The Importance of Life Drawing

March 8th, 2007 | Posted in General

I was digging through the studio yesterday and came across some old sketchbooks I thought long thrown out. It’s always fun to find that kind of thing, because I can page through them and wince at the drawings I did years ago. It keeps things in perspective and makes me feel good to see I have improved in my art over the years.

One thing I noticed was a number pages filled with life drawings. Being a cartoonist, I don’t get much of a chance to work realistically. About 8 years ago I got involved with a life drawing co-op in Minneapolis which met on Wednesday nights from 7:00 pm to 10:00 pm. A five dollar donation in a coffee can got you a space for three hours, working with an experienced model and all the coffee you could drink. I loved attending and switching gears from caricature and cartoons to realistic figure work. I listen to my walkman and worked in whatever medium or technique I wanted. I usually just did pencil or charcoal, with the occasional color pastel. Many of these drawings ended up in this old sketchbook.

It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of drawing the figure from life. There is really no other exercise to develop your drawing and observational muscles than working from a live model. The best kind of life drawing, in my opinion, is fast, gestural drawing of one to 3 minutes per pose. While the final products are not very impressive, it is the best way to develop an artist’s instincts for the body… learning intuitively how weight settles and how people place stresses on various parts of their body while standing, sitting, reaching, etc. Short poses like that afford the model flexibility in how they pose, and they can hold for three minutes an action pose that would be impossible for a longer period of time. This kind of gestural drawing is a little like live caricature drawing… there is no time to over think it, you just have to go with your gut and this really trains your instincts.

That said, we did little of that kind of drawing at these co-ops, which was a shame. We’d start out with 5 to 10 minute poses for about 45 minutes, then after a short break settle into a two hour single pose. While I found this very relaxing, as I could render the hell out of parts of the figure in that time, it wasn’t as good for learning. I tried moving around and drawing the long pose from several angles, but that is not the same as the gestural short poses. Still, I could tell a difference in my regular commercial work when I was flexing these different drawing muscles.

I stopped going eventually, as the travel time was very long (about 30 minutes one way) and the winter weather made it even worse. I really need to find a new co-op or other life drawing situation closer to home that won’t cost me a lot. There’s nothing else like it.

Here are some of the life drawings from that old sketchbook. They are seven to eight years old. There are some long poses and some ten minute warm ups interspersed of the same models. I THINK the quicker ones were all done from the live models, but my sketchbook also had some studies I did from some life drawing and anatomy books I had, so it’s possible one of those got mixed in. The “ghost” images you see in some are drawing on the other side of the page. Click on the images for a closer look.

Just a warning to the overly sensitive: these were nude models so if anyone has an issue with that… you’ve been warned.










  1. Matt. says:

    I completely agree. Life drawing/ figure drawing help find those proper proportions.

    Did you do life drawings at university as well?

  2. pokedachef says:

    thanks for sharing tom! I’m teaching myself to draw and attending sessions here in Hawaii. I find that gesture drawings are much more satisfying for me. I’m heading towards animation, so I try. Inspiring to see these!

  3. SteveH says:

    Great life drawings Tom, I missed life drawing in my art education and it’s something I am hoping to address and attend some classes when I can!

  4. Tom says:

    Thanks for the comments, guys.

    Matt- Yes, I took plenty of life drawing in college. That was mandatory. Classes are great but honestly just doing it is the key thing. If you can draw the human figure convincingly you can draw anything.

  5. alexrhughes says:

    Fortunately, I live in a college town and have several life drawing options, including one that meets 3x a weeks, just a 5 minute walk from my house. Life drawing takes discipline so whenever I feel my attention wavering or myself getting frusterated or tense, I’ll start caricaturing other artists in the room to loosen up.


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