How to Draw the Figure - 9 Common Mistakes - Part II

By: Miriam Slater

How to Draw the Figure - 9 Common Mistakes - Part II

This article covers nine more common mistakes that can be seen in the work of not just students but also professional artists. If you think your drawings are fine the way they are now, then try taking a closer look because there is just about always some room for improvement in everyone's work - it is a never-ending process. The ideas presented here will produce a noticeable improvement, which will in turn generate a more positive viewer response. This article is loaded with information and will probably be most effective if used as a reference when actually drawing the figure. Also, please note that the first three mistakes have to do with the artist's choice of materials which play a bigger role in the drawing process than many people think. So, take a look at the nine more mistakes frequently seen in figure drawing and see if any of them apply to you.

Mistake #1 is the use of cheap drawing materials. High quality materials are essential to the drawing experience and should be used from the beginning for several reasons. Their textures and colors are superior and help to give nuance and beauty to what ever you do and in this way will actually help develop your drawing skills. When a cheap paper resists your medium you can spend the entire drawing fighting the paper and little else. Good quality papers such as Cancon brand drawing papers hold your medium much better, allow for more variety of strokes and also come in a beautiful array of colors. In terms of longevity, high quality paper will not fade or turn yellow, so that twenty years from now your artwork will retain its original look whereas cheap papers lose their color and become brittle over time. So, in the long run more expensive materials are actually the better bargain because they have so much to offer. Finally, from a psychological standpoint, the use of finer materials is a way of demonstrating your faith in yourself to create art that is just as of a high quality as the paper you draw on.

Mistake #2 is using a limited number of materials, and ever trying anything new. If you explore a wider variety of mediums you will learn more about drawing in general. Each material has its unique expression that is imparted in the art process. For example, conte crayon gives smooth, broad and velvety strokes and so is excellent when working in a larger scale or creating broad areas of tone. Graphite pencil with its fine point is excellent for small and detailed drawings and charcoal pencil is best when you want splashy, calligraphic lines. Each material and its inherent character will mirror different aspects of your own personality as an artist. New materials stimulate new ways of thinking.

Mistake #3 is to only use materials in their traditional combinations. An example is the common use of charcoal pencil on white paper - while this combination is fine, you can also create some visual interest by mixing what have been considered separate categories of mediums. For example, there is an assumption that ink doesn't mix with pencil or that pencil, pastel and paint exist in different worlds. The truth is they all mix together beautifully in a drawing, if the artist learns to work with them. For example, you can mix oil paints with pencil successfully, but this combination of materials is rarely seen in life drawing workshops. Even if you are doing simple line drawings, you can include several colors of pencil - such as red for the figure and black for the accents and it will give the piece more visual interest. But, be careful because too many materials chosen randomly can result in visual chatter. Be thoughtful in your choices so they enhance each other and contribute to the overall feeling of what you want to say - then it will work beautifully.

Mistake #4 is to think that the more anatomy you know, the better your figure drawing will be. There are a number of great artists whose knowledge of anatomy was limited and yet were still considered masters. One example is the French artist Paul Cezanne known as the founder of Modernism and whose work commands huge prices at auction. When looking at his work, it is obvious that his knowledge of anatomy was limited but it didn't matter because he was rich with artistic ideas. As he himself said, "I am the primitive of the method I have invented," So, the ideas you bring to your work are the most important thing, even over the correct placement of muscles. If you bring an idea to a drawing you will search out and find what you need in the model's anatomy and thereby become proficient at anatomy without formally studying it. It is like a person thinking they need to memorize all the words in the dictionary before beginning to write a poem. Interestingly, when drawing the figure, it will be more believable if the artist does NOT follow the anatomy perfectly. Drawings that strive for anatomical perfection above all else often appear stiffer and "muscle bound".

Mistake #5 is to subconsciously impose your gender onto the model. If you are a man, the tendency is to make women look too masculine, and if you are a woman, the tendency is to make the your male model look feminine. Basically, many artists inadvertently conceptualize the model through the filter of their sexual gender, which becomes most apparent when drawing a member of the opposite sex. To compensate for this, the artist needs to closely observe the male or female characteristics of the model and to play them up a bit. If you are a woman drawing a male model, emphasize the man's more blocky forms, straighter lines, narrower hips, square jaw, stronger brow line and larger Adam's apple. A woman will have softer and more fluid lines, gentle curves, larger hips, a smaller waist, more delicate hands and feet and a lighter complexion. You don't need to do this in an obvious, heavy-handed manner, you can do it subtly, but make sure you in some manner consider the male and female qualities of your model.

Mistake #6 is to allow the curves you see on the figure to become concentric, that is, they end up facing each other. When two curves are drawn directly opposite each other in a life drawing, a bull's eye is created which disrupts the natural visual flow throughout the figure. The observer's attention will get locked up on the circular form now created, much like a target. An example is when drawing the calf on the leg - the curve on one side will be higher and longer than the other side but many artists will draw them directly opposite each other. The solution is to be attentive to both sides of every form as you draw. Stagger the curves on each side of a form and slightly shift them (do not to allow them to face each other) and that way the eye will travel smoothly along the figure. Establishing flow in a drawing is the mark of a professional and gives the drawing a cohesive quality.

Mistake #7 is the reliance on the camera for data because the camera has the potential of limiting one's artistic expression. The result is a drawing that is too stiff and or that looks like it was done like the photo. The solution is devote extra time to hone your drawing skills to the point where a camera is not really needed or if it is used, its role should be minimal. The French artist Degas is a good example of an artist who discreetly incorporated the camera in his work process without ever relying on it. When the artist puts more of himself in the drawing and less of the camera, the drawing will have more "life". If you have to choose between accuracy and being creative, choose being creative.

Mistake #8 is to draw the figure's contour (its outside shape) without suggesting any of the converging forms within, most of which overlap each other. Neglected areas of the body that are often "glossed over" in a broad contour line include the arm, neck, hip and leg joints. The result that there is a lack of definition and the drawing looks mushy. To solve this, when coming to an area where two forms meet, be prepared to make some breaks in the contour line to help suggest that one form is in front of the other. This concept is especially important to use when working on foreshortening and is the key to pulling off some of the more difficult poses.

Mistake #9 is spelling out every part of a drawing without leaving any neutral or inactive areas. When an artist renders every detail the drawing loses some of its life because it is over controlled. Art is a dialogue, a form of communication between you and your audience. The neutral area lets your audience bring their own imagination to the piece, much like a conversation in which you have to be quiet part of the time so the other person can participate. If you don't have some visual silence in your work, the viewer will (if only subconsciously) feel a bit stifled in its presence.

Mistakes are important to define because as long as they are there, your drawing is diminished in some way and the mistakes will inhibit clear communication with your viewers. But mistakes are not bad because within each one is an important lesson. Also, without mistakes your drawing could never progress to the next level of understanding so they do serve a purpose. In my experience they are best looked at as opportunities for growth although I think James Joyce put it best when he stated: "Man's errors are his portals of discovery."

About the Author:
Miriam Slater is a fine artist known primarily for her figurative paintings and painted objects, however she has always had a life long interest is in drawing the human body. She has studied life drawing techniques for over twenty years with some of the best teachers available, including figurative artist Harry Carmean.


Female figure drawing demo by Zimou Tan



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