A figure drawing is a drawing of the human form in any of its various shapes and postures using any of the drawing media. The term can also refer to the act of producing such a drawing. The degree of representation may range from highly detailed, anatomically correct renderings to loose and expressive sketches. A “life drawing” is a drawing of the human figure from observation of a live model. A figure drawing may be a composed work of art or a figure study done in preparation for a more finished work such as a painting.
Figure drawing is arguably the most difficult subject an artist commonly encounters, and entire courses are dedicated to the subject. Artists take a variety of approaches to drawing the human figure. They may draw from live models or from photographs, from skeletal models, or from memory and imagination. Most instruction focuses on the use of models in “life drawing” courses. The use of photographic reference—although common since the development of photography is often criticized or discouraged for its tendency to produce “flat” images that fail to capture the dynamic aspects of the subject. Drawing from imagination is often lauded for the expressiveness it encourages, and criticized for the inaccuracies introduced by the artist’s lack of knowledge or limited memory in visualizing the human figure; the experience of the artist with other methods has a large influence on the effectiveness of this approach.
In developing the image, some artists focus on the shapes created by the interplay of light and dark values on the surfaces of the body. Others take an anatomical approach, beginning by approximating the internal skeleton of the figure, overlaying the internal organs and musculature, and covering those shapes with the skin, and finally (if applicable) clothing; study of human internal anatomy is usually involved in this technique. Another approach is to loosely construct the body out of geometric shapes, e.g., a sphere for the cranium, a cylinder for the torso, etc. then refine those shapes to more closely resemble the human form.
For those working without visual reference (or as a means of checking one’s work), proportions commonly recommended in figure drawing are:
An average person is generally 7-and-a-half heads tall (including the head). This can be illustrated to students in the classroom using paper plates to visually demonstrate the length of their bodies.
An ideal figure, used for an impression of nobility or grace, is drawn at 8 heads tall.
A heroic figure used in the depiction of gods and superheroes is eight-and-a-half heads tall. Most of the additional length comes from a bigger chest and longer legs.
Note that these proportions are most useful for a standing model. Poses which introduce foreshortening of various body parts will cause them to differ.
The French Salon in the 19th century recommended the use of Conté crayons, which are sticks of wax, oil and pigment, combined with specially formulated paper. Erasure was not permitted; instead, the artist was expected to describe the figure in light strokes before making darker, more visible marks.
A popular modern technique is the use of a charcoal stick, prepared from special vines, and a rougher form of paper. The charcoal adheres loosely to the paper, allowing very easy erasure, but the final drawing can be preserved using a spray-on “fixative” to keep the charcoal from rubbing off. Harder compressed charcoal can produce a more deliberate and precise effect, and graduated tones can be produced by smudging with the fingers or with a cylindrical paper tool called a stump.
Graphite pencil is also commonly used for figure drawing. For this purpose artists’ pencils are sold in various formulations, ranging from 9B (very soft) to 1B (medium soft), and from 1H (medium hard) to 9H (very hard). Like charcoal, it can be erased and manipulated using a stump.
Ink is another popular medium. The artist will often start with graphite pencil to sketch or outline the drawing, then the final line work is done with a pen or brush, with permanent ink. The ink may be diluted with water to produce gradations, a technique called ink wash. The pencil marks may be erased after the ink is applied, or left in place with the dark inks overpowering them.
Some artists draw directly in ink without the preparation of a pencil sketch, preferring the spontaneity of this approach despite the fact that it limits the ability to correct mistakes. Matisse is an artist known to have worked in this way.