Have you ever observed that there always appears to be a life drawing class going on someplace, even in towns and villages where there may be very little official art training available? It’s almost as if we can’t seem to get away from the task and reward of portraying the kind of body that we, ourselves, possess.

This is true, and we’ve written about how to get the most out of your visit to a life drawing class before on ArtWeb. However, portraying humans successfully requires more than merely showing up to the session, so we thought we’d provide a few (in some cases lesser-known) practical techniques.

1. Don’t be overly concerned with proportions.

This may appear to be strange advice for life drawing and painting. After all, we all have an instinctual sense of what is ‘proper’ and ‘wrong’ proportion in the depiction of a human figure, so if one arm is displayed longer than the other for no apparent reason, we tend to notice it immediately away.

However, it’s best to consider the generally accepted ‘rules’ on proportions as guides rather than rigorous requirements, especially if you’re just getting started. While it’s usually assumed that the human body is roughly seven and a half heads tall – making one head a useful unit of measurement – it’s rare for an actual human being’s proportions to match this ‘ideal.’

2. Gain a working understanding of the skeleton

Although we are no longer in the era of broad anatomy classes at art schools, knowing a little about the body’s underlying structure can still be useful when sketching or painting a figure. Many bones, after all, are at least partially visible beneath the muscle and skin covering them.

Naturally, the model’s stance and physique impact how much of their skeleton is seen. The ribcage and collarbone, as well as maybe the upper bone of the pelvis, will be visible if the model has an ‘average’ physique. The skeletal bones of the knee, ankle, and shin may be seen regardless of the model because they are covered by skin.

3. Keep in mind that those muscles will be working as well.

The body’s network of muscles, like the skeleton, is incredibly complex, so you don’t have to memorize them all to make effective drawings or paintings from life.

Given how tensed and relaxed muscles modify the structure of the limbs, it is critical to understand the difference between the two. Consider the biceps: when flexed, it bunches up, resulting in a noticeable bulge in the upper arm. Similarly, the calf muscles aren’t visible at rest, but you can see how they flex and relax if you watch someone move about a room or climb stairs.

4. Use your clothes — and how they fit – as a reference.

While artists enjoy drawing or painting the naked body – the sheer complexity of the unclothed body’s interwoven forms is endlessly fascinating – when you add clothing to the mix, you may be grateful in some respects. Still, it may be the misery of your existence in others.

Clothing may appear to conceal the figure rather than make it simpler to show the underlying body realistically, which is true in some cases, such as when the model is wearing a thick overcoat. On the other hand, the model’s attire can provide hints to their bodily forms, such as swimsuit shoulder straps that narrow as they curve away from the shoulders or a T-shirt neckline that follows the curve of the base of the neck.

5. Use color to create a body model.

Some people believe that painting the human body is more difficult than drawing it. This, however, is not the case. Sure, you’ll have to consider color. Still, you might discover that doing so makes your job easier rather than harder because you’ll be able to describe the body’s colors more correctly rather than converting them to shades of grey.

When modeling form with paint, it’s also important to distinguish ‘warm’ colors like reds, yellows, and oranges from ‘cool’ colors like blues, blue-greens, and blue-greys. Cool colors are frequently saved for gloomy sections, whereas warm colors are employed for the parts of the figure that are most drenched in light.

The advice offered here is only a small part of the information available on drawing or painting believable human figures. With this in mind, you should never become complacent when taking on what may be the ultimate exam for any artist, recognizing that there is always more to learn.