Top 10 Life Drawing Tips

These tips are designed to help you draw what you see (the figure) quickly and accurately. The goal is a finished, interesting drawing of the human figure.

1.       Look at the Figure

2.       Plan your composition

3.       Quickly sketch in the entire figure

4.       Draw fast

5.       Practice good line economy

6.       Don’t erase

7.       Add shadows and highlights

8.       Draw the whole pose

9.       Ground your figure

10.    Date your drawing

11.    Mystery tip

1. Look at the figure

Take just a few seconds to mentally take notice of a few things.

Is the figure taller, or wider? The figure on the right looks wider at first glance but is actually taller. The reclining pose of the figure, horizontal lines, the cropping of the photo, and even the format of your monitor all lend to this illusion.

How is the figure supporting its own weight? This is important to consider, preventing your figures from leaning over.

Hold your pencil up to the figure and visualize three lines, one each through the shoulders, hips, and knees (see image above). Keeping in mind the relationship between these lines while you draw will help with your proportions and placement. Even taking 2-3 seconds with this step will help the layout of your drawing and save you precious time later.

2. Plan your composition

From step one you should have a general shape of the figure and be able to visualize a composition. Using your hand, and without marking the paper, motion the general shapes, then very quickly sketch the general composition. Sometimes it is easier to draw a box around the figure to help visualize. You may want to divide the box up further to help you place landmarks. Think of those drawings you may have done earlier in your career where you draw a grid over your subject and a corresponding grid on your paper. These are accurate because they break the composition down into bite-size pieces.

3. Quickly sketch in the entire figure

This will help your composition and proportions. Get the whole thing sketched out in a few seconds. Then do your drawing on top of it. Your accuracy with the sketch will improve over time. Don’t draw detail, just the basic shapes. Use broad, light tones, by using the side of your pencil.

4. Draw fast. Keep your arm moving

Think about placement while you are drawing and don’t neglect all those negative shapes around the figure. If you are using Conte or charcoal you might want to add some broad lines or tones in and around the figure. This will add some pop to your drawing. You can do this by using the side of your pencil or Conte.

Remember, a slow, steady and confident hand is faster than an indecisive chicken scratch.

5. Practice good line economy

Practice with some one-line drawings. A one-line drawing is done without picking up your drawing instrument from the paper.

  • do not use chicken scratches. Try to be fluid and efficient.

  • draw inside the figure, not just an outline. Study the subtleties within the figure, and your line, in turn, will become more sensitive.

  • try to vary your line width and weight if you are using a charcoal pencil or Conte.

  • don’t draw everything. This is a great exercise for learning how to edit. Be selective in both what you draw and what you leave out.

6. Don’t erase (much)

Erasers are a really good tool for lightening tone, not getting rid of a line. Erasers tend to damage the paper fibers and often end up being more distracting than the thing you were trying to erase in the first place. More importantly erasing takes away valuable time that could be better spent drawing.

Here are a few alternatives to erasing, if you just can’t let it go:

  • draw over it, possibly with a lighter color.
  • use a chamois or tissue to lighten your mistake, then draw over it.
  • start over. Sometimes it is more rewarding to have a good three-minute drawing than a bad 20-minute drawing.
  • paint or gesso over it.
  • paste paper over it.

7. Add shadows and highlights

Shadows and highlights give the pose a life-like feel, and can be just as descriptive as a line. Give yourself time to draw the shadows, and your figures will develop weight and drama.

Ways to quickly add darks to your drawing:

  • use a wet brush to blend Conte Crayon and charcoal
  • use the side of your pencil, Conte or charcoal. Pressing harder on one side will give you a beautiful gradation, perfect for drawing the figure!
  • ink: India Ink (waterproof), Sumi ink (water soluble), Walnut Ink (water-soluble brown ink.
  • Sumi ink stick: soak in water for a minute and draw directly
  • water-soluble Pens: Many pens work great with a wet paint brush, even if they don’t say so.
  • water-soluble graphite pencils: great in sketchbooks. (will warp paper, but good practice.
  • compressed charcoal: dark and messy

Ways to add highlights to your drawing:

  • use your eraser: clean and sharpen with sandpaper (Pink Pearls are good, just watch the ‘boogers’.
  • white Conte or charcoal

  • white acrylic ink (I love the white FW Acrylic inks)

8. Draw the whole pose

At least some of the time. Drawing cropped views is great, but the majority of your sketches should be the whole figure. Don’t avoid the hands, feet, and head. If you always draw these last, and you always run out of time, you will never learn how to draw them. Sometimes a very simple shape is enough for a hand or foot or a background shadow to indicate a head. Even a 30-second pose is enough time to draw the entire figure, you just have to be quick and learn to simplify.

9. Ground your figure

Sometimes just a simple line will convey the figure is not floating around space. Try adding in the cast shadow from your figure, along with any drapery, patterns, etc. Although recently I have been having fun leaving everything out except the figure. Shading and the appearance of weight become even more important in defining the figure and space around it.

10. Date your drawings

It’s more encouraging when you flip through your life drawings to see your progress on a timeline.

11. Am I supposed to draw the penis?

A drawing of a naked man missing a penis is always a little disturbing. So unless you are purposefully trying to make a statement, draw it with as much detail, more or less, as you did everything else. If you have some insurmountable fear of ever drawing a penis you can always substitute with a banana.