Art Instruction · Commonplace Book · Here, Read

So you want to learn to draw human figures from your imagination?

If you want to learn to draw human figures from your imagination, here’s what I recommend…

  • Stay as far away from Burne Hogarth’s books as possible. Hogarth has absolutely NO IDEA how the human body really moves, and the simplified forms that he draws are only tenuously connected to real human anatomy. Everything of value that is in Hogarth’s books is in Loomis’s Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth, which is available for free as a PDF download from various sites and in a gorgeous facsimile edition from Titan Books. Loomis’s human beings are idealized, yes, but Hogarth’s are monstrosities. Stick with Loomis.
  • In opening section of Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth, “An Approach to Figure Drawing,” Loomis emphasizes the importance of the “mannikin figure” or “mannikin frame,” by which he means not merely the wooden figures that one can buy at an art supply store, which have somewhat limited usefulness, but lively three-dimensional, repeatable graphic visual simplifications of both male and female human bodies that one has practiced drawing from many angles and in a variety of poses until the process of construction has become second nature. “I am of the opinion,” writes Loomis, ” that to teach anatomy before proportion — before bulk and mass and action — is to put the cart before the horse.”  Loomis offers his own version of a skeletal mannikin figure, and demonstrates how to manipulate and flesh it out in a generalized way, but the point here is not that you must slavishly copy Loomis. Rather, the point is simply that if you are to reach your goal of drawing human figures from your imagination, you must endeavour to develop a conceptual mannikin figure of your own that you can use to lay out your compositions and that can serve as a solid basis for the more “realistic” figures that you will produce once you have increased, via intensive study and practice, your mental store of information about appearances, anatomy, movement, and so on (see below).
  • Always try to keep in mind (until it becomes second nature) Loomis’s BIG IDEA, which is that perspective applies to human bodies as much as it applies to buildings.
  • George Bridgman’s books are held in high esteem by experienced artists, but Bridgman’s drawings can be very difficult to decipher if you don’t already know what you’re looking at, so the books are not very good for beginners. IMHO, of course.
  • Buy the Vilppu Drawing Manual and follow Glenn Vilppu’s course of instruction. Vilppu sells the book via his website. His videos are also helpful because they enable you to watch him put theory into practice. A couple of Vilppu’s students have figure-drawing books out right now that are basically just the Vilppu method condensed and repackaged in a glossy format. Don’t buy those books. Buy Vilppu’s coil-bound original.
  • Buy a good anatomy book written for artists and USE IT. My top two recommendations from among the big “artistic anatomy” books that are currently in print and easily obtainable are Classic Human Anatomy: The Artist’s Guide to Form, Function, and Movement by Valerie L. Winslow and Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist by Stephen Rogers Peck. I also really like Anatomy: A Complete Guide for Artists by Joseph Sheppard, whose old-master influenced drawings are not only admirably clear but also aesthetically pleasing and inspiring in a way that drawings in modern anatomy books seldom are. And last but definitely not least, I like The Human Figure: An Anatomy for Artists by David K. Rubins, which is short, inexpensive, and has some of the clearest drawings of musculature of any artistic anatomy book I’ve seen. In fact, I like Rubins’s book so much that I cut the spine off of my copy and replaced it with a cerlox or “comb” binding, using a heavy-duty machine that I purchased for cheap at the local Habitat for Humanity Re-Store, so that I could lay book flat on my work surface for easy reference. But YMMV, as the kids used to say.
  • Sign up for a weekly class that offers the opportunity to draw from live nude models without instruction. Attend the class, and during the longer poses, attempt to draw exactly what you see. As you work your way through the Vilppu Drawing Manual, you will naturally begin to analyze the model in terms of simple volumes and anatomical landmarks; you will also learn about the importance of gesture. Vilppu doesn’t place much stock in contour drawing, but practice contour drawing anyway and work to incorporate specific details of what you have observed into the drawings that you make when you are not sitting in front of the model.
  • Don’t hesitate to use photo-reference that you’ve paid for or shot yourself to supplement your memory/imagination. Photographs can be misleading, sure, but treated as a source of telling details rather than as the last word on appearances, they can also help you breathe life into your constructions.
  • Keep a mirror close by, the larger the better, and use it, and your own body, to identify and solve problems in your figure drawings.
  • You’re allowed to erase. And you’ll be able to erase more easily if you keep a light touch in the early stages of your drawing. Sometimes, when you’ve made a serious blunder, like placing an arm in a position that is physically impossible for a real human being, you will want to erase completely and get back to white paper; at other times, however, you will want to leave the ghost of a good but not great form as a guideline for a smoother, more precise attack. Yes, you could place your incorrect drawing on a light box with a new sheet of paper over it and redraw it, or you could work on successive overlays of tracing paper. But keep in mind: erasing all but a ghost of the image is just as effective as those other methods, and it’s cheaper, too.
  • If you have the money and the time, sign up for a class in figure drawing with a good instructor. (Here’s a rule of thumb: if you can help it, don’t sign up for a class with an instructor who refuses to draw in front of the class.) Also, diligently attempt to do ALL of the assignments that the instructor asks you to do and work to incorporate his or her advice into your drawings. If you don’t want to do any assignments and you don’t want any advice, don’t sign up for a class in figure drawing that includes any instruction, period. You’ll only be wasting your money, your time, your instructor’s time, and, worst of all, your classmates’ time and money.
  • Jack Hamm’s Drawing the Head and Figure is an inexpensive book that is packed with interesting and useful tidbits of information. Definitely not essential, but I daresay that no other book on figure drawing delivers as much value for money.
  • Draw, draw, draw, draw, draw, draw, draw.

… or go your own way, and let your freak flag fly, because drawing naturalistic human figures in a convincing manner from your imagination is by no means the be-all and end-all of art.

[DRAFT 03 May 2013 11 May 2013]


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