How to Draw Figures from Life
When you are learning to draw figures it’s common to be given measurements such as ‘the average human body is 7.5 head-lengths tall’. It’s funny that even that measurement seems to vary from source to source. This is followed by how many times the same head-length will fit into an arm, a leg, the width of the torso, etc. Honestly, I have always found these measurements useless. How many times are people going to stand bolt upright for you to draw them? How interesting would that be anyway?
Interesting figures sit, lie down, curl up. They slump. Their limbs stretch towards you or away from you. Comparing their head-lengths to their height or arm length is no help at all. Measuring how many times a head-length should fit into a leg is not useful if that leg is in any kind of unusual position. This approach even reinforces the left brained, logical, linear idea that drawing can be helped with formulas. It will leave you struggling with the seemingly impossible optical illusion of foreshortening.
Foreshortening is the term used for perspective applied to the figure. It means that a foot can appear to be several times larger than a head if it is closer to you in space.
We need to overcome and discard the idea that good drawing can be achieved by using a series of steps. Drawing is not logical. It is a creative process and every drawing demands new observations and new adjustments to what you think you ‘know’. You actually know nothing when it comes to a drawing; there are no formulas. Each and every drawing is different and unique.
Why do we think that copying things from photographs is easier than drawing them from life? Because they are already flattened for us and it looks easier. The problem is that cameras distort space very subtly, and we carefully copy the distortions without realising it. Our literal left brains can’t accept that a photograph could lie so badly.
You are drawing on a flat surface. It is impossible to draw into the paper or canvas. You are trying to capture the illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional surface. So the easy way to do this is to approach your subject in a two dimensional way. Convince yourself that everything is flat when you are trying to draw it.
The problem with this is that your brain finds this a terribly difficult concept. It is used to helping you to get through tasks as quickly and effortlessly as possible, using past experiences and learnt responses.
This doesn’t work with drawing. We know that every face in the world is different. So is every single body. There are certain guidelines that every face and body will fit into, but it is the tiny differences that make us all unique. The guidelines don’t help at all when it comes to foreshortening.
Pretending that you are looking through a screen, or a window, can make drawing from three dimensions much easier. Doing this literally is a good way to start, and will help you to understand the concept.
To make a ‘the world is flat’ viewfinder, draw a grid onto a sheet of cellophane with a marker pen. The boxes can be any size, as long as they are regular. Attach the cellophane to a card window. An old picture mount is ideal. Look at your subject through the screen with one eye closed and you will see that, say, the point of the elbow is directly in line with the model’s eye in a horizontal sense. Or the outside of her knee is on a perpendicular line with the inside bone of her ankle. Distance doesn’t matter with this approach. The body will form angles and curves inside the boxes. Nature has no straight lines!
(Why close one eye? Have a look at your subject with one eye closed, then keep your pencil still and look through the other eye instead. You will be amazed at how things seem to have moved! This is because we have two eyes, which combine images to give us a sense of depth and space, which the one-eyed camera cannot)
… and look past the pencil to the model. You can see how things align in a perpendicular way if you hold the pencil upright. Turn it on its side and you can see horizontal alignments. Move it like the hands of a clock (it is vital not to point your pencil into the space, towards the model) and you will see the angles and curves too.
To make useful measurements, hold the pencil in the same way – arm’s length, one eye closed, flat in front of you – and align the top of it with, say, the top of the model’s shoulder. Slide your thumb down the pencil so that it aligns with the model’s elbow. You can now gauge how many lengths it is to another point on the torso. If the foot is stretching towards you it might be four or more lengths. If it is stretching away from you it might only be a quarter of a length. Remembering to keep the pencil flat like a clock face is the most difficult part. Master that and you can use it to draw figures, buildings or any other subject at all.
If you practice this method well, you will find that in time you don’t actually need to physically hold up the pencil so much; you will begin to measure and ‘see’ things as they really are. I think that the logical part of your brain is overridden and it stops trying to tell you how things ‘should’ look. Instead you can see, and are able to draw, what’s really there in front of you.