Where should you begin when learning to draw or paint the figure.

Should you study anatomy, general drawing, or life drawing first?

anatomy anatomy for figure drawing art advice drawing figure drawing

Recently I received a question by email that I think a lot of us have had at some point: Does it matter whether you study life drawing, anatomy, or drawing in general first? Is a solid understanding of proportion and shading a prerequisite to studying Anatomy for Figure Drawing?

Where Should You Begin when Learning to Draw the Human Figure?

The short answer is: The order in which you study matters, but not too much.

The long answer: When deciding where to begin with your art education, you should consider your goals and what excites you.

Don't miss the end of this post, where you get a list of amazing resources to help you get started!

Let's delve deeper into where you should begin and why when it comes to learning to draw the figure.

Following Your Interests

Let's begin with what excites you, because this is not talked about enough when it comes to art education!

I used to believe that students should always begin with basic skills before moving on to more complex skills. There is some validity to this idea, and I see it employed really well in the modern Atelier movement. I, myself, used to force my students through a year of drawing before letting them move on to paint... and it worked!

Except when the student got bored or discouraged because they weren't doing what really interested them.

So, if the idea of studying Anatomy or Figure Drawing excites you way more than studying basic drawing skills, I say follow that desire!

Do you know what will happen down the line? You'll run into a roadblock caused by a lack of foundational skills, and you'll be motivated to double down on learning them. Since you're motivated, you'll probably learn more quickly and thoroughly, too.

Considering Your Goals in Art Education

If your goals have to do with drawing from minimal reference or from imagination, and/or if you want to draw the human figure, Anatomy is a great place for you to begin. That’s because it has to do with thinking about the building blocks and 3 dimensions of form, which really helps inform the imagination and gives you a bit of a 'shorthand' for drawing the figure from life or photos, too. (Very helpful with those short poses in life drawing class!)

One of the many challenges in drawing the figure is that we have symbols in our head for what the body looks like, but these symbols are not based on the real shapes of the figure.

Think of how we learned to draw sticks for arms as a kid, and how we still struggle to draw an arm that doesn't appear stiff. Or how about constantly drawing the torso too large compared to the legs, probably because our torso is so much more important to us symbolically since it houses our heart, lungs, and intestines?

Sometimes what we know gets in the way of drawing what's there.

Replacing these symbols with knowledge about the actual shapes and forms that make up the human body means that your drawings become more realistic, more proportional, and faster to make!

Add a class like Foundations of Figure Drawing where you learn proportion, realistic shading and interesting contours, and you have a well-rounded set of drawing skills.

At the end of the day, you should be learning *all* these skills if you're working with the human form in your art, whichever order you wish to tackle them.

Artistic Development is Cyclical, Not Linear

Learning to draw the figure, in my opinion, requires an on-going, cyclical type of education.You will find that you can learn in layers, and revisiting basic concepts later on allows you to learn deeper levels of those ideas.

Through teaching, I repeat lessons and exercises year after year. If it weren't for my classes, I might not have chosen to draw hundreds of spheres, sketch diagrams of the deltoid again and again, or repeat any number of the exercises I demonstrate for my students every week. But because I did I can attest that everytime I do, I learn more, I learn deeper, and my work gets better.

So think of your art education as more of an ongoing cycle of learning, rather than a linear path. Start with what excites you, move on to what frustrates you, and never consider it beneath you to revisit the basics.

Resources for Learning Figurative Life Drawing and Anatomy

Free Sketching Course: If you've never picked up a pencil, start here! 

5 Day Figure Drawing Challenge: Commit one week to start or improve your figure drawing practice with free lessons and references.

Figure Drawing Academy: Online classes for life drawing and figurative photo references.

Anatomy for Figure Drawing: A 6 week class that teaches you how to study the bones and muscles in a way that leads to better drawings and a solid understanding of the form of the human body. 

I hope this helps and please send me your figure drawing questions! Email me at [email protected]

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