5 Simple Tips for Improving Your Figure Drawing Skills

Eli Hill
Jul 3, 2018 3:20PM

Esteban Ocampo at the Will Cotton Drawing Party, 2017. Courtesy of the New York Academy of Art.

“An artist should draw people constantly, by any means possible,” says Michael Grimaldi, director of the New York Academy of Art’s drawing program. As a figure drawing instructor for 23 years, Grimaldi has witnessed firsthand the positive impact the medium can have on art students and aspiring artists alike. From understanding lighting and mark-making to depicting space and mastering proportion, figure drawing can help an artist hone fundamental visual skills that are transferable to almost any medium.

While figure drawing courses are central to many art schools (and you can find sessions to join online), you don’t need to take a class or have access to live models in order to get better at sketching the human form. Grimaldi suggests pairing up with a fellow artist and taking turns modeling for one another, as well as always keeping a sketchbook at hand. “Carrying a sketchbook at all times, one quickly discovers that the opportunities to find subjects are endless,” he says. (Just make sure your friend or subject is comfortable with you drawing them before you begin.)

While there are no fixed rules or necessary supplies for figure drawing—a simple sketchbook and a pencil will do—there are some common tricks and materials that seasoned artists, such as Grimaldi, use often. Below, we share five expert tips you can use to help improve your figure drawing skills, from having proper posture to treating each part of your drawing equally.

1. Get your setup right

Will Cotton Drawing Party, 2017. Courtesy of the New York Academy of Art.


Figure drawing is done best when you’re fully immersed in capturing your subject. A good way to stay present for the full length of your drawing session is to prepare your workspace ahead of time, and eliminate as many distractions as possible.

First, ensure you have the tools that are right for you. Some common figure drawing supplies include hard and soft charcoal sticks; graphite and charcoal pencils; kneaded erasers; and low-cost non archival paper, such as newsprint. As you do more figure drawing, take notice of which materials you use most. If you’re constantly running through sticks of soft charcoal and pausing the session to replenish them, avoid breaking your concentration by making sure you have plenty of charcoal sticks at your workspace before you begin.

If you have an easel, adjust it to a comfortable height and position so your arm and shoulder won’t tire during the session. If you’re sitting on a small bench made for drawing known as a “horse,” make sure to have your drawing board fitted into one of the surface’s grooves, instead of holding it on your lap. This will help keep you from hunching over, which could lead to back and neck strain.

Grimaldi advises that you hold your pencil (or another drawing tool) at the opposite end of the tip, which will loosen your grip, help your posture, and prevent arm and shoulder tension. In addition, your paper or canvas should be angled slightly away from the model, so that your easel does not interrupt your view of them.

One of the most important steps in setting up your workspace is checking in with your model. Holding one pose for an extended period of time can be a feat of endurance. A kind artist will make sure that their model’s position is dynamic enough to draw, while still being comfortable for the model to hold. Lastly, be sure to agree on the duration of the pose, and set a timer so you both are aware of the length of the session.

2. Warm up with 20-second drawings

Ryan McGinness at the Will Cotton Drawing Party, 2016. Courtesy of the New York Academy of Art.

Beginning a drawing can be daunting, and you may be asking yourself the following questions: “Where do I start?” “Should I outline the body first?” “Should I focus on one section?” Alleviate your anxieties by giving yourself just 20 seconds to make a drawing. This may seem counterproductive, but the rush of knowing you have such limited time to fill your page can help to quiet looming thoughts.

Use a pad of newsprint and set your phone’s timer to 20 seconds. Each time the buzzer goes off, move on to a new piece of paper. If you’re having a difficult time drawing the entire body in this short amount of time, try using a drawing utensil that runs smoothly across the page, like pastels or a stick of soft charcoal. And instead of attempting to render details, try drawing quick lines that capture the shape of your model.

After you feel more comfortable filling up the page in a mere 20 seconds, reset your timer to 60 seconds. A full minute will suddenly feel like an ocean of time, and you’ll be less worried about how to start.

3. Don’t fixate on one part of the figure

After completing the timed warm-up exercise, you may move on to longer sessions and find yourself focusing on rendering your model’s face or another part of the body, while the rest of the figure is only slightly sketched in. It’s natural to want to spend an inordinate amount of time perfecting one detail of your drawing, but you should resist this impulse.

In order to avoid hyper-fixation on, say, drawing your model’s ear or shading their arm, try drawing the figure holistically, treating each part of your drawing equally. Grimaldi advises that you should distance yourself  “far enough away, so that the entire surface of the drawing is visible in a single glance.” This allows you to organize the drawing’s larger components—like composition, proportion, and gesture––instead of individual parts.

Another way to avoid an unbalanced composition is to draw from your shoulder instead of your wrist. While we’ve all likely seen movies where an artist is carefully sketching with small hatch marks, a better way to develop your drawing holistically is to draw with longer, more fluid lines. To achieve this, stand far enough away from your easel so that, when you draw a mark, your hand is guided by your shoulder, rather than your wrist.

4. Forget the fixed proportions you learned in your high school art class

MFA students working in Michael Grimaldi’s life drawing class at the New York Academy of Art, 2018. Courtesy of the New York Academy of Art.

Some art educators ask their students to memorize fixed body proportions—such as that the length of the body is roughly seven-and-a-half times the length of the head, or that a person’s elbows should approximately line up with their belly button. It’s probably best to ditch those ingrained rules while sketching from life.

Instead, make sure you’re focusing on the real figure in front of you. One of the best parts of drawing from a live model is the fact that they’ve given you time and permission to study their form—so make the most of your session and really look.

A great way to capture a model’s likeness is to measure their body against an object. Maybe you’ve seen an artist squinting and holding a pencil out in the air—this is where that comes in. What that artist is really doing is measuring the model’s proportions against the pencil. For example, if you hold an eraser up to your model, you might find that the body is 7-and-a-half eraser lengths tall, and the head is only about a quarter of the eraser’s height.  

Another reason for holding a tool up to your model is being able to capture angles. Let’s say you’re drawing and you just cannot get the angle of the arm correct. Instead of continually erasing and redrawing the arm, you can hold up your pencil (or another linear tool) to align with the arm. Then, keeping the angle intact, you can place the pencil down onto your page and trace it.

5. Don’t get too comfortable

Will Cotton Drawing Party, 2012. Courtesy of the New York Academy of Art.

Will Cotton Drawing Party, 2012. Courtesy of the New York Academy of Art.

As you practice your figure drawing skills, you may find yourself resorting to the same “moves” over and over again. If you notice that you always draw the figure with lines or that you always shade the body with charcoal, it might be time to change up your approach.

One helpful exercise for those that struggle with shading might be to play with dramatic light: If you place harsh lighting onto your model’s body, it becomes difficult to ignore the intense shadows. Whereas, for those who’ve mastered proportions, a fun challenge would be to draw from a drastic perspective, such as on the floor, or from above. Another option is to draw on a piece of toned paper; when your page’s color is a shade of gray, for example, you are forced to draw with new tools that are both lighter and darker than the paper.

Essentially, choose an exercise that shakes up how you usually draw. As Grimaldi notes, “The most essential exercises are ones that help change an artist’s default ways of approaching the figure.”

Eli Hill