Sunday Mailbag

February 3rd, 2008 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Do you have any tips and tricks on drawing figures or composing a scene with multiple figures in it? I’ve tried practicing by drawing from life, but I feel like the “from life” experience I get is sometimes stilted by the fact that many people don’t want to be drawn while sitting on the train, etc (and I don’t want to be caught staring!). At the same time, I can really see the interaction when someone if right in front of me. Are there other methods that have helped you?

A: Learning to draw the human figure is arguably the most important thing any artist can do to improve their skills. No matter what kind of art you do or style you work in, the challenge and rigors involved in drawing the human form will help your abilities to grow. It develops your eye and observation skills, your ability to translate these observations to the paper and most importantly your instincts for capturing life in your art… which is primarily what all art is about: the description of the world around us through the artist’s eyes.

There are lost of books and such out there on life drawing and drawing the figure, but there is no substitute for drawing from life. The best thing of course if to work from a model by attending a class or some kind of artist co-op where a few bucks in the coffee can gets you a place in the studio, some coffee and pays for the model. Lots of art schools and adult eduction centers offer either reasonably priced classes or just group drawing sessions with a model. Some artists get together and do it themselves by hiring a model and finding some space to set up in. It’s beneficial to have other artists drawing with you as it gives you a chance for both feedback on your work and to see the work of others for influence and inspiration.

If that is not an option, there’s always the ‘stealth drawing’ method you eluded to like when you are on the train. I know many artists who spend significant amounts of time at coffee shops or riding the subway drawing random people. I understand your concern about people getting nervous when you do that, but once you get good at it you are able to do it without being obvious. Really this becomes as much an exercise in quick observation and memory as it is in drawing. You can’t stare at the model, you must take peeks and then draw your impressions.

In many ways the quick look is the best method for developing your skills with the figure. It forces you to rely much more on your memory and impressions than on minute observation and time consuming sketching. It’s the two minute gestural drawing that develops your instincts with the figure… being able to capture the natural movement and weight of the human form and it’s subtle nuances. Since we are social beings we spend our entire lives interacting with other people, and the human form becomes somehting we are subconsciously very familiar with. Therefore when something is draw awkwardly it looks awkward even to someone with no art skills. It’s important to develop your instincts with the body, like how weight is distributed in various poses and motions, how the spine curves when someone is standing and thousands of other subtle and individual things that make up a natural looking figure. Realistic artists and cartoonists both benefit immensely from those instincts.

I spent twenty years drawing quick caricatures of tens of thousands of live models in theme parks, and that went a long way to helping me develop my skills with likeness, caricature, expression, etc. However I never got much of a chance to draw the figure, outside of the imaginary bodies I would draw on my subjects. For a while I attended some figure drawing sessions which I really enjoyed, but they were always long poses and I preferred the quicker stuff. I wish I had the time to go sit in a coffee shop for an hour every day just to draw the figures, because my figure drawing is not what it should be. Sadly, I do not.

If you can find the time, do it. It’s more like work that you might think, because lots of the drawings won’t turn out… especially when you first start doing it. Soon you’ll get in the groove and it will become one of your favorite things to do. Check out the work of Stephen Silver and Elgin Bolling, both owhom are voracious stealth sketchers.

Thanks to Julie Tucker for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. I’m reading this just before going to the mall, where I’ll be sitting around for an hour with nothing to do because I share the car with someone whose day starts an hour before mine. Sometimes I take my sketchbook with me when this happens, but generally I just draw comic ideas or practice with my characters.
    I think drawing some of the mall walkers(& sitters) would be good practice for me. I’m glad I read this just now.

  2. pleasantsarg says:

    Thank you for this detailed response, it is helpful to know that others practice similarly to me (the “drawing from life is an exercise in memory” comment resonates). Garrett- I am a fellow car sharer. I feel your joy/pain :).


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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