonics

As a teenager, I also developed a system of visual mnemonics for myself, which I later learned was similar to an approach taught by one of Rodin's teachers, Lecoq de Boisbaudran. After each day of drawing from life or old master drawings, I would go home and try to draw the forms as a I remembered them, without referring to my original drawings. Then I would compare my memory drawings to the originals, make corrections an then draw the same form again from memory until the forms sat firmly in my subconscious.

Years later, the goals I hold for my painting and drawing are very different. I'm now much more interested in responding directly to a visual reality, developing a psychological mood or creating some sort of metaphorical statement in my painted work. I approach drawing more as personal recreation or a form of visual calisthenics. Yet, my captivation with anatomy continues to this day, and I'm still trying to augment and practice my optical memory, in the hopes that it will instill a more reflexive and instinctive expressiveness into my drawing and painting.

It's Never Easy

Quite frankly, the act of starting a figure drawing will never come easy, and the process of learning how to draw never ends. It's different for all artists, but I personally feel that it's important to practice daily and to frequently attend life drawing groups all your life to continually hone and maintain your eye-hand coordination. When Michelangelo and Hokusai were both in their 80's, they each said that they were just then learning how to draw.

If learning to draw was a long hard journey for these two great artists, how do we ever hope to survive the trip? Well, for one thing, don't complicate the process with the impossible expectation that all your lines and measurements must be instantly and absolutely correct. I believe that the key to quicker results and greater satisfaction is to try to stay calm throughout the drawing process, especially at the outset. Secondly, try to learn so much about the construction of the figure that you can almost forget about its complexities and concentrate on other artistic questions like composition, value and line quality. 

Meanwhile, don't forget to study and observe all the other visual subject matter around you like trees, mountains, furniture, jars and of course the area surrounding the objects. It's difficult to create a volumetric figure drawing in a spaceless void, without some sense of air, or at least a hint of landscape or still-life.

When a student asked Sargent how one becomes a great portrait painter, he replied, "If he is only a portrait painter, he is nobody. Try to become a painter first and then apply your knowledge to a special branch."

Gheno teaches at two schools: The Art Students League of New York, 215 W 57th St, New York, NY, 10019
And at: The National Academy of Design, School of Fine Arts, 5 E. 89th St., New York, NY, 10128

This entire website is 1999 by Dan Gheno and protected by U.S. and world law. This is not a commercial site, and you may download images and text for personal and educational use only.
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LAST UPDATE: 11/01/99

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