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Draw the human body from sight

Draw the human body from sight
(Image credit: Phillip Tyler)

You'd think learning how to draw the human body from sight would be simple – after all, we all have one, right? But as we all think we know what the body looks like, when we bring in that prior knowledge and end up drawing that rather than the exactitude of the arm or leg that's in front of us.

This post will teach you how to get round that mental block, focusing on different techniques and approaches in a step-by-step format. Want to extend your drawing in other areas? See our roundup of how to draw tutorials. And remember to get yourself the best pencils to draw with, too.

Draw the human body from sight: how to approach it

There are a number different approaches to help you overcome focusing on your prior knowledge and to draw the human body from sight. Most of them focus on the same idea: shape drawing rather than object drawing. You need to divorce yourself from the idea that you are drawing a figure as much as possible, and instead really concentrate on the shape it makes. Spend longer looking at your figure and much less time looking at your paper. Draw the figure like a jigsaw, working from the centre outward until you find its edges, and if you are going to focus on the outline, draw the space that the figure makes with is surrounding, rather than the figure. Small shapes connected together will find the big shapes and will generally improve your proportions.

By combining all of these techniques, you will feel confident enough to be able to tackle any figure, regardless of age, build or gender. However, children are one of the most difficult things that you can draw, largely because of their subtlety, and it's often what you leave out rather than what you put into the drawing that makes it work.

Now, read on for the step-by-step approach to drawing the human body from sight.

01. Try blind drawing

Draw the human body from sight: Step 1

(Image credit: Phillip Tyler)

Imagine that you are an ant crawling across the figure and your eye is following its journey with your hand slowly tracing the path, travelling at the same speed. Draw across the creases and folds of underlying muscle, shadows and internal structures, then avert your attention away from the object being drawn.

02. Sneek a partial peek

Draw the human body from sight: Step 2

(Image credit: Phillip Tyler)

Once you have mastered blind drawing, you can look a little bit at the drawing you are making. To make sure you draw the human body from sight and not your mind's eye, you need to slow down and take time to look much more carefully, spending longer looking at the model. Think about the nature of the form you're drawing – do you alter the pressure of your hand when there is a hard structure in the body, where bone comes closest to the surface of the skin? Do you use your line to describe the difference between a muscle under tension, or is there a more relaxed line for a soft form? If you look at the drawings of Howard Tangye or Egon Schiele, you can see how lines are can be used to articulate these differences.

03. Form the basic shape

Step a

(Image: © Phillip Tyler)

Cut a square aperture cut out of card. Mark the middle and the quarter points on the frame nearest the aperture. Hold this up to the model and try to get it to touch as many of the outer edges as you can. Where does the figure touch the sides?

Step b

(Image: © Phillip Tyler)

Cut a square aperture cut out of card. Mark the middle and the quarter points on the frame nearest the aperture. Hold this up to the model and try to get it to touch as many of the outer edges as you can. Where does the figure touch the sides?

Step c

(Image: © Phillip Tyler)

Once these lines are in position, you can start to find the smaller shapes that lie within the larger ones.

Step d

(Image: © Phillip Tyler)

Focus on the negative space, gradually narrowing down the refinement to find the edges and the interrelationship between the whole figure. Don't be scared to make changes to your drawing as you go.

Step e

(Image: © Phillip Tyler)

Once you start to map out the figure, see which parts correspond to a vertical running through it. Transfer this information to the drawing, and then do the same with a horizontal. Charcoal is an excellent medium for this as it is so easy to build up a delicate series of reference lines. Your eye is much better at perceiving the difference between two triangles, the height, angle, proportion and so on, so by focusing wholly on the myriad shapes behind the figure you can draw the figure almost accidentally as a consequence of not thinking about it at all.

Step f

(Image: © Phillip Tyler)

Euan Uglow would place his model next to a radiator and use its vertical divisions to help locate the figure. The more you measure, the more you see a grid in front of you as you draw.

04. Take measurements

Draw the human body from sight: Step 4

(Image credit: Phillip Tyler)

Make sure to position yourself so that you can see both your model and your drawing without moving your head. This will mean that you can minimise the distance that your eye has to travel between the subject and the paper. You can take vertical heights directly across from the figure to the drawing. Hold the pencil to the angle you are measuring and move this across to your drawing. Any turning action of the arm can be felt in the forearm muscles, which will tell you that the angle has changed. Start a measured drawing with the complicated parts of the figure, where there are lots of different things going on, rather than at the extremities.

05. Contour

Step a

(Image: © Phillip Tyler)

You can project a series of straight parallel lines onto the figure using acetate and an overhead projector, a slide projector or a data projector in a darkened room. These lines will show the undulation of the form that you are looking at more clearly. Alternatively, you could ask the model to wear a tight-fitting striped or checked top and trousers that follow the contours of the figure. 

It is a good idea to look at the figure from 360 degrees as you draw, as moving looking at it from different angles will help you understand what you're looking at. You can also consider drawing the figure using a series of basic forms like cubes and cylinders, as well as spherical objects. This simplification will help you think about the articulation and the direction of the figure as it occupies three-dimensional space.

Step b

(Image: © Phillip Tyler)

Going back to the basic shape drawing, think about how straight lines would curve over the body. This is a mental exercise as you think your way over the form. Draw each line carefully and give consideration to direction and magnitude.

Step c

(Image: © Phillip Tyler)

Having moved in one direction over the figure, you can then draw in the opposite direction, constructing a grid or mesh.

Step d

(Image: © Phillip Tyler)

The more you practise this and the more you connect the tactile feeling of your own body with the model you are looking at, the more you will see the contours. As you develop these skills of looking at the basic proportions of the figure and seeing them simply, you can work much more freely with more expressive media as you draw these basic forms, thinking about the figure as articulate the mass, weight and dynamism of the human form.

This content originally appeared in Paint & Draw: Oils. You can buy the Oils bookazine here. Or explore the rest of the Paint & Draw bookazines.

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Born in London, Tyler is a figurative painter and senior lecturer at the University of Brighton in the school of art, where he teaches life drawing, visual research and colour theory.