Step by Step to a Virtuosic Figure Drawing

Seeing a painting or figure drawing progress from beginning to end allows the finished artwork to be understood as a series of discrete steps leading to a virtuosic whole. During a recent tour of the Grand Central Academy (GCA), in New York City, I observed instructor Joshua LaRock developing a drawing of Michelangelo's marble sculpture Dying Slave, based on a cast bust of the master's sculpture.

LaRock approached the human figure drawing as if he were sculpting on the page, striving for a trompe-l'oeil sense of form in space. He documented his progress along the way and shared his approach with us.

LaRock's figure drawing demonstration, original photo of the bust. When preparing the figure sketch setup of the bust, it was critical to have one isolated light source on the cast. LaRock's rule of thumb is to position the light source at a distance from the subject that is approximately two to three times the length of the subject's largest dimension. The artist sat eye level with the bust and positioned it to emphasize strong, clean lines. He also took note of the exact placement of the bust and his position in relation to it, to prevent even the slightest change in perspective from sitting to sitting.
LaRock's figure drawing demonstration, stage 1. The artist began his figure drawing very loosely to get the general proportions of the bust and develop points of stability-the height and width of the subject and any comparative measurements that could act as visual points of reference throughout the process. LaRock then produced the "block-in," in which every element is defined, from the thin and crisp contours, form shadows and cast shadows, to loose and lightly valued plane changes.
LaRock's figure drawing demonstration, stage 2. Once the block-in was complete, the artist stepped back to evaluate the overall hierarchy of light and dark over the form, asking himself what the brightest and darkest regions were, the second brightest and darkest regions, and so forth. LaRock points out that assigning these demarcations while drawing figures isn't guesswork but is done in direct relation to how perpendicular a particular feature of the object is to the light source, with the brightest piece being the most perpendicular to the light.
LaRock's figure drawing demonstration, stage 3. Once the darkest and lightest areas were established, the illusion of three-dimensionality was created, and it became possible to see the full arc of light over the face of the figure. In this stage of the figure sketch, LaRock focused on preserving the spectrum between the two extremes with minute changes made with pencil and eraser.
LaRock's figure drawing demonstration, final drawing. In the final stage of the drawing, LaRock wanted to answer one crucial question: Does this two-dimensional drawing seem to sit in space and suggest the gesture of the figure? Are the figure drawing proportions correct? He went back to his initial rationale for the drawing-a desire to accentuate the long arc of the right side of the figure's neck as it leads to the ear and continues around where the hairline meets the forehead. To accomplish this successfully without creating unnecessary distractions, LaRock went back in and played with the left side of the face, darkening certain areas so that they seemed to sit back farther in space and lightening other areas so that the right balance of volume was created. All of this involved very minor touches of graphite and also making a point on the eraser and using it as a drawing tool, hatching as you would with a pencil.

LaRock's expert drawing is based on sound understanding of light and form and skilled execution of those principles. His willingness to break down his approach to every eye-deceiving "curve" is similar to the "real life" exploration and instruction you can receive with a copy of Life Drawing: How to Portray the Figure with Accuracy and Expression. You'll gain access to thoughtful instruction on the basics of figure anatomy, proportion, and design that puts you on the road to being your artistic best. Enjoy!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

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