Drawing Figures: The Essential Elements of Portraying the Human Being

drawing figuresFigure drawing, also known as life drawing, is a classical method of representational art. Representational art refers to the depiction of images as they are. Drawing figures is one of the best ways for painters and sculptors to master the skill of portraying the human body in its living form. To capture the living quality of a figure, an artist must look beyond the surface of the model. He or she must also see the ways in which the underlying structures give rise to the unique shape of the model’s body – its subtle lines and contours and its dimension and depth. To do this effectively, an artist should attain a working knowledge of human anatomy, knowledge which not only helps you proportion your figure correctly, but will also help you with gesture drawing. All of these details are essential to the conveyance of the final image as a real person to the viewer. This is why it is so important for the artist to see the figure in person, in real life.

History of Figure Drawing

Humans have been drawing figures for eons. Some of the earliest known rough figure drawings were found in the Lascaux Cave in Dordogne, France and in Australian Aboriginal rock art. Though the images themselves were not necessarily true to human form, the images certainly depicted the human form in living motion. You can see some of the most incredible expressions of figure drawing in the work of Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo, Giorgio Vasari, and Andrea del Sarto.

Your Tool Kit

Though over time you will probably try several different mediums and media, here are a few ideas to get you started:

Mediums for Figure Drawing

Rough Newsprint

Rough newsprint is just newspaper without the print. For the beginning (or starving) artist, it is the most popular because it is inexpensive. It’s made out of recycled paper and wood pulp and it is not meant to last. Rough newsprint’s texture makes it work well with softer media such as charcoal.

Charcoal Papers

This acid-free paper is made of 100% cotton and comes in a wide variety of styles. It is popular for figure drawing because its texture allows for a more expressive technique.

Media for Figure Drawing


Charcoal is the classic media for figure drawing. Vine charcoal creates a delicate line, which can easily brush off of some papers. Willow charcoal is slightly larger, creating a darker line than vine charcoal. Compressed charcoal has a smoother texture and an overall better adherence to the paper. It gives you a broader range of tonal quality than the others, allowing you to create much darker shadows. It comes in varying degrees of hardness, and like a pencil, the softer the charcoal, the easier it is to blend and smudge.


There are three kinds of artist’s pencils: carbon, graphite, and charcoal. Carbon pencils are a blend of clay and soot, making their tonal quality much blacker than graphite. They blend fairly easily, but lack smoothness. The standard pencil is a blend of graphite and clay, something which gives you a good tonal range. The softer lead pencils give you a greater tonal range, but they tend to lose their points more quickly.  Graphite pencils have a strong, fine point and work best for finer details, details such as wisps of hair. Charcoal pencils are made from powdered charcoal and will give you a rich, dark tone.

The Basics of Drawing Figures


For figure drawing, the value of learning and understanding human anatomy with an artistic eye is immeasurable. The underlying anatomy of your model – her bones and their protuberances and condyles, and her muscles, with their varying shapes and sizes – inform every aspect of both her contour and gesture. A working knowledge of how everything is interconnected, and how it moves together, will help you not only to get the proper proportions of the body, but it will also help you draw the inner lines of your figure. For some an anatomical focus takes away from the emotional expression, but if you can see that the emotion is expressed through the anatomy, you get a different perspective. Not to mention, the underlying structures, though they are anatomically the same, are very uniquely manifested.

As you will see below, knowledge of anatomy will also help you to define the beginning and ending of your contour lines and to pinpoint your landmarks for shading.

The Envelope

The envelope is the basic shape of the model, constructed with straight lines. This technique should help you with the general proportions of the model, especially when he or she is in a pose that is harder to capture, such as crouching or bending over.

You start out with one big shape, and then fill that shape in with smaller and smaller details, until your figure begins to take the form of a human being. It may take some time to develop your eye for this general outlining technique, but eventually you will be able to do it quickly.

  1. Start by marking the most extreme points in your models pose. Mark where the tips of the toes, the top of the head, and so on, would appear on the paper.
  2. Connect those points with lines.
  3. There is your main envelope.

The Block-In

In the block-in phase, you are trying to capture the gesture and proportions in small areas of your figure.  The block-in is the two-dimensional version of your figure drawing.  According to Anthony Ryder, it organizes, not only the drawing itself, but also the entire process of drawing.  The block-in, then, is the organizing principle of your figure drawing.

It’s as if the three-dimensional model we see posing has been photocopied, cut out, and pasted onto the surface of the paper. It is constructed of line-segments that connect points located along the outline of the figure…

  1. Subdivide, or block-in, your envelope into the main shapes of your model.
  2. Use angles to represent various lines of the body, for example the line of the shoulders or the lines of the legs.

Eventually, you will have a rough, but recognizable, image of your figure.


Gesture drawing is the technique of making several, quick drawings of movement.  “Gesture,” says Antony Ryder in his book, The Artist’s Complete Guide to Figure Drawing,

is life and movement. It is the energy inherent in the form of the model, a living energy coursing through his or her whole body…

To master the artistry of gesture is to be able to convey the figure as a living, breathing human being.

Contour Drawing

The contour line of your figure drawing is something like the outline, but with the purpose of showing depth and dimension and volume and mass. Essentially, your contour encapsulates the gesture, the life, expression, and action of your model. If you were doing a contour line of the shoulder and upper arm, you would follow the line of the shoulder to its end, where it meets the arm line. Your next line, the shoulder line, would begin where the arm line ended.

The interior contour lines are those lines which travel over the form of the model, such as the line of the pectoral muscle along the chest or the lines of the bicep and triceps muscles in the upper arm. These contour lines are what make the image pop-out in three dimension.

Non-Blind Contour Drawings

In non-blind contour drawings, you are looking at both your model and your paper.  The execution of the contour line is very, very slow – so slow that you feel as though you are hardly moving. As you draw the lines of your model, try to see her through the paper, almost like you were tracing her.  Follow every line to its natural end in one, long, fluid stroke, then organically move to the beginning of the next one.

Blind Contour Drawing

For this technique, you only look at our model and draw on your paper, something which forces you to feel your way around the paper.

Light, Shadow, and Shading

Shading is the technique which brings the inner form of your figure to life, making it appear like a solid form. In order for shading to be effective, you need to understand how to depict light and shadow in your image.

The contrast between light and shadow is another aspect of drawing figures so that they appear three-dimensional. Seeing light and shadow is about training your eye to see with an artistic eye.  Value is a word which describes the varying shades of grey between white and black.  An artist will translate values, the reflections of light and shadows of dark on a figure, into shading.

To depict the appropriate value, you must be able to identify your source of light – the true shadow, which are the places on the body which receive no light, and cast shadow, the places on the body which are blocked by a solid object or a body part.

Anthony Ryder suggests first mapping out the landmarks of the body using hatching and cross-hatching, which will eventually fade into your shading. Notice how these landmarks line up with each other and see if you can locate a “pathway of form,” which appear like waves along the body.

Once you learn to integrate the essential steps of drawing figures, they will start to come together in a unique artistic expression that is all your own.