Julian Ashton Art School life drawing studio

Art

Life Drawing: The Complete Guide (Illustrated)

Matthew James Taylor3 January 2022

If you’re curious about life drawing (aka figure drawing) then this guide is for you.

I have attended hundreds of life drawing classes over the last 20 years and had many wonderful experiences.

During this time I experimented with most kinds of equipment, mediums, and techniques, and this has led to over one thousand life drawings in my personal collection, and it’s still growing.

For several years I learned anatomy and studied life drawings by the great masters. This knowledge greatly improved my skills as an artist.

In this guide, I’ll share everything I know about life drawing along with illustrations of my work and examples by other artists that I admire.

Let’s get started.

What is Life Drawing?

Life drawing of a seated woman in graphite pencil
One of my graphite pencil life drawings

Life drawing is the act of drawing the human form while observing a live model, typically nude. The resulting artwork (also called a life drawing) can use any drawing media and can range in style from loose, gestural sketches to ultra-realism.

Drawing from a photo or from your mind cannot be life drawing because there is no live model present as the subject.

Life drawing is typically done in a group environment where multiple artists draw a central model that periodically changes poses to showcase the various postures of the human form.

What is the Purpose of Life Drawing?

Examples of human anatomy drawings
Examples of my human anatomy drawings

Life drawing is a way artists can study the human figure, its anatomical structure, and how bones and muscles work together to achieve different poses. This practice can improve an artist’s knowledge and drawing skills while at the same time providing an enjoyable, social experience.

Life Drawing Venues

Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney, Australia
Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney, Australia

Technically, you can do life drawing in any location where there is enough room for a model and at least one artist, but typically you will find yourself in one of the following types of venues:

  • A commercial space such as a small rented room or hall.
  • A private residence that may be owned by one of the artists or the model.
  • A public bar, pub, or restaurant, normally in a closed-off section to maintain privacy.
  • An art school or university with a dedicated drawing space.

How is a life drawing space set up?

Model in the center, side, and corner of a life drawing space
Model in the center, side, and corner of a life drawing space

The focal point of a life drawing session is the model so they are normally positioned in the center of the space or at least to one side. Such positions provide the widest viewing angle possible and allow for lots of close drawing positions.

Models in a corner have the smallest viewing angle so most drawing positions are pushed further away.

What equipment do life drawing venues provide?

Each life drawing venue is different so you should enquire ahead of time as to what equipment will be available.

Ask if they have the following:

  • Easels (free-standing or table-top)
  • Drawing boards
  • Chairs
  • Tables
  • Any drawing materials

That way, you’ll know what to bring.

What should you bring? See my life drawing checklist below:

Timetable of a Typical Life Drawing Class

Life drawing classes are run in many different ways but most share the following characteristic:

The class is divided into a series of poses that start out short and progressively get longer toward the end of the session.

Here’s an example timetable for a three hour life drawing class:

Time Activity
5:50pm Setup
6:00pm 10 × 1 minute poses
6:10pm 5 × 3 minute poses
6:25pm 5 × 5 minute poses
6:50pm 10 minute break
7:00pm 3 × 10 minute poses
7:30pm 2 × 15 minute poses
8:00pm 10 minute break
8:10pm 1 × 50 minute pose
9:00pm Pack away

If all goes well you will come away with 26 new life drawings!

Digital timer used to time life drawing poses
Life drawing poses are usually timed with a digital timer (Amazon link)

Why does a life drawing class start with short poses?

Example one-minute life drawings
Examples of my one-minute life drawings.

Short poses are a great way to start a life drawing class because they loosen you up and get you into the groove. The limited-time available forces you to forget about details and instead focus on the overall gesture of the figure.

When you only have one minute to complete a drawing you don’t have any time to waste, you must work quickly. When you practice drawing fast it can become a natural instinct over time.

One-minute poses give you plenty of practice at starting a drawing. Each time you begin, you need to work out the extents of the figure and how to accurately place it on the page. This is an essential skill for an artist to learn.

When a model only needs to hold a pose for one minute they can attempt more dynamic positions. These can be a joy to draw.

Don’t be afraid of one-minute life drawings, they’re the fastest way to learn how to draw!

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Why progressively increase the length of poses during a life drawing class?

As poses get longer you will have more time to refine your drawing, add finer details, and practice rendering.

But even the longest poses should still start with a short gestural sketch that feels out the figure and places it correctly on the page.

We need to practice this fast start every time.

If we started a class with longer drawings, there would be a tendency to begin with fine detail before doing any construction, and we’d have no idea exactly where things should be on the page. This detail-first approach can lead to warped drawings with misaligned parts that are out of proportion with one another.

Sometimes they don’t fit on the page!

By slowly increasing drawing time it’s easier to retain a fast start to all drawings and to turn that into a habit.

Equipment Required For Life Drawing

You don’t need much equipment to practice life drawing so it's easy to get started.

In this section, I will recommend the equipment that I use and provide links to where you can find them online.

Life drawing equipment, top 10 items:

  1. Cartridge paper
  2. Toned paper (optional)
  3. Bulldog clips
  4. Utility knife
  5. Kneadable eraser
  6. Pencil case
  7. Portfolio (optional)
  8. Small hand mirror (optional)
  9. Easel (optional)
  10. Drawing board (optional)

1. Cartridge paper — in a spiral-bound A3 sketchpad

A spiral-bound A3 sketchpad of cartridge paper
I love my spiral-bound sketchpads!

When opting for white paper, cartridge is unbeatable for the price, and when compiled into an A3 spiral-bound sketchpad I think it's perfect for life drawing.

Here's why:

  • Paper thickness: Heavy enough so your drawings won't warp, fold, or wrinkle.
  • Bright white: You'll get maximum contrast.
  • Removable pages: Tear out pages without leaving behind an ugly torn edge.
  • Hassle-free paper flipping: Rapidly turn pages without getting a bulging spine.
  • Sturdy & supportive: The whole pad is thick enough to act as its own drawing board.

Here's the sketchpad I recommend: (Amazon link)

2. Toned paper — if you love to add white

Toned gray paper spiral-bound sketchpad
Toned gray is the bomb!

With toned paper, you can add white highlights to your drawings to make them really pop! Toned paper is any paper that isn't white, that's why your white stands out.

Toned paper normally comes in shades of gray or tan but you can get all kinds of colors too. For life drawing, I find the mid-tones are the best — not too dark, not too light.

I suggest buying single sheets if you want to experiment with different colors and shades, but for the best value, it's handy to get a full sketchpad of mid-gray.

Here's the gray tone I use: (Amazon link)

3. Bulldog clips — to secure your paper

A bulldog clip for holding your drawing secure

Bulldog clips are essential for securing your paper while drawing.

It's best to get a big size so you can clamp your whole sketchpad to the drawing board easily, you can use the big ones for single sheets too.

I recommend this set: (Amazon link)

4. Utility knife — for sharpening pencils

Utility knives
I have two utility knives that have lasted for YEARS! They look a bit rough but they still work perfectly. Definitely worth the money. =)

I rarely use traditional pencil sharpeners because my trusty utility knife can do almost everything I need, it's an essential item in my kit.

Knives have many benefits:

  • They can sharpen any size pencil.
  • They can carve many different point styles depending on your requirements.
  • Dull blade segments can easily be snapped off so it always remains sharp.
  • The retractable blade design makes it safe to keep in any pencil case.

Here’s the utility knife I recommend: (Amazon link)

Don't be afraid of sharpening pencils with a knife, it's easy. Browse my article: The Art of Sharpening Pencils to see how it's done, plus view my list of point styles to try.

5. Kneadable eraser — the king of erasers

Kneadable eraser molded into a point
My kneadable eraser squashed to form a point

Kneadable erasers give the most amount of precision and flexibility because you can squash them into whatever shape you need.

They're brilliant for erasing tiny lines and creating dot highlights, but you can also use them to erase large areas. They are the most versatile of all erasers.

If they get dirty, just knead them for a few seconds and they will come clean!

But be careful, they look and feel a bit like Blu Tack so don't get them confused!

Here's the one I use: (Amazon link)

6. Pencil case — to keep everything together

Derwent folding pencil case
My Derwent folding pencil case

Any pencil case will do but I prefer to use one that unfolds quickly, has multiple compartments, and has transparent sides so you can see everything inside at a glance.

Here’s one that's even better than mine: (Amazon link)

7. Portfolio — (optional)

If you’re transporting lots of loose papers and drawings then a portfolio is perfect for keeping everything organized.

This is the one I recommend: (Amazon link)

8. Small hand mirror — (optional)

After working on a drawing for a long time you can stop seeing it with fresh eyes, this causes you to become blind to any mistakes. Simply pull out a small mirror and look at your drawing in the reflection, you will immediately notice if something doesn’t look right.

This one is made of strong, unbreakable acrylic material: (Amazon link)

9. Easel — (optional)

If your life drawing venue doesn't provide easels and you want to use one then you'll have to bring your own.

The best kind of easel will fit the following criteria:

  • Suitable for table-top and free-standing use.
  • Lightweight but sturdy.
  • Folds down to a small size for easy transport.
  • And cheap!

Here's one that ticks all the boxes: (Amazon link)

10. Drawing board — (optional)

Use a drawing board as a solid backing behind your paper. They come in all sizes but you need one that's bigger than your paper and smaller than your portfolio ;)

I recommend this one: (Amazon link)

Best Mediums For Life Drawing

One of the reasons why I love life drawing is I can continually experiment with different mediums.

Here are the best mediums for life drawing:

  1. Graphite pencil
  2. Charcoal pencil
  3. Willow charcoal
  4. Ink
  5. Chalk
  6. Markers
  7. Colored pencils
  8. Pastels
  9. Paint

1. Graphite pencil — a popular favorite

'Girl lying on stomach' in graphite pencil
'Girl lying on stomach' in graphite pencil. See more of my graphite pencil life drawings.
Staedtler Lumograph graphite pencils
My graphite pencils get a lot of use

I've been using Staedtler Lumograph graphite pencils for as long as I can remember and they've never let me down. The graphite leads are strong and almost never break.

You can buy these bad boys individually or in various sets that come in neat protective storage tins.

Here's the set I recommend: (Amazon link)

2. Charcoal pencil — my personal favorite!

'Girl on pillow' in black and white charcoal pencil
'Girl on pillow' in black and white charcoal pencil. See more of my charcoal life drawings.
General's Charcoal pencils black and white
My charcoal pencils might be dirty but I still love them! ♥

The General's Charcoal pencils are my favorite medium for life drawing.

Here's why I think they're the best:

  • They have a beautiful sooty texture.
  • They have strong charcoal leads that rarely break.
  • They make minimal mess because they're in pencil form.
  • They come in white which is perfect for highlights on toned paper.
  • And there are many grades to choose from.

It works out cheaper to buy these in the following set:

  • 3 × charcoal pencils (6B, 4B, 2B)
  • 1 × white charcoal pencil
  • 1 × kneadable eraser (Bonus!)

I highly recommend you try these out! (Amazon link)

3. Willow charcoal — for beautiful, soft life drawings

Willow charcoal life drawings by Greg Harris and Norman Bonney
Willow charcoal life drawings. Left: Portrait by Greg Harris. Right: Figure drawing by Norman Bonney. Follow them on Instagram!
Making willow charcoal sticks by hand
Making willow charcoal sticks by hand, photo by woodlands.co.uk. Follow them on Instagram

Willow charcoal has an unmistakably soft and sculptural feel to it, especially when used by someone who has had plenty of practice with it.

I haven’t got there yet.

I find this medium difficult to master because it gets all over my hands and smudges with the slightest disturbance. I’m not a big fan of messy materials, but for people who like to get their hands dirty, it's probably the perfect life drawing medium.

Willow charcoal is very affordable: (Amazon link)

But you’ll also need a fixative to prevent your drawings from smudging: (Amazon link)

4. Ink — with a nib or brush

Two sepia ink life drawings in different styles
Sepia ink life drawings. Left: with an ink nib. Middle: with diluted ink applied with a brush. Right: a combination of both. See more of my ink life drawings.
Black India ink, 2 nibs, 2 brushes
Black India ink and various sizes of ink nibs and brushes

Ink can’t be deleted once it’s on the page so your approach to ink life drawing needs to be more considered.

For me, this changes the overall feeling of drawing to something more formal.

I like to use ink in two main ways:

  • Full-strength with an ink nib to create strong line work.
  • Diluted with water and applied with a brush to build up areas of tone. This is best done on a flat angle to prevent running ink.

Sepia or black ink are my preferred colors but you can get any color you can dream of.

I recommend the following: (Amazon links)

Note: Keep your ink brushes separate from your watercolor brushes so your colors stay vivid.

7. Chalk — in pencil or block form

Two chalk life drawing examples
Chalk life drawings. Left: with Conté Crayon on manila paper. Right: with red and white chalk pencils on blue paper. See more of my chalk life drawings.
My chalk pencils and Conté crayons
My chalk pencils and Conté crayons

Chalk has a different feel to graphite pencil or charcoal, it’s more powdery.

You can get chalk in pencil form or in solid blocks which you hold directly in your hand. If you like making big wide marks of solid tone then the latter option is definitely the better choice for you.

Here are my picks for both formats: (Amazon links)

5. Markers — clean and simple

Two copic marker life drawing examples
Copic marker life drawings. Left: with a gray tone. Right: with a cool blue tone.
A selection of copic markers for life drawing
A selection of Copic markers that I use for life drawing

Markers have a unique style to them that is hard to replicate with any other medium. I think it has something to do with the consistency of tone and hue.

They’re also very easy to use.

For me, I prefer pale colors so I can build up layers of tone slowly — I have more control that way and I’m less likely to make mistakes.

My favorite brand of marker is definitely Copic.

Copic markers have a double-ended design with a chisel point on one side and a flexible brush tip on the other.

I love the brush, you can use it on its side for coloring large areas or make the tiniest fine lines and dots with the very tip.

Copic pens are expensive but they’re totally worth it. The good thing is you only need three to do all the basics. A cool, gray, and warm color.

Here are my recommended colors: (Amazon links)

6. Colored pencils — not just for kids

Two very different examples of colored pencil life drawing
Two very different examples of my colored pencil life drawing
A few of the colored pencils from my life drawing kit
A few of the colored pencils from my life drawing kit

Colored pencils are not just for kids, they’re a serious medium that can look amazing in the right artist’s hands.

I love their slightly waxy texture.

And the colors!!

It’s refreshing to break out some color once in a while, particularly if you’ve been drawing with charcoal all day.

I think every artist should have at least a few colored pencils in their kit, just for fun.

Here’s a set I think you might love: (Amazon link)

8. Pastels — for amazing color

Yuji Sakuma pastel life drawings
Unbelievable pastel life drawings by Yuji Sakuma, follow him on Instagram
Drawer of pastels, photo by very very quiet
A well-used drawer of pastels, photo by very very quiet

Pastels are similar to chalk but they use a different binder and often come in bigger blocks.

There are a huge range of colors available, not just pastel shades, but also vivid hues.

I love the variety of marks used in pastel life drawings, from lots of tiny strokes to long and deliberate sharp lines, and large sweeps of color from the side of blocks.

Definitely try pastel life drawing if you get the opportunity.

Here’s an inexpensive set to get you started: (Amazon link)

9. Paint — the road to life painting

Life paintings by Juliet Grieves, Melanie Gray, and Alan Mcgowan
Life drawings or life paintings? Left: Watercolor figure by Juliet Grieves. Middle: Watercolor and pencil figure by Melanie Gray. Right: Figures in oil on paper by Alan Mcgowan. Follow them on Instagram!
Watercolor paints, photo by Bernal Saborio
Watercolor paints, photo by Bernal Saborio

Splashes of paint can really make life drawings come alive. Try experimenting with watercolors or oils along with your normal drawing mediums.

If you enjoy it, you might find yourself venturing into the world of life painting.

Here’s a simple watercolor set you can start with: (Amazon link)

Life drawing with projected light!

A model covered in lines drawn with light
A model covered in lines drawn with light

This has to be the craziest life drawing I have ever done. I was literally drawing with light onto the model!

Here's how it worked:

  1. We created a completely black image in Pixelmator.
  2. Used a projector to project this image over the model.
  3. Then used a Wacom tablet to draw white lines on the image which became light over the model.

It was such an amazing experience to draw with light. The room started out dark and got lighter with every line — so there was a real build-up to the completed drawing. You also noticed every slight movement made by the model.

I would love to try this again.

Example life drawings by pose time

Life drawings can have a completely different feel to them depending on how long they take.

To illustrate this, I have grouped examples of my life drawings by total drawing time.

Click to see larger images:

Example one-minute life drawings
1-minute life drawings
Example three-minute life drawings
3-minute life drawings
Example five-minute life drawings
5-minute life drawings
Example ten-minute life drawings
10-minute life drawings
Example fifteen-minute life drawings
15-minute life drawings
Example twenty-minute life drawings
20-minute life drawings
Example twenty-five-minute life drawings
25-minute life drawings
Example thirty-minute life drawings
30 minute life drawings
Example fourty-five-minute life drawings
45 minute life drawings
Example one-hour life drawings
1-hour life drawings
Example one-hour, thirty-minute life drawings
1.5 hour life drawings
Example two-plus-hour life drawings
2+ hour life drawings

It seems to me that beyond a certain time threshold there is not a lot of improvement to be made.

The law of diminishing returns is at play here.

In fact, some of the quicker drawings have a nicer movement to the linework. I guess it’s true that you can over-work a drawing.

For me, I think the sweet spot is somewhere between 10 and 45 minutes.

Buy My Life Drawings

If you like my work you can buy NFTs of my life drawings on OpenSea.

If you want to buy the rights to use one of my life drawings for commercial purposes then contact me and we should be able to work something out.

I am also open to selling originals, contact me to make an offer.

Master Life Drawing Examples

A lot can be learned by studying drawings by some of the greatest artists that have ever lived.

Here are some examples: (Click for larger images)

Charles-Antoine Coypel
Charles-Antoine Coypel
Louis de Boullogne
Louis de Boullogne
Charles Le Brun
Charles Le Brun
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci
Michelangelo
Michelangelo
Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh
Salvador Dalí
Salvador Dalí
Rembrandt
Rembrandt
Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre
Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre
François Boucher
François Boucher
Charles-Joseph Natoire
Charles-Joseph Natoire
Simon Vouet
Simon Vouet

Who's your favorite master artist?

Life Drawing FAQs

What is the difference between life drawing and still life drawing?

Life drawing is the study of the human form and how the underlying anatomy works to produce various postures and movements. Life drawings are always made from a live model. Still life drawing is also drawn from life but uses inanimate objects as the subject such as flowers, fruit, and other items.

Can I do life drawing if I’ve never drawn before?

It is common for absolute beginners to attend life drawing sessions because it’s one of the best ways for people to learn how to draw. You don’t need to already be good at drawing, you just need to commit to regular practice.

Is standing or sitting better for drawing?

When standing, you draw from your shoulder with larger sweeping movements that appear more gestural in style. When sitting, you use less energy and draw from your wrist with smaller movements and finer control. Which method you choose will depend on your goals for the drawing.

What should I bring to a life drawing class?

Top 10 items to bring life drawing:

  1. Graphite pencils: a selection of grades.
  2. Charcoal: pencils or sticks.
  3. Paper: cartridge or toned paper.
  4. Bulldog clips: to secure your paper.
  5. Utility knife: for sharpening pencils.
  6. Eraser: kneadable or block.
  7. Pencil case: to keep everything together.
  8. Portfolio: for carrying your art and paper (optional).
  9. Easel: desktop or free-standing (optional).
  10. Drawing board: for a stable backing (optional).

How do I get better at life drawing?

Here’s how to improve your life drawing:

  • Practice regularly.
  • Don’t avoid doing the difficult bits.
  • Watch other people draw.
  • Study human anatomy.
  • Experiment with different mediums.
  • Ask for help.
  • Watch drawing tutorials online.
  • Don’t give up.
  • Remember, sometimes you'll get worse before you get better.

Summary

If you've read all the way down to here then you probably love life drawing as much as I do!

I hope that you found this article useful and maybe even learned one or two new things.

Happy drawing! =)

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