How to draw a female figure
Figure drawing is a fundamental skill for artists, but one of the hardest to truly master. In this article, I explain my personal process and offer some advice to help you improve your figure drawings. On this page, we’ll walk through how to draw a female figure.
Although having knowledge of figure proportions is important, bear in mind that these are only a guide. Trying to shoehorn every figure to fit an eight-head-high ideal is the recipe for an uninspiring drawing. To achieve style we need to work with the gesture, the spirit of the pose, the fluid nature in line. If we take gesture too far, though, our drawing will look wobbly. To counter that we need to also work with a solid structure, but too much structure can make for a stiff drawing. Therein lies the great balancing act of figure drawing that we will explore here. Let’s get started…
Below you can watch an in-depth video tutorial, or read on for step-by-step written instructions on how to draw a female figure. After more drawing tips? Take a look at our guide to how to draw pretty much anything. Alternatively, get yourself kitted out with the best pencils around. Learn also: 1. How to Draw Simplified Cartoon Eyes 2. How to draw a male figure
Start with your attention level set to high. I use a small, two-finger wide piece of charcoal for my initial sketch. Draw the basic proportions, making any adjustments required – especially if you're working from a photo.
Starting your figure drawing with basic shapes makes it easier to draw more sophisticated lines on top. Here, I've drawn the face using small shapes inside a big shape. This is two of my disciplines in action at once: big to small; and simple to sophisticated. Note the gestural grip in action. Drawing with our gestural hand enables us to use the rhythm of our arm rather than our stiff wrist to make our marks.
I'm constantly analysing the photo reference. On closer inspection, what appears to be a foot is actually the ankle twisting. I decide to draw the classic shape of a foot to make the drawing more clear. I'm improving what I observe in the photo in terms of artistic mark-making. Note how many times I exaggerate the curves to make the drawing more lively.
At this stage I step back from the art to check the drawing has solid structure. I lay in broad tones with my charcoal. Remember, our goal here is to interpret the reference. If we gauge success on how close we copy, we'll end up with a stiff drawing that looks like a distorted photo.
Up until now I've juggled gesture with structure. It's an okay drawing, but nothing stylish. This is the journeyman stage, from which we can stamp our own style. Using tissue, I blend tone into form, this also fades the drawing and gives me a second chance to draw better on top.
Here I'm making small structural adjustments and adding more tonal gestures. This second time around goes quickly – just a matter of minutes, which is a small investment for an hour-long drawing. From this point onwards, my quest is to further explore style in the drawing.
I use shadows to push the gesture, but omit the shadow of the xiphoid process (the small bone under the pointed arch of the ribcage). It looks odd here. Even though it's correct, it violates one of my art laws: If it looks wrong, it's wrong, even if it's right!
Using a paper stump, I push around the charcoal that's already on the paper rather than lay more charcoal down. This keeps the drawing light and fresh. I'm also mindful to always be drawing even when blending. I use a sheet of paper to prevent me smudging the drawing.
I 'draw' highlights with a kneadable eraser. I think of the eraser as a drawing tool rather than a correction tool. Slowly does it, especially in the early stages. Drawing fast is a false economy – if we rush a drawing then we inevitably spend most of our time fixing mistakes.
I take a short coffee break away from the drawing and come back with a fresh eye. A break helps me see the bugbears more clearly when I return. I see the breasts are too close in shape while the lower rib cage is too smooth. I make minor changes to both bug bears and am ready for the big finish.
I lay down a large swath of charcoal, then smudge it with a chamois leather cloth, playing with textures as I go. I learned of the chamois from Glen Vilppu a few years back and it's been part of my drawing arsenal ever since. Here I use it for abstract marks to ground the figure and add style.
For my image, I imagined a vampire in a bloodlust trance. With large charcoal sticks I draw abstract shapes then pencil in the breast plates and jewellery using hard erasers for highlights.
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