Instructions for drawing figures give measurements such as ‘the average human body is 7.5 head-lengths tall’. It’s funny that even that measurement seems to vary from source to source though. They then tell you how many times the same head-length will fit into an arm, a leg, the width of the torso, etc. Quite honestly, I have always found these measurements useless. How many times will people stand bolt upright for you to draw them? How interesting would that be anyway?
Figures are interesting to draw when they sit, lie down, curl up. When their limbs stretch towards you or away from you. Comparing head-lengths to their height or arm length is no help at all. Knowing how many times a head-length should fit into the length of a leg is not useful if that leg is in any kind of unusual position. This approach even reinforces the left brained, logical, linear idea that drawing can be helped with formulas. It will leave you struggling with the seemingly impossible optical illusion of foreshortening.
Foreshortening is the term used for perspective when applied to the figure. It means that a foot can appear to be several times larger than a head if it is closer to you in space. Or much smaller if it is further away.
To draw well, we need to overcome and discard the idea that it can be achieved by using a series of steps. Drawing is not logical. It is a creative process and every drawing demands new observations and adjustments to what you think you ‘know’. You actually know nothing when it comes to a drawing; there are no formulas. Each and every drawing is different and unique.
In my opinion, the only useful method for drawing realistic figures is the same one that applies to drawing anything else in three dimensional space; pretend it is flat.
Why do we think that copying photographs is easier than drawing from life?
Because they are already flattened for us and the task seems easier. The problem is that cameras distort space very subtly, and we carefully copy the distortions without realising it. Our literal left brains find it hard to accept that photographs can lie. Photographs can also confuse you with a lot of information that is not necessary to make a good picture. Less is usually more.
Your brain will probably find this a terribly difficult concept at first. It will give you symbols and shortcuts to make drawing faster, at the expense of accuracy. It is trained to help you to achieve tasks as quickly and effortlessly as possible, using past experiences and learnt responses.
This doesn’t work with drawing. We know that every face in the world is different. So is every single body. There are certain guidelines that all faces and bodies fit into, but it is the differences that make everyone unique. Guidelines don’t help at all when it comes to foreshortening, or drawing figures that are in any kind of odd position.
To do this without the window, hold up your pencil at arm’s length, close one eye.....
(Why close one eye? Have a look at your subject with one eye closed, then keep your pencil still and look through the other eye instead. You will be amazed at how things seem to have moved! This is because we have two eyes, which combine images to give us a sense of depth and space, which the one-eyed camera cannot)
... and look past the pencil to the model. You can see how things align in a perpendicular way if you hold the pencil upright. Turn it on its side and you can see horizontal alignments. Move it like the hands of a clock (it is vital not to point your pencil into the space, towards the model) and you will see the angles and curves too.
To make useful measurements, hold the pencil in the same way – arm’s length, one eye closed, flat in front of you – and align the top of it with, say, the top of the model’s shoulder. Slide your thumb down the pencil so that it aligns with the model’s elbow. You can now gauge how many lengths it is to another point on the torso. If the foot is stretching towards you it might be four or more head lengths. If it is stretching away from you it might only be a quarter of a length. Remembering to keep the pencil flat like a clock face is the most difficult part. Master that and you can use it to draw figures, buildings or any other subject at all.
If you practice this method well, you will find that in time you don’t actually need to physically hold up the pencil so much (although this does make you look like a Proper Artist!); you will begin to measure and ‘see’ things as they really are.
I hope that this has been helpful - enjoy practicing!!
Besides Tuesdays at Le Meridien and Fridays at Villa Bologna, both mornings, I am very happy to announce that I will be starting both outdoor and studio classes at Ta' Mena in Gozo from the end of September. At the moment I am planning to run a Wednesday afternoon class in the lovely grounds, and a Thursday morning class which will be more structured and studio based.
If you are interested please ask for more details!