Figure drawing

Dear Artist, At one point in his career (1620), Antwerp’s Peter Paul Rubens had 80 apprentices sketching figures in charcoal and making pounce patterns. In the 1920s every American art school held figure drawing classes. The Roaring ’20s may have been roaring but, apart from the African issues of National Geographic, the figure drawing class was the only legitimate access to nudity.

“The Three Graces”
study by Peter Paul Rubens

National competitions for student drawings were held and the results often published. One such, from 1927, is among my vintage book collection. It shows the year’s winners — each briefly noted as follows: “Morris Schwartz, pupil of Kimon Nicolaides, Art Students League, New York.” The drawings are often a compelling education in themselves. While an unclear division between “imitative, constructive and expressive” was made in the book’s introduction, the usual long-winded appraisals of each drawing were left out. They all look pretty realistic to me. In those days the undraped figure was the temple of the soul. As such, the model was set up on a plinth or pedestal, often above eye level to the seated or standing artists. Legs are often long and torsos foreshortened. Male models were covered up in brief, female models not so. Lost lines and unresolved forms were commonplace and an aid to avoiding the naughty parts. The results were sensitive, delicate and often understated. Treatment of light and shadow was interesting. Although there are a few exceptions, details in shadow were avoided in favour of detail in the lit parts. It would be another decade before detail was commonly put into shadow and “dazzled out” in the light parts. Looking at the craft of these drawings and the attention to type, race and the classical nobility of the models, one might conclude it was a last gasp of decency and propriety. Modernism was looking in the door and a new era was emerging, particularly in Europe, where drawing from the model was on the way out. In Picasso‘s atelier, for example, one eye was up the chimney and the other in the pot. And where, we might ask, is the work of Morris Schwartz today? My goodness, what has happened to civilization?

“The Four Continents”
study by Peter Paul Rubens

Best regards, Robert PS: “To express one’s inner self so that others can understand you, is art. If your expressions are elevated and beautiful, it is good art.” (Author unknown, from the preface of “Fifty Figure Drawings — a Selected Group of the Best Figure Drawings submitted to the Fifty Best Drawing Jury,” 1927) Esoterica: Many of today’s art schools hold life classes and figure drawing in much the same way as yesteryear. The human figure is accepted as a prime learning tool for form, line, gesture and design. Also, because of the remarkable variety between individual humans, the undraped figure is key to understanding bodily personality. When I was in art school I loved my days in life class. Like a lot of us, I’ve always had a desire to understand varieties of personality, and “bodily” is just one of them.   Figure Drawing, 1927

A. Kitz, pupil of Louis F. Bernecker, Mechanics Institute, New York


E.P. Nowlen, pupil of W. Felton Brown, M. I. T., Boston


Donald Buck, pupil of A. M. Clements, Mechanics Institute of Rochester


J Denton Hogan, Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pittsburg


J. H. Raftery, pupil of W. Felton Brown, M. I. T.


Winifred Ward, Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pittsburg, Pa.


William Jung, Art School American Bank Note Co, New York


J. H. Raftery, pupil of W. Felton Brown, M. I. T.


Charles F. H. Menges, pupil of Richard Andrews, Massachusetts School of Art, Boston


Donald Buck, pupil of A. M. Clements, Mechanics Institute of Rochester


James B. Gould, pupil of Arthur W. Woelfle, Mechanics Institute, New York


Frederick L. Sprague, pupil of George B. Bridgman, Art Students League, New York

                  Figure drawing covers a lot of ground by Ben Novak, Edmonton, AB and Ottawa, ON, Canada   Figure drawing along with the skill of catching perspectives correctly are, to me, essential prerequisite for an artist’s development. Figure drawing has so many challenges because the viewer is familiar with the form and expects proportions and foreshortened members to be correctly positioned. Add to this the play of light and shadow, and one covers a lot of ground. Speed sketching of figures is also very useful in developing proportions and composition. I like your selection of works.   The Angel Academy by Tish Lowe, Florence, Italy  

charcoal drawing
by Tish Lowe


Angel Academy of Art
Study of the old master’s techniques

            Figure drawing is alive and well at the Angel Academy of Art in Florence, Italy, with life drawing daily as required curriculum!


Student with his cast painting of the Laccoon

  (RG note) Thanks for reminding me, Tish. This is such a great school that we had to add some illustrations.   There is 1 comment for The Angel Academy by Tish Lowe
From: Anna H. — Oct 07, 2013

Absolutely beautiful!

  Priceless experience by Sandra Taylor Hedges, Cornwall, ON, Canada  

“The Opening”
original painting
by Sandra Taylor Hedges

When examining figure art I can always tell the artist that has had the experience of a Life Drawing class and those that have not. Seeing the form of a living breathing human is an experience all Artists must give themselves by doing this they will know then how to breathe life into their images even if simplified. Another experience the avid life drawing Artist should have is being the Life Model. I did this for some much needed cash years ago and gained an insight on the level of professionalism the Model requires to sit motionless for long periods of time and worse still get back into the pose after a break when the body is screaming at you to stop. Not only did I gain respect for the model but I learned how to still my mind and breath, listen and learn from the words the Instructor gave to each student as they were encouraged to see beyond the simple gesture itself. Priceless!   Passionate at life drawings by Victor Lunn-Rockliffe, London, England  

“My Chauvet”
still from Victor’s short movie

The question I have wrestled with over the last few years is why do I do it? Are my life drawings (up to around 20 in a day — short and longer poses) an end in themselves or merely a means of exercising the drawing muscles? Am I like an athlete exercising in a gym in preparation for the main event or a piano player practicing scales on the keyboard? The fact that every 6 months or so I go through the pile of drawings and throw 95% away suggests that perhaps I do it just as an exercise. But this conclusion bothered me. Perhaps I should keep more of them? As a compromise, and taking account of severe space constraints in my home — I have no studio — I started to scan or photograph all my drawings before the 6 monthly cull, in order to preserve a record of my hoped for progress (or equally likely regression!) and in the hope that perhaps I might find some use for these images in the future. Fellow artists expressed severe doubts about the practicality of pressing into different service a bunch of life drawings. Being a stubborn sort, I experimented and figured out a way of assembling a collection of life drawings in homage to the prehistoric cave painters in Chauvet, France. Looking at the work of our primitive ancestors so long ago, it never ceases to amaze me that the creators of these wonderful and evocative drawings clearly struggled with exactly the same issues about line and form that I wrestle with every Monday in the studio! The result of my recycling became a short movie sequence entitled “My Chauvet.” My raw material for the movie is a series of life drawings I did earlier this year at a Drawing Marathon at the Prince’s Drawing School in London. (RG note) Thanks, Victor. There was a fellow at Art Center School who became so obsessed with figure drawing that he didn’t get enough of it and complained to the registrar who offered to throw him out if he didn’t pull up his socks on other courses like drawing toasters and armchairs. As a paying guest in the same place as myself, I used to see models coming and going from his room at all hours. Sometimes he would borrow my car to pick them up and take them home. I didn’t think much of it at the time except to admire that he was, like you, so single minded and passionate.   Figure drawing alive and well by Skip Rohde, Asheville, NC, USA  

charcoal drawing
by Skip Rohde

I run an open session every Wednesday in my studio and there are several other sessions around town everyweek. I’m a figurative artist, so these sessions are important to me. The challenge in figure drawing (for me) is two-fold. One part is to get an accurate rendition of the figure, which requires looking in an almost clinical way at shapes, light, and shadow. The other part is to try to get something of the sitter’s character. One of my models is a very sweet and graceful woman, and I draw her very differently from the one who is bouncy and perky. Getting the character is more difficult than getting the shapes. Some days, all my work is junk; other days (fewer), things happen on paper like magic. I live for those days!     ‘Tragic decline in traditional skills’ by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA  

Alicia Blue
pastel painting
by Sharon Knettell

For almost a century figure drawing has been dragged down from that plinth you speak of. I know I taught in a major art school here in Rhode Island. In the foundation year — the only year they had basic drawing, one half of the class were told to make marks and the other half had figure drawing. There was some figure drawing for those who went on to illustration. Those who wanted more figurative work had to start and fund an independent class of their own. Excerpted from an article on the sadly departed Robert Hughes in 2006 in The Australian on the state of figurative art. “Suppose you come up with the name of a (contemporary) figurative painter whose work is as sublimely impressive as, let us say, Velazquez. I think you’d be really hard put to,” he says. “There are a couple of really great figurative painters around: there’s Antonio Lopez in Spain and, of course, Lucian Freud in England. But I don’t think you could say that either of these guys were the mirror equivalent of a Velazquez or a Rembrandt. There are times when art, the medium, just isn’t producing exceptional stuff.” Here is wonderful address Robert Hughes gave on drawing to the Royal Academy in 2004. “In the 45 years that I’ve been writing criticism there has been a tragic depreciation in the traditional skills of painting and drawing, the nuts and bolts of the profession. In part it has been caused by the assumption that it’s photography and its cognate media – film and TV – that tell the most truth about the visual. It’s not true. The camera, if it’s lucky, may tell a different truth to drawing — but not a truer one. Drawing brings us into a different, a deeper and more fully experienced relation to the object. A good drawing says, “Not so fast, buster.” We have had a gutful of fast art and fast food. What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in 10 seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media. For no spiritually authentic art can beat mass media at their own game. This was not a problem when the Academy was founded, because in 1769 such media were embryonic or non-existent. A quarter of a millennium later, things are different. But drawing never dies, it holds on by the skin of its teeth, because the hunger it satisfies — the desire for an active, investigative, manually vivid relation with the things we see and yearn to know about — is apparently immortal…” There are 3 comments for ‘Tragic decline in traditional skills’ by Sharon Knettell
From: Rick Rotante — Oct 05, 2013
From: Mike Barr — Oct 05, 2013
From: Rick Rotante — Oct 06, 2013
  Gentle mystery by Paula Dougherty, Brooklin, ME, USA  

pastel drawing
by Paula Dougherty

In good figure drawing, one chooses how to express the best possible vision of the human in the allotted time. It is not only about the anatomy to me, more-so the mystery. That is what I noticed in the 1920’s drawings illustrated. There is breath, breadth, and gentleness in the depictions. I will never understand the complexity of the human before me in life drawing, and am not an expert in drawing structure. Yet, if the beauty is expressed by gesture and by the aid of contour drawing techniques whereby one keeps his/her eye on the subject while drawing then, hopefully, an aspect of the person is captured, and wholesomeness results. From your webpage, I was inspired by Kimon Nicolaides ‘s quote: “Committing oneself to a technique causes stagnation.” (RG note) Thanks, Paula. Kimon Nicolaides (1891-1938) was one of the instructors in the 1927 folio whose ideas have persisted to this day. His book, The Natural Way to Draw — A Working Plan for Art Study is still in print and popular among many instructors and their pupils. A former student of Nicolaides, Mamie Harmon, oversaw the putting together of his notes and published the first edition in 1941.   Big difference at old art school by Ken Oberste, Little Rock, AR, USA  

“In All Its Glory”
watercolour painting
by Ken Oberste

I have to disagree with your statement: “Esoterica: Many of today’s art schools hold life classes and figure drawing in much the same way as yesteryear.” I attended a commercial specialty art school in Chicago in the early ’60s. No academic subjects, just art classes. The first year students took a half day of “Fundamental” classes and a half day of “Life” class, drawing from nude models. With the teacher looking over your shoulder, that model was about as sexy as an old shoe. And for the next 3 years, half the day was devoted to life classes, no matter what special class you took the other half day. All the several life classes had double doors that were never closed, so any one, student or visitors, parents or possible future students walking down the hall could hardly miss seeing the model on the stand. Several times I noticed a model walking down the hall wearing nothing but a small open cape flowing behind. No one seemed to give it a second thought. Well, several months ago I visited Chicago the first time in 60 years and I thought it would be great to visit my old school, which is still in business. What a difference! Besides the fundamental and specialty classes being nothing but students sitting in front of computers, all the life classes were in locked down solid doors that no one was allowed in except the teacher and students of that class. I would say that there is a BIG difference, at least in my old school. There is 1 comment for Big difference at old art school by Ken Oberste
From: Marti — Oct 23, 2013

Ken, Perhaps the locked doors are because of our new technology. No life model wants to find themselves plastered on Facebook, twitter or any other place. I can understand their concern.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Figure drawing

From: Sandra Taylor Hedges — Oct 01, 2013

When examining figure art I can always tell the artist that has had the experience of a Life Drawing class and those that have not. Seeing the form of a living breathing human is an experience all Artists must give themselves by doing this they will know then how to breathe life into their images even if simplified.

Another experience the avid life drawing Artist should have is being the Life Model. I did this for some much needed cash years ago and gained an insight on the level of professionalism the Model requires to sit motionless for long periods of time and worse still get back into the pose after a break when the body is screaming at you to stop. Not only did I gain respect for the model but I learned how to still my mind and breath, listen and learn from the words the Instructor gave to each student as they were encouraged to see beyond the simple gesture itself. Priceless!
From: ReneW — Oct 01, 2013

Locally, figure drawing meetups are available several times a week. Short poses, long poses sessions are available for a small fee of $5 a meetup. Some more costly such as art schools. The University has life drawing but only open to art majors. All of the meetups there is a restriction in that you must be 18 or older. The problem today is that most people lead busy, hectic lives and can’t take figure classes during the day. Evening life sessions are the better alternative and those are available also. Figure painting or drawing is still alive in liberal Austin, Texas.

From: ReneW — Oct 01, 2013

I forgot to mention that although there are plenty of opportunities to draw and paint the nude figure you have to deal with finding a place to exhibit your work. The nude is deemed inappropriate for display in public places.

From: Jackie Knott — Oct 01, 2013

Given the 1927 book all those artists have departed. Just for fun I googled those names “___, artist” to see how many left a legacy to study. I hope they all had some degree of success (whatever that means) but I could only uncover two, Winifred Ward and Charles F. H. Menges. That was depressing. Granted, it was a superficial search. But formal art school, beautiful figure drawing, and only two went on to have successful careers enough to have a significant presence a generation later?

It is not only classical figure drawing that is needful but exhaustive drawing of all subject matter. Unless we train our eyes to see distortion will forever be present in what we do.
From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Oct 01, 2013

The delusion that people are above the animal kingdom was dispelled by the two world wars. The human animal has been recognized, in its horror and beauty. Picasso was one of the first ones to paint it. Also Francis Bacon and many others since then.

From: Mary Jean Mailloux — Oct 01, 2013

Nude drawing is my absolute favorite form of creative output. My first classes at the OCA in Toronto was sketching the nude. It didn’t take me long to overcome my Victorian shyness around nudity. I had an excellent teacher who criticized our work without destroying our moral. Unfortunately it is now very hard to find classes where one can paint the nude form. It is also hard to expose (so to speak) one’s work. A lot of shows won’t allow nudes in the offering, may offend children and is considered porn. Makes me feel like we are going backwards instead of forward. I love the sketches you put up. I’m currently trying to photograph and add my nude work to my website. This is proving to be another art form.

From: Bill Hogue — Oct 01, 2013

Europeans have always had a healthier view of nudity than Americans. I suppose it goes back to our puritan heritage; the leap we had to make to escape the persecutions of our religion. We viewed the nude only in the erotic sense and not the artistic. We have certainly come full circle on that belief. What is viewed on prime time TV would have been pornography in the day when Clark Gable uttered the words, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” The question we have to ask now is, how far will it go? We’re way beyond being artistic.

From: Laura Marcusa — Oct 01, 2013

Still contemplating what part of the personality is displayed bodily, other than other people’s assumptions of what is going on based on externals…all fat people jolly…what about Freud’s Leigh Bowers? So sometimes a body is just a body but how it is held and displayed might be a small clue. WHAT IS BODILY PERSONALITY to you?

From: Lee Mothes — Oct 01, 2013

Figure drawing is still healthy in Wisconsin – I go to a Wednesday evening drop-in session at the Richeson Art School in Kimberly, near Green Bay, WI. We pay $8. for the model and draw or paint the 2-hour pose. I often do paintings from the life sketches.

From: Gail Sauter — Oct 01, 2013

Interesting that they put the detail in the light, while we put it in the dark. I wonder if this is the lingering effect of ‘chiracsuro’ in painting, or the result of the influence of the camera’s way of seeing today.

From: Les Jacobs — Oct 01, 2013

I attended art school in London in the 1940’s after I came out of the service. I can remember the drawing and painting classes of the nude figure. Exactly as you described. I discovered the camera you might say when I was 11, and eventually I turned to photography as my way in the art world. It has been an interesting time indeed.

Now I do little painting because of shaky hands however I have a studio behind my house and use it mainly for photographing still life and portraits. My painting education was wonderful as a grounding for my camera work. I highly recommend it for new photographers.
From: Dr. David Skrypnyk — Oct 01, 2013

Tonight I dined out with a fine Lady friend. She is not an artist. She has been cashiered by the Royal Canadian Navy and is studying entrepreneurial accounting at Royal Roads University. This after twenty years as a commando in various middle East locations.

I and all of us owe her a debt of gratitude. Her pension will be twenty – six percent of her pay as if she were on home base rather than active duty, As a steel and art man, this upsets me some. I love your letters and will subscribe infinitely. Another thing bothering me is that it came recently to my attention that a Waffen SS Group, diminished in numbers, meets once a year in a town in Austria to honor their fallen. So we never really think of the fallen and the forgotten in war. It is just the ideological propaganda we are fed which makes us use any grey matter. I am totally ashamed now of time I’ve spent garnering profits in steel, art and philately. My whole thinking is undergoing revision.
From: Rick Rotante — Oct 01, 2013

I have drawn the figure most of my artistic life. It is at the heart of all my work. I am part of a dying school that still believes the human form to be the epitome of expression. The highest art form for an artist to aspire to. I have just completed a commission that has garnered more income than any other genre I work in in recent years. There is still an appreciation for good figure drawing and still people willing to spend hard earned cash for it.

From: Peter Fox — Oct 01, 2013

Thank goodness I’m not an artist, a draughtsman maybe. I bet Alex is having a good laugh with his mates. You can buy many rounds of Fosters with 15,000 Aussie dollars.

From: Gerald Zwick — Oct 01, 2013

Figure drawing is a vestige of a previous way of teaching art that is still carried on because students think they need it and request it–and instructors continue to give it because it gives hard evidence of capability and measurable learning. Horses are seldom led into life classes the way they were in the 19th Century, but human models still are. With projectors and time constraints, few artists need to know how to draw from life any more. It may be a shame, but that’s the way it is.

From: Julie Brooks — Oct 01, 2013
From: Judi Birnberg — Oct 02, 2013

Interesting how little things have changed. For the most part, the women illustrated show their breasts and public regions without a covering arm or garment. Yet of the two men shown, one’s genitals are lost in deep shadow and the other is wearing a loincloth. As on television and in film today, female nudity is frontal and complete, while men somehow manage to engage in intercourse with their pants on.

At least in art today, men are more willing to bare it all.
From: Rick Rotante — Oct 05, 2013
From: Dorothy Zwillick — Oct 05, 2013

I so agree with your definition of art and this has been my thought forever. Good art communicates and great art communicates beautifully. I hope to keep receiving your emails – they are somewhat of a life line.

From: Karen Blanchet — Oct 05, 2013

One of my first loves I continue to practice my skill on a regular basis. The drawings presented do not fit into the category in which I now indulge. I doubt if any of these drawings could have been accomplished in two to twenty-five minutes which is the common amount of time available locally anyway, unless one hires a model….

From: Paula Dougherty — Oct 05, 2013
From: Anonymous — Oct 05, 2013

Tried repeatedly to instant comment. Anyway ….

If for whatever reason you cannot hire a model, friend, or your mate is horrified at your suggestion he/she pose nude for you, consider yourself. You may be fortunate to have one of those sliding mirror closet doors; if not, a cheap full length mirror can be purchased from discount stores. During the day draw the drapes until it gives pronounced shadows, or at night turn out the lights and pull the shade off a lamp for strong light. Grab your sketchbook and keep a robe handy if the doorbell rings. Advisory: do so before your glorious body makes analysis and study painful. Burn daily.
From: John — Oct 06, 2013

The figure can be a lifetime of work. Drawing – and all the sensitivity that can be coaxed from a line, then painting – and all the colors that can be seen from body type to body type – changing the lighting conditions from artificial to natural… I just don’t see how an artist who truly loves this form could ever grow tired of it. Excellent figure art is like a Harris tweed coat – it never goes out of style, but finding young folk these days who have the patience to learn that craft is not so easy. My motto is stay the course and follow the heart … and if it sits still long enough, paint it too.

From: Liz Reday, — Oct 07, 2013

We’re lucky here in the greater L.A. area to have numerous figure drawing classes with or without instructor due to all the animators who need to keep their hand eye co-ordination up to speed. Also lots of artists like to attend a regular figure drawing session just for the joy of it.

From: Rick Rotante — Oct 09, 2013

Here, here Liz – I took part in these uninstructed figure classes/ workshops for years –thankfully. It kept the costs down while allowing me to draw/paint from the live model every night. -twice on weekends.

   Featured Workshop: Julian Merrow-Smith 100413_robert-genn Julian Merrow-Smith Workshops Held in Provence, France   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.     woa

Sunrise in the Kaaterskill Clove

oil on panel, 16 x 20 inches by Erik Koeppel, Jackson, NH, USA

  You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013. That includes Jane Yelliott of Hixson, TN, USA, who wrote, “I could hardly believe my eyes when in your letter you asked, ‘Where is the work of Morris Schwartz today?’ The following is from an email I had just read immediately before yours!! Morris Schwartz is on his deathbed, knows the end is near, is with his nurse, his wife, his daughter and 2 sons. ‘So,’ he says to them: ‘Bernie, I want you to take the Beverly Hills houses.’ ‘Sybil, take the apartments over in Los Angeles Plaza.’ ‘Jacob, I want you to take the offices over in City Center.’ ‘Sarah, my dear wife, please take all the residential buildings downtown.’ The nurse is just blown away by all this, and as Morris slips away, she says, ‘Mrs. Schwartz, your husband must have been such a hard working man to have accumulated all this property.’ Sarah replies, ‘Property? … hmmmpff … that’s his paper route!’ ”  

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