Figure Drawing: Basics and Helpful Tips

Join Chuck Pyle’s free online workshop on clothed figure drawings on August 18 at 7PM. Learn about the fundamentals of anatomy, body design, and costume history. RSVP here to reserve your spot.

Most people associate figure drawing with a big studio where groups of students surround a live figure model. However, given today’s unique circumstances, these kinds of drawing sessions have also been converted to online. It may prove to be a different experience, especially because the perspective is different.

Regardless of where you are, however, figure drawing is still very doable. All you have to focus on is learning the techniques for it.  

What Is the History of Figure Drawing?

The very earliest written records about art work makes reference to studying the human figure. This has been considered a foundational part of making art since before the Common Era. Pliny the Elder wrote in the 1st century CE of a 5th century BCE painter named Zeuxis who would make studies of local women to help build his composition.

Few life drawings of history have achieved the fame of those of Michelangelo, whose studies of the human form continue to be recognized as among the greatest creations today.

Painting of a women stretching in traditional dress by Ruitong Wang
Student work by Ruitong Wang, ILL MFA

Why is It Important to Study Figure Drawing?

Figure drawing is viewed as a foundational skill when it comes to both studying and practicing art. It is the perfect way to both learn new skills and keep old ones honed. Even for those who are not interested in going on to figurative work later in their career, it provides invaluable lessons about capturing perspective and movement.

For anyone interested in animation or illustration, figure drawing is an obvious must. At first glance, figure drawing may not seem as relevant for those planning to go into computer constructed arts. But the study of figure drawing gives the student an insight into form that proves to be relevant and necessary all throughout one’s development of artistic skills. 

Tips for Getting the Most Out of Figure Drawing

The human body is as beautiful as its complex. Every line and curve, nook and cranny, serve a specific purpose, denotes a particular action and expression. Understandably, facing the task can be daunting and overwhelming for any beginner.

Here are some helpful tips you can use to guide you in your practice of figure drawing:

  1. Take charge of the paper: Start by laying out a rectangle which will contain the entirety of the figure you are drawing. This will allow you to size the figure as you wish and lay out the composition on the page as you like.
  2. Measure: There is something of a split amongst artists whether you should measure first before drawing or draw first before measuring. Whatever your preference, don’t skip this step, and make sure get your ratios correct. Also, don’t get fixated on having fixed proportions; trust you what you see and that the proportions in front of your eyes are right.
  3. Pay attention to your set-up: A successful life drawing is dependent on your ability to freely mark the paper. Prepare the space and the set-up you need. Some artists will have the best results by being free to move their entire arm, while others prefer to work close to the paper. It is critical to get the right height and incline for your easel so that you can focus on your work conveniently.
  4. Warm up: Don’t try to jump right into a long drawing but do some fast sketches of a minute or so to get going. Figure drawing should be about freeing up movement, your line, and your drawing process. 

A Few Extra Tips for Drawing the Clothed Figure

When figure drawing from a clothed model, it’s important to remember that all the tips from nude figure drawing holds true while clothing does add another layer of complexity. In many ways, clothing is a series of draping fabric over the human form. Often these folds of fabric are treated as a last minute add-on, but they should be treated as integral to the drawing.

Painting of two men sitting on a subway, called “Subway” by Bing Zhang
“Subway” by Bing Zhang, FA BFA

To improve drawing the clothed figure try:

  1. Practice: Set up a life drawing space with several different fabrics and draw the way they drape and fold. Adjust the lighting in order to study how shading works. Use the same medium you prefer to use for figure drawing. 
  2. Look Around: Make a study of the way fabric naturally folds and is compressed. Look at the different shapes that are formed in the process. 

Having the basic skills for figure drawing, whether nude or clothed, can help grow your artistic skills. Establish your art with the right foundations and see how much faster you can improve with your work. Online art classes can provide you with the correct instruction and guidance as you work towards your creative goals.


Academy of Art University is offering online and virtual on-site classes for the fall semester. Contact our admissions representatives to request information about our art and design programs. Once you’ve evaluated your options and decided to join, apply to get started on the process.