Tips for Your First Life Drawing Session

art advice figure drawing

Is it awkward to be in a room with a naked person? What materials should you bring? Should you draw their junk or pretend it’s not there?

If you're getting ready to draw the nude model for the first time, you may be wondering what it will be like and how to approach things. Read this article so you can show up with confidence!

Based on my experiences I have some beginner supplies to recommend, as well as tips for how to approach drawing and mindset to help you through your first life drawing sessions.

Life Drawing Tip #1: Make a Commitment!

Even if you’re used to drawing at home or from photos, there’s something different about drawing in a new location and in a situation that you’re not used to. I’ve been hosting life drawing sessions for almost 15 years and have a lot of experience, but still when I visit other people's sessions, I feel a little off. The lighting, furniture, and entire vibe is different each place I go. All these things take time to get used to, so don’t just attend one session and decide it’s not for you. The first session will be awkward and you probably won’t like your drawings because it's difficult to relax and focus: The 5th or 6th session will be much better!

I recommend you commit to attending somewhere between 8 and 12 sessions and then assess how it’s working for you.

If you want some practice before or between attending live sessions, there are tons of resources online. Check out Figure Drawing Academy for 5 free figure drawing lessons, photo reference batches, and complete figure drawing courses.

Life Drawing Tip #2: Keep Your Materials Simple 

There’s so much mental energy that goes into thinking about and managing your materials that it's smart to keep it as straightforward as possible. If you bring a variety of options, you might find yourself deliberating over whether to use colored pencils or markers, where you can place your expanse of materials so they're easy to reach, or accidentally kicking over your cup of gouache water and searching for a sink.

Until you're familiar with the situation and process of drawing from life, it can be a good idea to choose one simple set of materials and stick with it for a few sessions. This lets you create a habit with what you use and where you place things as you're working, so that it becomes automatic and your attention can be fully on observing and drawing.

I highly recommend using a pad of gray paper, black and white charcoal pencils or colored pencils, and a sharpener that doesn’t need to be plugged in. This is an easy kit to take along, and it gets rid of a lot of that decision making process.

If you’re used to another material, use it instead but keep it simple: Just a few pastels rather than a large set: three markers rather than 20. You get the idea!

Try not to change the materials each week. Let yourself get into a rhythm with your materials so that your focus can be on observing the model, not on what you’re using. You can experiment after you get comfortable.

Life Drawing Tip #3: Relax… It’s Not as Awkward as You Think

For most people, it’s pretty unusual to be in a room with a nude human in a context that isn’t sexually charged. It’s taboo to look at nudity, especially for such a long period of time, and in a room full of other people quietly staring, too! Your first few moments in this new environment will probably feel weird, but very quickly you’ll realize it’s not nearly as exotic as as people imagine. Drawing takes focus, and modeling also takes focus. Everyone in the room is fully engaged in their work, and pretty soon it’ll feel completely normal to you, too.

That being said, there are a few things to keep in mind that will help the session go smoothly. Remember that the model is a professional who is working, and being a model for art does not mean that they're open to you photographing them. Therefore, you should never take a photo of the model to work from later (unless express permission has been given) and in fact, keep your cell phone and any cameras put away during the session so as not to appear to be taking photos.

Also, don't make any comments about the model's body, whether positive or negative. If you feel the model has moved positions during the pose and want to request a change, you should mention this to the person running the session rather than asking the model directly to move. This helps avoid a situation where multiple people are directing the model.

Life Drawing Tip #4: Don’t Overthink What to Draw

A lot of people get hung up on whether or not to draw hands, feet, faces, or genitals, or whether they should try to get the whole figure or just one area.

A good idea is to make some decisions before you even get to class. For example, if the whole figure sounds daunting, decide in advance that you’re just going to focus on the torso, or whatever small section of the figure looks interesting in each pose. After a few sessions you’ll get into a rhythm and have a better feel for what you can accomplish in a limited time frame.

When it comes to highly complex parts like hands, feet, and faces, consider keeping it simple or leaving it out if it’s not important to the drawing. And the same with genitals: It’s not at all improper to include them, but feel free to leave them out or keep it simple. Again, after some experience you’ll realize it’s just another part of the figure.

Life Drawing Tip #5: Don’t Think About What Your Drawing Looks Like

I know this seems counter intuitive, because who wants to spend time and money creating bad drawings? What a waste, right? 

But here’s what happens when you pay too much attention to what your drawing looks like: Your focus stays on the drawing.

There’s no information for you on your drawing!

If your focus is on the drawing, you are limited to the information you have in your head, which is limited and symbolic at best. This leads to childlike drawings.

You need to keep your focus on observing the model. All the information you need and more is right there in front of you, and if you can see it, you can draw it. The trick is learning how to focus on what you're seeing, look for big, simple relationships, draw a little bit, and then go back to observing.

So my advice to you is to try and let go of the results and instead work on the process of observing. You don't need to show your drawings to anyone, and the purpose of life drawing is rarely to create a finished artwork. Life drawing is about learning, noticing, looking, and gaining insights that can only be noticed with your own human eyes. 

Ironically, when you've learned to let go of the results and not focus on your drawing is often when your drawings start to look good! This is because of the quality of the information behind the drawing, and those observational skills you're developing.

Bonus: 5 Beginning Life Drawing Skills

If you're getting ready for your first life drawing session, or you're not happy with the sketches you've made so far, take the 5 Day Figure Drawing Challenge! It's a free series of 5 video lessons that introduce you to basic drawing skills specifically for shorter poses encountered in most sessions. You don't even need a live model to practice these lessons, and plenty of photo references are included! Check it out here:


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