Submitted by: Bob Bride, Art Director, teacher, artist, and writer, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
Grade Level: High school through college
Improve your figure drawing by learning to visualize the human body as a group of simple geometric shapes.
In my 37 years as a commercial and fine artists, I've spent countless hours studying and drawing the human figure. In the process, I've come to appreciate it as one of the most difficult of all subjects to draw correctly. We encounter the human form everywhere, yet it seems that many of us have never learned to see beyond the superficial.
One of the best ways to solve this problem is to learn to visualize the body's individual components as abstract geometric shapes. The following exercises demonstrate how to identify and use these shapes effectively to create convincing figure drawings - drawings that will add depth and dimension to your artwork.
You can improve your figure drawing by learning to visualize the human body as a series of abstract geometric shapes. By collecting photos or drawing and blocking in geometric shapes like those above, you'll gain a clearer understanding of the body's components and how they work together.
Then, using a Colored Markers transparent enough to let the drawing underneath show through, break the figure into geometric components - triangles, ovals, oblongs, circles, etc. Consider different colors for male and female.
Take a large sheet of Oak Tag Board. Cut out your blocked-in figures and mount them on the oak tag in straight lines, like tin soldiers. By placing them side by side, you ensure that variations in the poses can be noted at a glance. Hang up this guide, a "road map" of choices, near your easel or drawing board. It will be a welcome referral when you're stuck with a figure that doesn't seem to work.
Pose the Problems
Page through newspapers and magazines, cutting out as many full-body photos in as many poses as you can find. Avoid trick photography, impossible distortions and clothes that disguise the body underneath. Black and white photos are ideal, but color shots will work as long as the colors won't interfere with the colors of your markers. Another option is to do an image search on Google, Bing, or any other search engine and print out figures you find there.
Select Your Shapes
Think of the geometric shapes that best describe the parts of the human form, and use Chisel Tip Markers to block them in over the photos you've collected. Do the chosen shapes work? If not, try other shapes until you find those that do. Compare the shapes you've drawn with the guidelines posted near your drawing board. Observe how the geometric shapes vary in size and dimension from individual to individual and from pose to post.
Once you've defined basic shapes and movement, you're ready to tackle bulk. By adding short, narrow lines to the larger geometric shapes, I've created another plane that gives the baseball player weight and volume.
To more clearly understand these variations, stand at attention facing a full-length mirror. Now, imitate each of the poses in the photos, realizing your body as you assume each new pose. Imagine geometric symbols within your own reflection. When you tense the muscles in your body, the shapes will change.
Notice how certain movements of the arms and legs appear to be single units, bending like limp macaroni instead of remaining the crisp, basic forms you started with. For example, if your picture shows a baseball player hitting a home run, you must keep the geometric shape of his gesture. Similarly, the legs will show the action in geometric shapes that flow with the movement.
Collect 100 photos and divide them into packet of 10. Make your selection interesting - young and old, make and female, seated and running, etc. Then, give yourself a 10-day deadline and, working through a packet each day, block in geometric shapes in all the figures in your photos. Don't forget to refer to your guidelines.
File the Good Stuff
Select the best of you're geometric solutions and put them in Manila Folders marked according to the type of pose: standing, seated, running, etc. These solutions will serve as welcome references later when you encounter difficult poses (if you're uncomfortable with any of the steps to this point, repeat them before going on to the next step).
Move to Another Plane
By now, you should find yourself looking at the human figure in geometrical terms. If so, you're ready for the next plateau - giving your figures bulk, weight, and volume. You can do this by imagining a second plane, one that indicates depth. Define this new plane with lines of color to distinguish it from the solid areas of color you use to indicate the basic geometric shapes. You can see how the geometric symbols now take on a three-dimensional quality. This exercise trains your eyes to recognize and understand the planes of form. Collect and organize another 100 photos and repeat the discipline assignments of step five, with the new plane added.
When the human body is in motion, the individual geometric shapes within the arms and legs often appear as single units. Notice how these single units give a feeling of movement to the baseball player.
Get a New Perspective
Foreshortening - shortening forms as they recede from the foreground - is based on correct perspective and is one of the biggest obstacles to overcome in drawing the human figure. But you must master it if you want your human subjects to look convincing.
Begin by gathering odd-perspective photos of people in which a portion of the anatomy appears to be foreshortened to the point that it's almost non-existent. Trace at least two of these photo images, using a silhouetted line only. Note how strange the image appears: The arm of leg looks withered and deformed. You need to become familiar with this phenomena; while the eye accepts foreshortening in a photograph, it initially rejects our transition into linear art.
To make the eye accept this foreshortening, we must find a way to suggest that some portions of the body are receding into the distance while others are advancing. The search for a solution leads us to our next step.
Define Distance with Color
Depending on its hue, value, and tone, color has the ability to suggest distance. In general, light values advance and dark values recede. By shifting color values then, you can define whether an arm or a leg is receding or advancing.
To test this, gather another 100 photos illustrating foreshortening. Using packets of 10 on a daily basis, experiment with color to see what pushes abstracted form forward or backward. Pay attention to the way reds, yellows, and oranges seem to leap out and grab your attention, while blues, greens, an violets seem more passive. And notice how softer colors - smoky blues, misty greens, soft browns, and vague grays - tend to shadow areas and make them recede.
Coloring Your Perspective
Color provides an excellent tool for defining foreshortened body parts. In the drawing on the left, the areas of the receding dark and advancing light add to the overall effort of depth.
"Tie-ing" it All Together
The railroad tie effect (image on the right) provides yet another approach to capturing perspective. The ties should appear largest in the foreground and become smaller and closer together as they recede.
The Railroad Tie Effect
Your earliest lessons in perspective probably taught you that if you line up a number of similarly sized object, the objects nearest you appear largest, while the objects farther away appear progressively smaller and closer together. You can combine this concept with color and cross contouring to abstract foreshortened elements of the human body. Start by placing the thickest bands of color on the area closest to the viewer, then use progressively thinner lines as the subject recedes.
Putting these 10 steps into practice will sharpen your sense of the geometric symbols that make up the human form and provide you with a reference file of drawing problems you've solved with this geometric approach. Drawing is an ongoing challenge, so fine-tune this new approach, then arm yourself with a fine-point marker pen an a variety of colored markers, and venture outside to sketch. As you observe and sketch people in the countless poses of life, remember all art is an abstraction. All art, whether it be painting or drawing, represents artists' decisions to isolate and define three dimensional forms in two dimensions. No matter how real the depiction of the subject, the artist makes selective choices removing anything that doesn't enhance or add to the image.