Figure Drawing: Poses, Gestures & Lessons for the Beginner

The Power of Human Figure Drawing

Woman Crouching by Egon Schiele, 1918.
Woman Crouching by Egon Schiele, 1918.

Figure drawings from Old Masters and contemporary artists alike can be some of the most moving and expressive artworks that you might come across. Not only is this because the artists arrive at emotive figure drawing poses that are visually dynamic and interesting, but also because of these gesture drawings are often found at the foundation of each finished work.

Imagine drawing figures without acknowledging the stance and position of the body–it would be like painting without color or gradation. There would be something inherently lacking in the figure sketch. Instead, the most powerful way of drawing human figures is to zero in on those minute positions, bold gestures, and overarching shapes of the body.

What is most exciting about embarking on a figure drawing tutorial is that there are so many benefits to the exploration. Live drawing sessions with models are a popular and rewarding way of keeping basic figure drawing skills sharp. Such occasions also allow an artist to make a series of work in a relatively short period of time. These could possibly lead to more formal works in the studio, or they can be given as gifts or even sold. You also get the opportunity to be part of a drawing movement–networking with other artists as part of a community that value the creativity of figure drawing.

Most importantly, figure drawing artists never run out of inspiration. The human form holds a whole world of inspiration in its arms, legs, and torso. From exploring figure–drawing proportions to focusing on that all-important gesture of the body, there is always something to delve further into if you take the figure as your subject. And in the end that is what is most inspiring–that no matter how many figure sketches you create or how many times you draw figures, there is always a fresh way of looking and a new way of experiencing the figure in your work.


Measuring Your Figure Drawing for Fit

Leaning Figure (Claudia) by Dan Gheno, 2007, graphite, 24 x 18.
Leaning Figure (Claudia)
by Dan Gheno, 2007, graphite, 24 x 18.

Many artists face a great deal of difficulty trying to fit an entire figure drawing on their papers or canvases. There is no rule that says you must draw the entire figure, but this is a particularly terrifying issue for those artists drawing an académie or trying to fit several figures within a complicated perspective layout. In both cases, I find it very helpful to mark on my paper the top, middle, and bottom of the figure.

Finding the midpoint of the figure, one can draw back and forth from the top to the bottom, working back toward its center. Many artists subconsciously shorten their figures as they move perilously close to the bottom of the paper. If you don’t have time to restart the drawing and you have no other choice, it is better to let the feet run off the page, with all the other body parts correctly proportioned, than to turn your model into a modern-day version of the short-legged Toulouse-Lautrec.

I try to trust my gut as much as possible during this early stage of a figure sketch. Only when I’m satisfied with the general placement and action of the figure do I begin to zero in on individual forms and details, and only then do I begin to optically measure the proportions of the model. Most often, I use the head size as my unit of measurement when drawing figures. It’s a good idea to repeat each of your measurements at least twice to confirm accuracy. Then cross-check your head measurements by comparing large anatomical units such as legs against arms, the torso against leg units, and the overall figure length against its width. In a seated pose, a model may begin with perfect posture, and then several minutes later end up slumped forward.

You have several options: When working alone, ask the model to adjust the figure drawing pose and/or take more breaks if the pose is difficult. Unfortunately, it’s more problematic if you are drawing in a group situation. Looking around the studio, you may notice that your fellow artists have drawn the model in different states of tiredness. The best solution is to wait until the model resumes the pose after a five-minute break. Refreshed, the model will likely return to the original gesture. You can also adjust your figure drawing to reflect the pose when the model gets tired. But stick to it! Whatever you do, never change your figure sketch back and forth, trying to chase the shifting movements of the model.

At all times, be sure to find the middle point of the figure-wherever that may be (usually near the crotch on the standing figure). And don’t forget to mark it lightly on your paper. That way, if the upper part of your figure begins to grow larger as you concentrate on the details there, you’ll catch your mistake before you run out of paper for the feet.

–Dan Gheno


Prudh’hon’s Working Method for Drawing Figures

Figure drawing by Prud'hon.
Figure drawing by Prud’hon.

Studying the range of figure drawings-both finished and partially finished–that Prud’hon made over a 40-year period allows us to reconstruct a methodology for how they were started, developed, and completed. This helps in understanding their ineffable quality–the rare combination of delicacy and structural strength that is essentially his.

Prud’hon’s figure drawings are densely constructed and built up in distinct layers. These layers or stages include linear thoughts-such as contour designation and hatching–as well as broad tonal passages of stumping, rubbing, and graining. They are built up in strata and go through stages in which the figure drawing is first established, then effaced, restated, and refined. Mixing lines, tones, and additive and subtractive techniques, Prud’hon presented us with a full range of the expressive possibilities of chalk and paper.

Prud’hon’s distinctive choices started right at the outset, beginning with his selection of black and white chalk on blue paper. Although hardly unique to Prud’hon, this cold tonality sets up a completely different emotive key than the more common warmth of red chalk on cream paper. Aside from its color characteristics, the blue paper also gave Prud’hon a solid middle tone from which to begin and locates the drawing directly in the center of the tonal range from the start. The other conspicuous element of Prud’hon’s beginnings is that he made full use of both the black and the white chalk right from the outset. When working on toned paper, many artists spend much more time developing the darks initially, only adding the white chalk toward the end in the form of restricted highlights. But Prud’hon got the lights and the darks in his figure sketches going at the same time, using the white chalk extensively from the start, and this allowed him to establish his uncanny sense of luminosity early on.

It seems clear from the partially finished figure drawings that he would begin with a tentative, airy contour to establish the basic proportions, gesture, and positioning of the figure on the paper. He would then attack the major plane breaks with extraordinarily free and vigorous hatching. What is so impressive about these initial marks is that despite their élan, they are perfectly placed and anatomically informed. He used his marks variously to run down the length of a bone, to pick out a subcutaneous landmark, or to begin to carve out the planes of a major muscle mass. This amount of accuracy, combined with such swiftness of delivery, speaks of knowledge of the body so deeply ingrained that he was able to make these notations in a split second, with his hand in constant motion.

At this stage, the figure sketches were completely linear–made up of a dense network of lines, slashes, and quickly jotted down notations for anatomical landmarks. The mark-making came out of his initial training in tracing and copying engravings. He would then home in on a selected part of the drawing–usually starting from the top–and take a stump and rub down all the marks in that section, transforming them into broad tonal washes. Occasionally, he would stump down the entire figure drawing. But the number of partially finished drawings in which there are both linear and rubbed-down areas seems to indicate that he usually developed the drawings in sections.

After this early process of stumping, the drawing started to make a radical shift from linear to tonal and began reading more like a soft grisaille painting than a line drawing. This rubbing down of the surface gave the drawing a breadth and a freedom more reminiscent of ink wash than dry chalk. And although this initial stumping served largely to divide the figure into its basic planes of light and dark, the black and white chalks also began blending into those seamless gray halftones, which would survive into the final stages of the drawing.

–Ephraim Rubenstein


Proving Leonardo’s Figure Drawing Proportions

The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, pen and ink drawing, 1487.
The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, pen and ink drawing, 1487.

Leonardo’s figure drawing The Vitruvian Man is an icon of such stature that Dr. Martin Kemp referred to it as “probably the most famous drawing in the world.” Here we will focus only on the theories of proportion proposed by Vitruvius as understood and elaborated on by Leonardo.

Leonardo’s figure drawing measures about 13½ x 9¾ inches (344 x 245 mm) and is executed in light brown watered ink on a soft, warm, gray paper. It is one of the earliest of his drawings on human proportion and was done during Leonardo’s first Milanese period.

What follows is an assessment, line by line, of the accuracy of Vitruvius’ theories as interpreted and illustrated by Leonardo using both his drawing and mine. In order to clarify Leonardo’s transcription of Vitruvius we have separated and enumerated each of the theories with bold numbers in the text.

Leonardo begins his interpretation of Vitruvius with, “the measurements of the human body are distributed by Nature as follow:”

1. “4 fingers make one palm.” Perfect; a simple measurement with a caliper or compass will confirm this. Just below the figure and the second paragraph (which is only a single sentence) is a horizontal line with markings at both ends. The words diti (fingers) are written directly under four spaces, defined by five small lines, indicating the width of the fingers.  And next to that the word palmi (palms) written directly under five spaces, defined by six small lines, the width of each measures exactly four fingers.

2. “4 palms make one foot.” Not quite; the length of the foot in both Leonardo’s drawing and mine is less than three palms.

3. “6 palms make one cubit.” Correct. I have found that in verifying Leonardo’s theories one should trust in the ratio of the module to the part being measured. However, in this case, as the cubit is not part of the body but an ancient form of measurement (18 to 22 inches), we must rely on the accepted measurement of the cubit. So, if the width of a man’s palm is approximately 3.25 inches, then six palms would measure 19 inches, which fits into the width of a cubit. And if we measure this same man of average height at his shoulders we would find that the width of his shoulders, between 18 and 20 inches, would enter into the height of a man four times, proving the theory in numbers 4 and 13.

4. “4 cubits make a man’s height.” Usually correct.

5. “And 4 cubits make one pace and 24 palms make one cubit.” Variable; One cubit at 18 inches x 4 = 72 inches or 6 feet, but a pace, according to the definition, is smaller at 58 inches–less than 5 feet. The conclusion here is to stick to the anatomical modules to establish a canon, and as for the second part, the measurement is slightly less than 24 palms in a whole man.

6. “If you open your legs so much as to decrease your height by 1/14…the space between the legs will be an equilateral triangle.” Variable: In Leonardo’s drawing, the decrease–the distance from the feet which rest on the bottom of the equilateral triangle to the feet resting on the bottom of the square=-measures slightly more than 1/14, but in my drawing the decrease measures more than 1/17 of the total height of the figure. However, in both drawings the equilateral triangles are perfect. Go figure!

7. In order to bring further clarity to the text, I have rearranged Leonardo’s text by combining a portion of the last sentence in the first paragraph to the single sentence of the second paragraph.

“…and spread and raise your arms till your middle fingers touch the level of the top of your head you must know that the center of the outstretched limbs will be in the navel…” and, “The length of a man’s outspread arms is equal to his height.” Perfect. A man standing perfectly erect in a square, stretching his arms upward, will find that his middle fingers touch the top level of the square level with his head, at the exact point where the circle intersects the square. And his navel will be at the compass point of this perfect circle. In addition, we will find that the length of a second set of his horizontally outstretched arms will be equal to his whole height.

Leonardo was the first (after Vitruvius) to comprehend and combine these theories together and the first to combine the circle and the square together in a single drawing, not by trying to square the circle, but by projecting it outside the square. In so doing he surpassed others before him and those who followed.
8. “From the roots of the hair to the bottom of the chin is the tenth of a man’s height.” Variable. In this Leonardo quotes Vitruvius’ words verbatim but contradicts it to measure 9 faces in several other examples. But even here in both Leonardo’s and my figure drawing the full figure measures only slightly larger than 9 faces.

9. “From the bottom of the chin to the top of his head is one-eighth of his height.” Correct. This is the standard, acceptable, and reliable measurement, which works perfectly in Leonardo’s and my figure sketch.

10. “From the top of the breast to the top of his head will be one-sixth of a man.” Correct. The measurement must be taken at the pit of the throat formed by the manubrum, the top of the sternum. It is perfect in Leonardo’s drawing and mine.

11. “From the top of the breast to the roots of the hair will be the seventh part of the whole man.” Variable, and correct. This forms an unusual module and it measures slightly more in Leonardo’s drawing and slightly less in mine.

12. “…from the nipples to the top of the head will be the fourth part of a man.” Correct. Perfect in both Leonardo’s and my drawing.

13. “The greatest width of the shoulders contains in itself the fourth part of a man.” Correct. Perfect, in both Leonardo’s and my drawings and proven in several other examples.

14. “From the elbow to the tip of the hand will be the fifth part of a man.” Variable. In both Leonardo’s and my drawing it measures no more than one-fourth of a man.

15. “…and from the elbow to the angle of the armpit will be the eighth part of a man.” Correct. This should mean that the module is roughly equal to the size of the head; I find it slightly more in both Leonardo’s and my drawing.

16. “The whole hand will be the tenth part of a man.” Variable. We already have proven that the hand is equal to the face and is closer to one-ninth of the whole man.

17. The beginning of the genitals marks the middle of the man.” Perfect. This point is the pubis symphasis where the two halves of the pelvis come together in front. This bony landmark is a standard, reliable reference point and is proven several times over in these pages.

18. “The foot is the seventh part of a man.” Variable. Here Leonardo parts from Vitruvius, for Vitruvius states unequivocally on several occasions that the foot is one-sixth of the whole height of a man. In both Leonardo’s and my drawing the measurement is closer to seven than to six.

19. “From the sole of the foot to below the knee will be the fourth part of a man.” Perfect in both Leonardo’s drawing and mine.

20. “From below the knee to the beginning of the genitals will be the fourth part of a man.” If we take 19 and 20 together, they will equal two-fourths, and make half a man. See 17 to verify the center of a man.

21. “The distance from the bottom of the chin to the nose and from the roots of the hair to the eyebrows is, in each case the same, and like the ear, a third of the face.” Perfect.

–Anthony Panzera

Figure Drawing Resources

Figure Drawing: Anatomy of the Head with Dan Thompson


Figure Drawing I:
Anatomy of the Head with Dan Thompson




Figure Drawing II: The Gesture with Dan Thompson


Figure Drawing II:
The Gesture with Dan Thompson


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.