The figure is an important subject for the artist – and one that I have been concerned with since I was a student. My sketchbooks are full of drawings of friends, models, commissioned subjects and strangers observed in bars, on boats, or occasions such as sports events. There are even sketches of long-forgotten cronies from my army days.
When I was at art school figure drawing was an important and compulsory part of the curriculum, and every student spent time in the life room. Life drawing went out of fashion in the 1960s, but it appears to be making a comeback. It seems to be me that as human beings we should be curious about our own kind, and I also feel that if you can master depicting the figure you are quite capable of drawing anything.
There is great value in introducing the figure into a drawing – not only does it give scale to a picture but also life and animation. Skill in drawing the figure comes from observation, an understanding of anatomy and the proportions of the body, and above all, practice. In time you will be able to draw figure shapes from memory. And the best place to practise your skills is in your sketchbook.
San Marco, Venice
This tiny sketch 5 x 3½in. (13 x 9cm) was made in the tourist-thronged square in front of St Mark’s in Venice. I liked the stocky figure, the solid stance and the bulky layers of clothing of this woman selling pigeon food. I used an 8B pencil and watercolour on her garments, placing a splash of gold for the grain on her stall.
A life drawing class is a wonderful way of learning about the figure but many well-known artists have been self-taught. If it is not possible to attend an art college or life class there are other ways of teaching yourself. You can learn a lot about the skeleton and surface muscles by studying a book on anatomy. Draw friends and family whenever you can – people watching television are invariably static models. Of course, you can always draw yourself in a mirror – plenty of fine artists have used themselves as models. However, if you are really to study and understand the figure you need to work from a model. Try getting a group of fellow artists together so that you can hire and share a model, and keep all your sketchbooks and notes to remind you of your progress.
In the Studio
I dropped in to a friend’s life class at a studio in Chelsea and found that the model had failed to turn up. The tutor suggested that the students draw the class – a challenging, but fascinating, subject. I particularly liked the way the verticals and planes of the easels and drawing boards provided an underlying geometry that contrasted with the more fluid forms of the seated and standing figures. A painting class provides a good opportunity to study the human figure since the students are in many different poses and remain relatively still. I used a Staedtler Lumograph 7B pencil, which is black and waxy.
Musicians make good subjects to draw in your sketchbook. As soon as a musician picks up his instrument or sits down to play it, he or she adopts a position that is dictated by its shape, size and location, and the method of playing.
Try drawing someone at the piano or playing the guitar, or your child doing their violin or recorder practice. Notice how specific the poses are. Each musical instrument requires a characteristic stance and a series of attitudes, and it is important to get this stance right and the way that the instrument is held, and to portray the particular relationship between it and the musician.
Bill is a gifted guitarist and agreed to pose for me when we met in Spain. I worked directly, drawing with a brush and watercolour wash on Rough watercolour paper. The technique allowed me to work quickly to achieve the solidity and volumes of the figure. The strings of the guitar were scratched in with the tip of a craft knife.
The hands of a musician are a crucial element, but in many ways they are the most difficult part of the anatomy to draw. To practise drawing hands draw your own opposite hand or use a mirror. Draw foreshortened angles, then try sketching your hand holding a glass, a cup or a book.
The span or spread of fingers of someone playing an instrument such as the guitar can make a study in itself. I was flattered when one of my subjects said how good it was to see that the ‘hands were right’, but it reminded me how important it is to look carefully and draw accurately, especially with stringed instruments.
Your place at work, whether it is an office, a factory or a delivery van, can be a wealthy source of visual images and inspiration. Get into the habit of keeping a small sketchbook in a drawer or a pocket, and use your lunch breaks and tea breaks to make sketches of your colleagues as they go about their everyday tasks. While people are concentrating on what they are doing they will be unaware of your scrutiny, and you will find plenty of interesting poses that involve bending, stretching, lifting and walking. The interaction between individuals and groups of people, and between individuals and groups and their surroundings, is also interesting. Try to include some of the background in your sketch as it will give the drawing a context and a sense of scale.
Firth’s Woollen Mill, Shepley
This sketch was made some years ago for the cover of a telephone directory. At the time the telephone company was commissioning illustrations of topographical subjects, which were often very interesting to draw. The noise and clatter of this warping machine were indescribable. I have included a lot of detail, though some of it was edited out in the final drawing to produce a simpler, more graphic image that would have impact on a cover.
Firth’s Woollen Mill, Shepley (above) was sketched in situ. I had to position myself so that I could see what was going on without getting in the way, and I wore a hard hat for safety.
The moving figure
The figure in movement can seem daunting to sketch. The trick is to start working immediately, drawing what you see and not worrying about the results. You must learn to simplify the forms and find the lines that sum up the movement. The first few pages of sketches allow you to get your hand and eye in, rather like warming up before sports or gymnastics. After that the images will begin to emerge quickly and fluently and you will be surprised how convincingly you have captured a movement. Your eye acts like a camera, freezing a sequence of movements, so that you are actually drawing from memory. Whenever the figure is in action, whether walking, running, playing a sport or dancing, you will find that certain movements are repeated regularly, and as they become increasingly familiar you will find them easer to draw. The more you sketch the better your visual memory becomes – and the improvement is satisfyingly fast.
On the track
My brother and I went to watch some international cycle racing. This is a fascinating subject for the artist, combining speed, vibrant colour and a variety of shapes. The hunched, intense forms of the competitors, the sculptural, aerodynamic shapes of their helmets, and the ellipses, circles and angles of the machine provide plenty of challenging material. Bicycles are actually quite difficult to draw, so it is worth making studies when you have the opportunity.
Notice the way the hoops on the shirt curve round the torso, giving it volume and form in the same way the sleeves curve round the arm and the shorts hug the curve of the thigh. When time is short you have to isolate and concentrate on the most important features.
I have always been fond of sport and it is hardly surprising that sporting occasions feature throughout my sketchbooks. More than anything practice is the key to success when you are drawing the figure, and any sports activity offers you brilliant opportunities to study the human form in action. Work quickly and do not be afraid of making mistakes. You will soon notice that each sport has a fairly limited range of actions and movements that are repeated frequently – for instance, a tennis player’s body extended in a service, a cricketer hunched over his bat, a boules player’s arm stretched forward as the ball leaves his hand and the other arm stretched back in a counterbalancing gesture. In fact, most sports incorporate moments of tension and fleeting balance that are reminiscent of dance.
Volleyball in the Park
I used an 8B pencil and a few splashes of watercolour for these rapid studies, and filled a sketchbook page in about 15 to 20 minutes.
Recognising and remembering these characteristic movements will enable you to complete the drawing when the moment of action has passed.
I enjoy drawing dancers of all kinds. I love the excitement of flamenco, the grace and control of classically trained ballet dancers, and the happy abandon of people ‘doing their own thing’ at parties and jazz clubs. Drawing from dancing figures is challenging and takes practice, but it is a wonderful way of learning to understand movement. Because the gestures are graceful but exaggerated it is relatively easy to find and note down the key rhythms and lines. I look for the lines that sum up the movement, and commit poses and gestures to memory so that I can complete the drawing when the moment has passed.
A professional ballet dancer went through a sequence of traditional poses in slow motion for me in the studio. This gave me time to make several rapid sketches and analyse the way one movement flowed into the next, capturing the solidity of the forms without worrying about details. The drawings were made using a 7B pencil and grey, sanguine and black pastels.
Each drawing should imply transition and also the completion of the movement. The speed at which everything occurs forces you to concentrate, make decisions and work quickly so that you will hone your powers of observation and the speed with which you work.