This article describes some of my experiences while learning to draw the human figure. I practiced my skills by attending “Life Drawing” classes in various locations.
As I mentioned in a previous post, while studying for my electronics degree at Imperial College, London, I also took time to continue practicing my artistic skills, attending a part-time class at St. Martins School of Art. I wonder whether I am the only ever Imperial College student to have done that (please comment if you know otherwise)?
After graduating, job transitions took me to various locations, but I tried to continue practicing my artistic skills wherever I went. Given that learning to draw the human figure is perhaps one of the most demanding tasks an artist can face, I frequently attended “Life Drawing” sessions, which typically involve drawing or painting a live human model.
I’ve always felt that the goal of being able to draw well (at least since the invention of photography) is to be able to conjure up convincing scenes that don’t exist in reality. However, in order to be able to do that for images that involve humans, you have to have a thorough understanding of the structure of the human body, which of course is a very complex shape. As far as I know, the only real way to obtain that understanding is to practice drawing actual humans, hence the benefit of life drawing classes.
In 1985, I started working for Link Electronics, which was a company in Andover, Hampshire, that designed and manufactured television cameras for the BBC and other worldwide customers. I discovered that Life Drawing classes were being offered at Cricklade College nearby, so I began attending regularly.
During that time, we had a regular model (shown in the pencil drawing at the top of this article), who was in fact the wife of a local sheep farmer. While we were drawing her, she would sometimes regale us with tales of how she’d just been up all night, birthing lambs!
(Incidentally, the models at life drawing classes usually pose nude, and this was the case at Cricklade. Therefore, I’ve cropped the picture above so that it won’t be “NSFW”!)
Those life drawing sessions sometimes gave rise to some amusing situations. One evening, when it was almost dark, I was arriving at the college and getting out of my car when someone walked past me and said “hello”. In the dark, it took me some time to realize that she was our model, to which she responded, “Don’t tell me; you don’t recognize me with my clothes on!” If someone overheard that remark, I wonder what they made of it?
As a result of these practice sessions, I evolved a standard technique for pencil drawing. I preferred to draw in pencil because it was relatively fast, and required minimal preparation, while still allowing for some correction of errors. I mentioned in an earlier post that the idea of sketching in pencil was something I learned at school. My earliest drawings were typically laid straight down in pen, which left no chance for error correction.
Nonetheless, speed was of the essence in life drawing sessions, because live models cannot hold their poses indefinitely. Even in a very relaxing pose, most models would need a break after an hour, and most poses were held for only five to thirty minutes. Therefore, even if my technique allowed for the correction of errors, there was usually little time to do that.
My technique certainly did not follow “conventional wisdom”, and in fact I found some standard advice to be counter-productive. The details of my technique are:
- Pencils. I found it best to use an HB “writing” pencil instead of the usually-recommended soft drawing pencil. I found that the softer pencils wore down too quickly, and that their marks had an annoying tendency to smudge. The Eagle writing pencils seemed to have smoother graphite composition than so-called “drawing” pencils, which provided a more uniform line.
- Paper. I used thin marker paper rather than heavy Bristol board or watercolor paper. Again, the smooth surface of the marker paper allowed for more subtle shading effects, because the pencil line did not “catch” on irregularities in the paper surface.
- Sharpening. I did not use a pencil sharpener. Instead, I sharpened my pencils by carving off the wood with a knife, leaving about 5mm of graphite projecting, then rubbing the tip to a point using sandpaper. This was a technique that I’d actually learned at school during Technical Drawing O-level classes (it was never mentioned in any art class). The benefits were that I didn’t have to sharpen the pencil so frequently, and could adjust the shape of the point to provide either a very fine line or a broader “side” stroke.
Improving with Age
Even as a child, I attempted to draw the human figure, but I was always embarrassed by the results. In fact, I would often contrive ways to tell stories without having to draw human figures, just to get around the painful limitations of my skill. I chose characters that were easier to draw, such as dinosaurs or “Daleks”, such as the page below, from a strip that I drew at the age of eight.
It wasn’t until I was about 22 that I began to feel that I could draw the human figure sufficiently well that the results wouldn’t be an embarrassment. That turned out to be a useful skill, since I obtained “commissions” from fellow Imperial College students to produce posters for various university election campaigns. Typically, the student wanted to be shown in some fantastic situation that, for practical reasons, couldn’t be set up in reality, so it was necessary to synthesize a pose that did not actually exist.
Typical of this technique was the poster that I produced for Pallab Ghosh, a Physics student who was standing for the office of Student Newspaper Editor. Pallab wanted to be depicted as Superman (not my idea!), and of course it was important that the illustration would be recognizable as being Pallab. Apparently, my poster (shown below) did the job, because Pallab duly won his election! (For some of Pallab’s own recollections of his editorship, see https://www.union.ic.ac.uk/media/iscience/old/article_template_typ.php?articleid=10.)
The drawing of Pallab is not pencil, but was in fact done with a black ballpoint pen (many such pens, in fact. because, as I’d learned from earlier experience, the tips would eventually become clogged with ink!). This was another benefit of attending the part-time class at Saint Martins School of Art, because I could “look over the shoulders” of practicing full-time artists, and was able to copy that technique from one such artist.
I also had a technical reason for selecting that particular technique. Although it may not be obvious in the reduced-size image shown here, there are actually no shades of grey in the drawing. All “shading” is achieved via very fine black lines. At the time, the scanning equipment that we used to produce these posters didn’t cope well with continuous shading, so I felt that this technique would lead to a better scanning result.