Crossing Over From Copying to Creating

Drawing Basics–The Transition from Copying to Creating

I suggested in my previous blog that the difference between an excellent draftsperson versed in anatomy, perspective, elements of drawing and all the other disciplines needed to produce a realistic, believable figure drawing and an artist is that the latter uses the realistic, believable figure drawing as a tool to make a statement. One could say that the draftsperson makes a copy of what he is looking at, while the artist uses what he's looking at to create.

Everyone can learn to draw. And fairly fast. Of course the more time one spends practicing the faster the results arrive. Just like learning a new language. Have to learn the letters, grammar and words before one can make coherent sentences. The equivalent of this stage in figure drawing would be the ability to draw a nice, realistic, believable copy of a model.

But apart from being able to ask where the post office is and comment on good weather, there's a lot more to interaction in the newly learnt language. Exchanging ideas, being playful, making and understanding a joke, making a point. The same applies to figure drawing. Once we are able to copy what we see by applying basic rules that can be learned and practiced, we can take the next step.

When I teach figure drawing, I tell the students right at the start that in the second half of the course, about four weeks in, that I want them to cross over from copying only to partly creating. Let me explain on the following example.

Modelling is not easy and the models get tired sitting in a pose for 20 minutes. That's not surprising, all kinds of hidden pains and cramps surface just after a few minutes. So what the models often do is they rely on their skeletal structure to hold them up in overextended positions. A prime example of this is the hyper extension of the elbow. It becomes bent a bit over the limit of what it should be. It's not painful, but it looks unnatural.

Overextended limbs can look awkward in a figure drawing, so it is up to the artist to go from copying to creating and adapting beyond the model's pose. Overextended limbs can look awkward in a figure drawing, so it is up to the artist to go from copying to creating and adapting beyond the model's pose.
Overextended limbs can look awkward in a figure drawing, so it is up to the artist
to go from copying to creating and adapting beyond the model's pose.

Now that you are looking at a photo, you just accept it as it is. It is a photo. But imagine an exact realistic drawing of those elbows and cramped fingers. That just would not look right. Armed with the knowledge of anatomy we can take the next step and use the model and the pose as an inspiration and change the existing pose to create a position in which the elbow looks different.

A figure drawing by Robert Stollar.
A figure drawing by Robert Stollar.

Of course there may be occasions when to create means using an extended elbow, but to train oneself into more creating and storytelling figure drawing rather than just copying opens up a whole new world of possibilities. According to some experts up to 93% of our communication is non verbal. Body language, facial expressions and gestures are used to create a statement.

And what is that statement? That's up to each and every one of us alone. It is what we want to communicate to the rest of the society. Of course the kind of figure drawing that does this as well takes longer to master. In fact it is a lifelong effort, but it takes you places where you get to know yourself that much better.



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5 thoughts on “Crossing Over From Copying to Creating

  1. Great post Robert! I think artists should pose themselves at least once, for greater understanding (and empathy!) of what it takes to be a great model. At the life drawing workshop I was on in November, at Higham Hall in the English Lakes, one of the tutor Patrick Oates’s phrases was “don’t be so literal”, not least about attempting to get the model in precisely the same pose (rather than more rather than less the same) after a break.

  2. Hi Marion,
    thanks for your comment. I agree with you, everyone should try to pose. If not in a class at least at home in front of a mirror. The artists and unfortunately most art instructors have no idea how difficult it is to be a great model. I’m very lucky with the bunch of the models I hire for the Masterclass where I teach in person. They always ask me what is it I would like them to concentrate on as each class is dedicated to different body part. They are really good. Since they can produce the best poses needed it frees me up to spend the time with students, rather than trying to think of what pose would be good to have next.

  3. Dear “coondude”,

    In my personal view there is no simple answer to your question. I will try to outline a few points. It makes a difference what is the aim of the modelling session.

    If it is to create a singular artwork, there will be a period of “searching” you will undertake with the artist packed with a lot of changes in developing the pose. He or she may not even know what is the pose suppose to be. Your feeling for hearing and interpreting directions will be just as invaluable as the artist’s ability to spot the one pose that will work.

    If the session is a teaching one as is the case in my Masterclass, I’m finding it a great help if the model is interested in what is the subject of that particular session. If we are discussing the lower leg there’s not much point in taking up poses that will show off the arms. I have a model who wanted to be present at the theory part of the session where anatomy was discussed in order to understand what poses would work best. That’s dedication. Will I hire that model again? You bet.
    Another good thing for me as a teacher in such a situation is when the model can do his or her own thing so that I don’t have to think what pose to have next and instead I can focus on the students and what they are doing. But that ability of the model comes with experience.

    In a standard life drawing session (especially with no tuition involved) the rule is: There is no such thing as a bad pose. The thing about figure drawing is that we don’t copy what we see, we recreate what we see adding what we know (anatomy and elements of drawing) adding what we have experienced in our own lives so far in order to create an illusion of the reality. And the emphasis is on “creation”. That means that if the pose doesn’t suit our artistic intent, we can not only move our easel to a different spot but we should know enough to be able to change the pose to suit us. Just as we don’t copy the lighting conditions in the room with 20+ light sources but instead we discard the lighting information we see and create in our minds our very own single light source with single reflected light and draw that. As everyone who has drawn a bit know, the light not only creates the form, it also destroys it.

    Hope this helps.


  4. life figure drawing is an endless joy and the basis of every serious learning.
    However I agree that we must observe and avoid rigid rules sometimes to leave some room for creativity, instead of learning the perfect shapes and proportions and reading boring books about anatomy for artists. Observing and adapting that reality to our personal interpretation is more important than copying the subject, for that we have the photography.
    Anyway during the learning process I think it is important to just copy for some years.. the personal interpretation can come later, it cannot be the other way around..