Figure drawing every day of February

Video accompaniment

This year I participated in an event called Figuary: figure drawing month, where you complete a figure drawing session every day of February. I used the Croquis Cafe video sessions on Vimeo, though I accidentally started with 2019’s sessions and followed it through for consistency. These are an excellent, free resource for figure drawing with that little extra nuance over simple images and with built-in timing, great to have available.

The YouTube channel Love Life Drawing is their partner during the event, providing daily educational material. They were really helpful for giving a focus and structure to the daily sessions instead of completing them blindly. Putting together all their tips sequentially resulted in a big improvement as well.

If you want to see all my final results, the best of them are up on my Instagram [a little way back now but pretty obvious] if you want to browse those. When you get back, here are my take-aways from the experience.

Tools matter

I chose a facsimile of a dry ink brush as my tool for the month. I figured sticking with one tool would let me focus on the figure drawing instead of getting caught up on technical things, and I was having fun using it at the time.

Brush showcase

I was right in some regards, however the particular tool I chose meant that some techniques were difficult or not available. It’s impossible to get a value range wider than just pure black with a brush that mimics ink, raw at least. I could use hatching or a lower opacity to simulate a wash, but the former looked very rough (as you can see in the bottom left of the showcase) and the latter broke flow messing with settings— not great for a timed exercise.

The brush had character, good at its own things like easily making dynamic lines and bold shadow shapes. However next time I would try and find a tool that acts closer to the charcoal Love Life Drawing use in demonstrations, to be able to practice techniques that require softness and get results closer to theirs.

Technique

The Pain of Outlining

The brush I was using was perfectly suited to a beginner pitfall approach — outlining what you see in full detail sequentially. This makes it very difficult to get proportions right as you focus on each part individually instead of seeing the whole.

It also isn’t very compatible with a time limit. If you start with a detail level too high for the given time, you end up with unfinished, disconnected pieces. An arm here, a head there. However if you get the major forms in first you can add detail for focus if you have time, and it feels complete.

There were a few things I did to combat this:

  1. Just pause the pose to be able to complete it with my desired level of detail. Kind of defeats the purpose of having limited time, but the compulsion to finish was strong. I’d start with one line as a landmark, and try to get everything else accurate in angle and length relative to that mark. As accurate marks accumulate it becomes easier, but if you get them wrong it can easily spiral into a mess.
  2. Quickly lining only one side of a shape, leaving the rest to the viewer’s imagination. As long as there’s an indication to work with or you line the other side on the next part, like the top of a thigh and the back of a calf, there’s enough information there the that the viewer can fill in the blanks.
  3. Being fine with just doing a bad drawing, believing that the process was valuable even if the final product was substandard. Improving line quality, another tiny step towards accurately reproducing proportion, practice avoiding my usual anatomy pitfalls… I’m sure it was worth it.

Simplification

One of the most gratifying parts of this exercise was looking at a figure and simplifying it into basic, appealing lines and shapes, deciding what was important and what could be blended together or glossed over. Some of my favourite pieces are ones where I simply left lines out, as they were implied by what was already there.

I often fell into a trap of wanting to show everything, especially on longer time periods or when I paused to capture more. However the times I let go and accepted the “incomplete” felt powerful, like I had confidence in my decisions and in the audience to appreciate them.

Exaggeration

People have a tendency to flatten things out, make them closer to a front view, and lessen twists and angles. Possibly because it’s closer to the straight ahead Vitruvian man-style mental model of “what a figure should be”.

Though I did tend to want my figures to be realistic for fear of getting the proportions unappealingly wrong, I think I did do a good job of at least not going more boring than reality. There are some short timed figures where I highly exaggerated and those have some of the most life and energy to them.

Gesture

Appealing gesture is a combination of simplification and exaggeration, with a couple of other considerations like flow and balance. Many times I’d take a long time on a pose, and as I was slowing down to show too much they’d end up stiff. I’d then redo the same pose while trying to keep to the time limit, and while they weren’t as realistic or clean, they did have more energy to them and most of the time were more appealing. The first session probably helped a lot as by studying the figure in detail, so in the second I knew what was important to show and what could be left. They are both valuable, but the shorter rounds certainly have better gesture.

Shadows

Anatomy is just a small part of what you’re looking at. Almost equally important for showing the form is using the shadow shapes. If the shadows are strong enough, they can even eat and blend together parts of the anatomy as they are too dark to see. The heavy lifting they perform is adding information to the middle of an outlined shape, to break the field of flatness by showing it’s not.

With one figure, I tried to draw only the shadows. It was incredibly difficult to draw accurate shapes while leaving out a lot of information, especially anatomical landmarks. The proportions needed some tweaking, but the final results were quite cool. An exercise to revisit.

Anatomy

Drawing from life made me notice a few things about the body I was either simplifying or just getting wrong. I’ll go over them quickly now.

  • The shoulders and neck are not an L shape. They’re made of an appealing arrangement of the clavicles, trapezius and the muscles that go from the middle of the chest up to the sides of the head in a V shape, the sternocleidomastoids. (Say that five times fast.)
  • For the upper arm, the shoulder is a much bigger part of it and the bicep a lot smaller than I had in my head.
  • The calf muscles are heavily weighted towards the top of the leg then peter out, more like an S curve than a C. There’s very little going on in the bottom half of the leg.
  • Given time pressure my natural instinct was to draw the legs absolutely massive, probably from enthusiasm in drawing the big flowy lines they’re made of.

Posting

Collating and posting the results was almost as tall a mental hurdle as the drawing sessions themselves. I felt like I had to do even more work after I was “finished”, so collation was sporadic. I’d like to do better next time I try something similar by changing my thinking. Posting is just another part of the session I’ll factor into my mental model of what I need to do, and I’m not finished until I hit “Submit”.

Final Thoughts

I’m happy I did Figuary and a little proud I kept up with the whole thing. I was feeling a little fatigue towards the end but the fact the sessions were only supposed to be 15 minutes made it a lot easier to start, even if I ended up pausing poses and going over most of the time.

There are timelapses with chill music and commentary for all these sessions over on my YouTube if you want the full blow-by-blow, or just something to put on in the background.

Perhaps you’d like to participate this year? February is coming up again faster than I’m sure we all anticipated.

NZ-based designer, illustrator and writer now too I guess?

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