How to Draw the Figure: 9 Common Mistakes

This article has been published on line but I thought it would be of interest to anyone visiting this blog who is interested in improving their figure drawing skills. It covers nine commonly made mistakes made by artists when drawing the figure. The art process is fluid and impossible to pin down with rules but if you wish to make a more convincing life drawing then these ideas will certainly help achieve that end. The following are the nine mistakes along with their solutions:
Mistake #1 is starting to draw without first giving thought as to what it is that you would like to achieve. More often than not, people immediately begin sketching without ever establishing some kind of intention in their mind first. A well thought out drawing has more focus and reads clearer than one that doesn’t. Mental meandering from the very start sets the tone for the rest of the drawing and leaves no aesthetic foundation on which to build.
The solution is to pause for a moment before beginning your drawing and to look at what you see in front of you. Keep your mind open and then notice what ideas pop up – the moment of stillness allows undiscovered ideas to reveal themselves to you and this is the point where things start to get more creative.
Mistake #2 is the failure to establish the position of the complete figure on the page resulting in a drawing in which heads, arms or feet end up getting unintentionally cut off because the artist has run out of room on the paper. The solution is to put in underlying structure lines first, over which sub-forms can be placed. Be sure to include the top of the head and the bottom of the feet in your initial rendering plus some extra space for the margins. It sounds simple enough but it is amazing how many people will forget to do it.
Mistake #3 is the unintentional straightening of angles on the model (angles are important because they show how much the model is leaning). It is done unconsciously on our part and must be compensated for continually. Because most people aren’t aware of this tendency the problem never gets addressed in their drawings with the result that the model looks stiff. The solution is to start to draw the angles just as you see them but then to exaggerate the angle further to compensate for your innate tendency to straighten things. The effect is that your drawing will appear to be more accurate. You have to go out of your comfort zone and force things a bit, but to the viewer the drawing will look more believable.
Mistake #4 is the equalizing of the proportions on the human body when in fact irregular proportions are the norm. Nothing is equal or symmetrical in nature even though it may appear that way upon first glance. The solution is to observe more closely and you will see the many uneven proportions that you didn’t see the first time around. To just being aware of the tendency is already a step in the right direction and will help the quality of your drawing. Another method is to measure the length of various anatomical proportions on the model and compare them what you have drawn – you will inevitably find areas where you have “equalized” measurements. The irregularities are what make the drawing interesting and demonstrate the artist’s ability to observe closely. Nature and life are full of surprises and so your drawing should contain a few as well.
Mistake #5 is not to consider the environment surrounding the figure, resulting in a figure that inadvertently appears to be cut out or “floating” in space. The solution is to include a bit of the environment in the drawing. It can be the smallest line, but it helps the figure look more solid and more grounded. For example, add a small horizontal line next to the heel to suggest the floor, or a smudge done outside of the figure to suggest the space – it is as simple as that and works like a charm! The old masters did this a lot and you may want to refer to them for ways to integrate the environment with the figure.
Mistake #6 is going to work on the details before establishing the larger forms first. It is very easy to get lost in the details, but all that work goes to waste unless you have the proper foundation forms in first. The temptation is to start “finishing” off the drawing too fast, resulting in some beautifully rendered areas that have to be erased later. The solution is to get the drawing laid in correctly from the start, always remembering to work from large to small. The main forms go in first, then put in the sub forms and the details can be considered icing on the cake.
Mistake #7 is expecting the model to look or take a pose that is “just right”. It is OK if they move a bit, give you difficult foreshortened poses, or don’t have the appearance you are looking for. The success of your drawing has very little to do with the model and everything with you, the artist. It is your job to bring the beauty, proportion, and interest to the situation, and not the other way around. Picasso is an excellent example of an artist who could take an ordinary model and turn her into a compelling work of art. The solution is to claim your power as an artist and bring the beauty, grace, and dignity (or whatever it is you are looking for) to the model before you. You can make a model into whatever you desire with some creativity on your part, however, you will not rise to the occasion and do this if you think you have to rely on the model for inspiration. That said, some models have indeed do have a special quality and can be so wonderful you can’t help but do one of your best drawings. But you shouldn’t have to rely getting a perfect model to make a successful drawing - you can do it anyway regardless of what you see before you.
Mistake #8 is making a very professional drawing except for that the hands and/or feet are less well done and not consistent with the rest of the drawing. Many beginners as well as professional artists have trouble in this area, but if you take the extra time to make the hands and feet consistent in concept with the rest of the drawing and without fudging or trying to cover up – well, then you are in the top ten percent! he solution is to specifically work on the hands and feet and study them thoroughly. Drawing from the old masters (who offer many solutions) will help. Also, draw and redraw the hands and feet until they appear to be done with ease – it takes time but is more than worth the extra effort because a great work of art is like a chain - it is only as good as its weakest link, so if you “screw up” on one part (i.e. the hands and feet), it weakens the entire work.
Mistake #9 is to think that you have learned enough, that you finally “arrived”. In art as in life, ideas unfold as you progress and ultimately it is more about the creative process than the end result. As Picasso once said, “Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility.” The solution is to make a decision to keep your mind open so that the stage can be set for new and amazing ideas to gently reveal themselves to you. Being “right” all the time is the biggest obstacle to having an open mind - don’t spend time being right, rather, put your efforts opening your mind to new possibilities.
The ideas presented should improve the quality of your figure drawings. If you find yourself not improving then you may want to consider finding a drawing teacher or joining a drawing workshop. Life drawing (which requires a lot of discipline) is usually more successful when done in a group. One reason is that your ideas are often triggered by other artists and secondly your overall performance will be better in a group situation (it is similar to a gym in that respect). As you bring your mistakes to light and remove them, then the pure creative experience becomes more evident in your work – and your life drawing is on its way to becoming a work of art.