Drawing the Human Figure - How to Get Started

By: Dorothy Gauvin

Drawing the Human Figure - How to Get Started

When little children are taught the alphabet, they are given a tool that allows them to make any word in the language. In the same way, learning the basics of human anatomy will help you to draw any animal, because we are all built to the same basic design. Until the time of the Renaissance, no systematic study of anatomical structure had been made. Painters struggled to represent people or dogs or horses in a believable, realistic manner on the two-dimensional canvas. They all failed.

Then the genius of Michelangelo and Leonardo rose like a pair of new suns, to shed light on the darkness. Even so accomplished a master as Raphael was grateful for the lessons provided by their works. Like everyone since, Raphael realised he could never attain the perfection of Michelangelo. Like us, he could only look and wonder.

But Leonardo did something that surpassed the relatively small body of paintings he produced; something that must endear him to all artists who follow. With a scientist's curiosity, he investigated the mechanics of Nature. What's more, he left an invaluable legacy of detailed reports on what he uncovered. To make his discoveries, Leonardo had to dissect cadavers, teaching himself as he went. We, thankfully, don't need to go through that. Today, we have the benefit of his hard-won knowledge available in texts of varying degrees of complexity.

TIP: For beginners, the excellent range of Walter Foster books in limp cover provides an easy-to-follow introduction to the subject. For painters, the 'Bible' is Victor Perard's Anatomy & Drawing. Along with this study, it's vital that you draw constantly from life. As a youngster, I helped out after school in my parents' corner shop. Sure, it often seemed a drag, but it offered an opportunity beyond value. Perched behind the counter with my sketchbook and pencils, I drew the customers, scrambling to get down a likeness in the time they were there. It was the best grounding I could have had.

You can do the same while waiting for the bus, while taking your lunch break in the park, while commuting on the train. Your family and pets are readily available models; they'll seldom submit to 'posing' but that just teaches you to catch a likeness quickly. If all else fails, there is always the mirror.

Another indispensable method of learning figure drawing is the Life Class. In most instances, no actual instruction is given at such a 'class.' What usually happens is that a professional artist - often one who gives private tuition - will invite a small group of other professionals, or serious students, to meet on a regular basis.Their aim is to maintain and hone their skills at drawing the nude figure. Everyone 'hits the kitty' in equal shares to pay the fee of an artists' model. Professional models come in both genders, all shapes, ages and colours. They can hold even difficult poses for up to twenty minutes and deserve a lot more credit than they get.

The conveyor of the class will take responsibility for timing 'lightning' poses. For these, a stopwatch will be set for a dauntingly few seconds, while you - the newcomer - will sweat blood trying to keep up with the old hands. If you ever get an invitation to such a group, don't hesitate to take it; you'll benefit more than I can tell you.

Whether you're drawing in a life class, at the bus stop, or in the park, a few good habits will save you a lot of frustration and false starts. The first mark you'll make on your paper is the Line Of Gravity. This is a straight line, perpendicular to the ground, against which you will balance the figure. The second line will indicate the centre of the figure. You can find this by measuring with your thumbnail on a pencil held out at arm's length. If you remember always to hold the pencil at full arm's stretch, you'll get correct measurements every time.

Your next step is to find the Rhythm Of The Pose. You'll do this by quickly expressing the figure's pose with freely drawn lines. It's a good idea to keep these lines faint, to avoid later confusion. Now, indicate the angles of the shoulders and the pelvis, and you're off to a strong start.

At home, hit those Anatomical Drawing books! Study the principles of proportion until they become second nature. You'll learn to think of the human body in terms of 'heads' because you'll know that the average male adult is seven-and-a-half 'heads' tall; a head being the length from top of the skull to tip of the chin.

Speaking of the head, a common error beginners make is to imagine they can draw 'A Face' without learning anything of anatomy. This just couldn't be more wrong. You see, there's no such thing as a face - in isolation - except as part of the head. And this is a three-dimensional object whose underlying structures build the face. To understand them is to be able to draw any person's head, adding those variations from the norm that give each face its unique characteristics.

Michelangelo was not only sculptor, painter and architect, but also a writer of note. He once gave this advice to painters: 'Painting most closely approaches perfection when it most closely resembles sculpture.'

In today's high-tech world, painters have access to equipment that the Old Masters would have coveted. Cameras can save us hours of tedious reference sketching; projectors can reduce the time it takes to place objects in a composition. But painters who rely on such aids, lacking the confidence and skills gained by freehand drawing and a grounding in Anatomical Drawing, soon find themselves in trouble.

They are trapped in the same dangers as that unfortunate generation of school kids who were the victims of experimentation by well-meaning education reformers. Trying to make learning easier and more fun, they introduced 'whole word recognition' in place of boring old spelling. As a result, two generations of kids grew up lacking an ability to spell. Some people question if it matters. 'After all, they can usually work out what the other person meant to say.'

Here's an example. Recently, I saw an advertisement in the newspaper for a sale at a local department store. Among the items discounted was: 'Intermit Apparel 50% Off.' A good deal, if only I knew what 'Intermit Apparel' might be. Later, I spotted that sign over - you've guessed it - the women's underwear section. The impression it gave me was: 'These people don't really know what they're doing.'

About the author:
Dorothy Gauvin is an internationally acclaimed Australian painter in oils who specialises in an epic theme of Australia's pioneers. See images of her 'Life-Story' portraits, an ABC of homemade tools for painters with arthritis, plus tips and advice for aspiring artists and collectors on her website at http://www.artgallerygauvin.com/


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