Ten top tips for life drawing

Life drawing is a shared experience; we’re all doing the same thing says Paul Gatenby, co-founder of the Liverpool Independent Art School and curator of the ‘The Liverpool Nude’, a showcase for life drawing practice around Merseyside.

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"There’s something absorbing about the act of drawing the human body, we become involved in the process of drawing and in the act of looking at another human being, it’s both an artistic and meditative practice.  It’s never boring, there’s really nothing like it!"

Here are Paul’s top ten tips for life drawing:


Take your time and look at the model.  Then look again.  Even on a short pose, stay a few minutes, you can spend most of the time looking and a much smaller portion of the time drawing. Ask yourself ‘What can I see?’ ‘How does one part of the form line up against another?’ ‘How much space is there between those two forms?’

If we’re not looking at the model, then we’re really drawing from memory or inventing, and we won’t get accuracy that way. A friend of mine used to set an exercise for his students where he would ask them whilst in the studio to draw their room at home. No one could do it!

Be fluid

Don’t get so absorbed drawing the outline that you forget the human body is a solid, three-dimensional form. Try drawing from the centre outwards and apply tone from the outset.

Doing the outline first can make your drawing look flat, a bit like a cardboard cut-out. Remember the children’s art exercise of drawing around your hand then colouring in?  Great fun for children, but if we look at a real hand it’s so full of bumps and hollows and textures.  

Paul Gateny life drawing of a head

Subject, not style

Concentrate on observation and you can disregard ‘style’ and ‘detail’. I’ve seen many highly polished and refined life drawings with dodgy proportions!

Spend a bit of time analyzing the pose before you make a mark on the paper. Then lightly mark in the basic pose. Pause. Step back and take a look. Does it look right, is the whole figure in, does the drawing sit comfortably on the paper?  If ‘yes’ then carry on, if no then what should you change? Take your time building the composition don’t rush into the details before you’re happy with the composition and proportions. 

Get to know your model

Life drawing is a collaborative process, and the model is your creative partner. Chat to them, get to know them, involve them in the process, it will lift the whole mood of the class; 

The atmosphere can make a big difference, when it’s right there’s nothing like it and it’s great if everyone feels relaxed. I suspect people who’ve never modeled imagine modeling is akin to doing nothing – just sitting there. In fact, it demands a lot of concentration, and if we’re demanding that commitment from models, we should make them feel part of a communal effort.

Make decisions

The pose, the lighting, the model, the timing, and everything else that comprises a life drawing session are all challenges to be dealt with. 

But there are some aspects you have control over, like materials; charcoal allows you to cover large areas easily and make adjustments to the image, whereas ink and a dip pen makes a pretty well indelible mark and necessitates a small drawing. 

Your position also has an effect on the outcome, so make sure you have a good and clear view of the model. I would also ideally suggest to work standing up, this gives us scope to look around the pose and to stand back from the easel to better gauge proportion.

Head, hands and feet

Include heads, hands, and feet, it’s surprising how often you see them omitted, yet consider how much character there is in each of them. They’re enormously complex and varied forms which makes them a composition in their own right.  We only need to look at how many different hand gestures are possible. 

Few people would dispute that drawing a good portrait is one of the most difficult artistic challenges, so imagine drawing a portrait and the whole body at the same time? 

Practice them separately get to know and love the forms, they are enormously rewarding to draw.

Paul Gateny life drawing of a head

Pick up a book

The human body is a thing of wonder, and you’ll enjoy studying human anatomy. Artists of old studied it intensely and it’s worth remembering that even some of art history’s great experimenters, such as Matisse and Picasso, studied under that regime. Gaining some knowledge of anatomy will repay you when you draw. But beware it's addictive!

Learn from other artists

Look at lots of life drawings; It’s is enormously popular these days, and wherever you live there will be a group near you, so you can easily get to see what local artists are doing. Plus, there is a huge catalogue of historic and contemporary life drawings readily viewable online; from Da Vinci to Aleah Chapin. 

Whatever we’re doing someone else has done it before, and if that someone else is Michelangelo, Prud’hon, Degas, etc we may as well learn from them!  We can also enjoy being part of the same tradition.

Try new things   

Be as experimental as you like whilst maintaining your observation of the model.  Many modern life drawings give the appearance of being casual – such drawings are often described as gestural – yet the most powerful life drawings are almost always the result of intense observation.

Enjoy it!

Have fun, try out new materials, make a mess (it’s only a piece of paper!) A life drawing can be completed in 30 seconds with a biro or six hours in oil paint and everything in between. We’re interested in the human body because we’re interested in ourselves. Draw people and love it!