This little essay on the stages of figure drawing, really does a good job of illustrating and demystifying the process. When we look at a completed drawing, and see how incredibly lifelike classical drawing can be, it is a little intimidating. We think it can only be a sort of magic, a gnosis available only to the initiate. But it really is simply a matter of mechanics, of transferring what is seen by the eye, without the brain trying to interpret, onto a flat surface. It's the trick of creating an illusion of depth and light and shadow, with paper and pencil. It's not easy, but once the mechanics of it is revealed, the magic trick is revealed as simple. After that, it is only a matter of practice.
From the London Atelier of Representational Art: it is split into two separate stages but you can see that the process of breaking down the elements of the shape, then thinking about the lights and darks, is all one linear process.
The aim of this exercise is to accurately ‘block-in’ gesture, proportions and the particular body type of the model in a simple manner, so that mistakes can easily be corrected.
Using a soft piece of charcoal, begin by marking the top and bottom of the figure, making sure that you have about the same amount of blank paper above and below, so that the final drawing is vertically centered on the paper. Next,make a note of the widest horizontal points of the model so you can estimate the placement of the drawing and decide the composition of the final image from the start.
At this point draw an arbitrary vertical (plumb) line parallel to the side of the paper. As a useful tip, try to find the most static point in the figure (in this example I chose the front of the lower standing leg). To complete this stage, indicate on the plumb line where the plane of the shoulders and the pubis bone (anatomical centre of the body) are.
Starting with the torso, indicate the tilt of the ribcage and pelvis, keeping in mind their relationship with the imaginary vertical line drawn in step one. Try to keep the drawing as simple as possible, at this time, focusing on the biggest gestural lines you can find. Don’t get distracted by details, but concentrate on drawing the average width of the main body parts. By using such simple lines and constantly returning to your observation point and using your plumb line, any obvious discrepancy between the drawing and the model can easily be corrected. You can employ this simplifying drawing approach to virtually any subject.
Once you’re reasonably satisfied with the gesture and proportions of the mainlines, it is time to start breaking down big shapes into smaller ones. Try to introduce obvious anatomical landmarks such as a line to indicate the centre of the breasts, the position of joints like wrists, elbows and knees. Use the new marks to further judge and refine the drawing by taking your time comparing your work with the model in front of you. At this point you can take the drawing in different directions such as pursuing line to a more refined stage, or introducing values to capture the impression of light.
Having tackled how to break down a complicated figure into simple lines, this exercise will take you through the use of value to convey a sense of atmosphere and light in your work.
Using the block-in of your previous exercise, introduce a flat value (don’t go too dark at this stage) to represent the main shadow shapes. This sounds like an easier task than it actually is, as the defining line between light and shadow can be quite confusing in parts of the figure. To get around this potential stumbling block, squint when you observe the model to compress values and minimise the distracting influence of some mid-tones. If you still have trouble making a clear distinction between the main value areas, think of a fax or a bad photocopy with just two values and arbitrarily decide whether the mid-tone at hand is closer to light or shadow value. It also helps to position the model under one single light source
By keeping the two tones of the previous step, start adding complexity to your shadow shape design. Pay particular attention to the edge quality of each individual shape and make a note of whether it is sharp or soft. I cannot stress enough how important edges are, as they visually describe how light (and consequently shadow) follow form in nature. At this stage you can also start to introduce a background value to further isolate the light shape. This also helps to evaluate the accuracy of the drawing thus far.
Now it is time to establish the full value range (key) by establishing the darkest dark (soft charcoal) and lightest light (white chalk) within the figure. This may expose the limitations of the drawing medium, as it is usually impossible to match the depth of the shadows or the brightness of the light we see on the actual model. A way to try and achieve a similar light impression is to compress shadows, by keeping them as unified as possible and minimise distracting variations. As soon as you have clearly committed to the extremes of the value range in your drawing, the tone of the paper takes its place in the scale as a halftone.
At this point the pace seems to drop, though you are getting close to finishing.Here you need to start comparing smaller and smaller sections of your work against the model, judging and adjusting shapes and value by adding or removing small amounts of charcoal and chalk to ‘push and pull’ the three-dimensional impression of form. Use harder grade charcoal sharpened to a fine point to achieve subtle transitions. If you have a view of the model’s portrait in your drawing, now is the time to really concentrate on getting the likeness.
In this final stage it is very important to use the background to add atmosphere. Create contrast where a focal point is needed and bring the value of certain parts of the figure and the background closer together to make those areas optically recede in space. I find one of the most telling differences between an average figure drawing and a good one is in the handling of the bony points close to the skin surface. Being able to represent the feel of flesh and bone in your life drawings is one of the most challenging, yet rewarding aspects of it. So make sure you leave plenty of time to work on elbows, wrists, knuckles, knees,ankles… well, you get the idea.
Figures by Luca Indraccolo