What are the fundamentals of figure drawing in your opinion?

Home Forums Practice & Advice What are the fundamentals of figure drawing in your opinion?

This topic contains 9 replies, has 3 voices, and was last updated by Eeveeiscurrentlydrawing 2 years ago.

  • Subscribe Favorite
  • #27779

    I've Been kinda confused about what I need to learn. It's really hard to see things in the big picture when there are so many things to know. If you don't mind, I also want to know why these fundamentals are important in the first place. I've been told that they're important but I don't really know the how. I apologise if this is too much too ask.

    Please support Line of Action

    Support us to remove this


    Probably the most fundamental thing of all is building habits for how you draw that let you draw the things you want to draw.

    Usually the first life drawing tutorial I rec (after you've done the tutorial built into classes here) is this one: https://paintingdemos.com/life-drawing-techniques-and-methods/ because trying out all the methods for one class each will teach you a TON about art, and get you through well over 100 drawings of people.

    It will also give you tools to figure out what methods you use to draw people. Having names for what we do is pretty powerful. Makes it a lot easier to talk about what we do.


    Hello! Knowing what to know is often the hardest part of learning art, so it's good that you're asking this. Sorry if my answer ends up being a novel, but this is a big quesiton!

    Fundamentals are the basic building blocks of art. They're a set of consistent rules based on how things work and look in reality so that your art will look and feel real. Even people who aren't artists can look at a piece of art and tell immediately if the proportions, perspective, etc. don't look quite right, so fundamentals are vital to the success of your work. Even cartoon artists need to understand fundamentals to change the proportions of their characters and still have them feel real.

    When it comes to which are most important, you will get varying answers from different people because it is dependent on the type of art you wish to make. It's good to cover every fundamental that you can, but it's important to consider what you end goal is with your work. Do you want to draw character art, characters in environments, concept art, landscapes? Consider what type of art you're interested in creating, and what that involves.

    I make digital concept art and character illustrations in environments, so some of the most important fundamentals for me are anatomy, light, perspective, and composition. I will provide tutorials and courses that I strongly recommend for each.

    Before I get into all of these topics, I'd like to point out that all of this at once can seem really intimidating, and that's okay! It's best to take your time and approach one fundamental at a time, making sure you understand it completely. The comment above by Torrilin is helpful as well. Build healthy drawing habits and focus a lot on your mechanical skills, as they are just as important as your knowledge of fundamentals. By this I mean practice drawing as often as you can to train your hand. You can do still life drawings of everyday objects in your house, practice gestures on this website, or look up pictures to draw from online. The important thing is that you don't stop, and learn at your own pace, whether this means an hour a day or just a few minutes of practice - routine goes a long way!

    As you learn and train your hand, it is important to be mindful when you draw! If you are drawing to learn, keep a set goal in mind and know why you're drawing what you're drawing.

    Now here are some fundamentals:

    Anatomy is your understanding of the structure of the human body and how it changes in motion. Anatomy is one of the most important things to get right when drawing, because people are highly perceptive of when things look wrong with the human body or face and it is easy for things to slip into the uncanny valley. You can have a simplified understanding of anatomy (human proportions, how many heads tall people are, etc.) and be a successful artist, but knowing muscles and bones in more depth will make your characters feel much more real.

    I strongly recommend Illustration for Comics: Anatomy of a Superhero by Ariel Olivetti for anatomy. He covers the basic proportions of the human body, and introduces some important muscles and bones. Our bodies are sculped by the muscles and bones lying underneath, and having an understanding of these will really improve your art. If you want to get really in-depth with anatomy, anatomy textbooks are a good option, but for me personally I have just created a word doc with scientific pictures of muscles and bones in different areas of the body. Tyler Edlin has also created a free 3D model showing the muscles of the body here.

    Light is the basis by which we see things and understand their volume (or how they take up space in a 3D environment). Light helps viewers understand the material and volume of things in your artwork. Your understanding of light can also help you figure out color schemes, direct the eye of your viewers, and get the mood of your work right.

    If you are interested in digital art, Lighting Principles for Digital Painting by Samual Smith is an absolutely fantastic course for learning lighting fundamentals and techniques. This course does contain useful lighting fundamentals if you are not working digitally, but most of the course is a demonstration of techniques for digital artwork.

    Perspective is the representation of a 3D envionment in your work on a 2D plane (your sketchbook, computer screen, etc.). Perspective is important for setting up a believable 3D space for your characters, objects, and environments. I even use it in my figure drawing! It is very important to have an understanding of things in a 3D space - it will also help train your understanding of volumes and make your drawings look less flat.

    I recommend 4 Secrets to Drawing In Perspective Like the Pros by Reuben Lara. I had trouble grasping how to utilize perspective in my work before taking this course, so I can't recommend it enough. Reuben Lara also has a free perspective grid online, as well as other free learning materials.

    Composition is how you utilize the space in your work and is vital for creating pleasant images and incorporating visual storytelling into your work. Where things are placed can make an image feel balanced or unbalanced, and direct a viewer's eye to certain aspects of an image. I recommend learning about perspective basics first, as understanding your image plane as a 3D space will help a lot!

    For composition, I actually recommend looking into cinematography techniques. In my storyboarding class, we used The Visual Story by Bruce Block. It covers a lot of cinematography funamentals which will assist you in visual storytelling. There are tons of videos that you can watch on youtube for free, like these videos on storytelling:

    And common camera angles used in film:

    The rule of thirds will also help you lay out your images in pleasing ways.

    Again, this may seem like a lot - because it is, and there are more fundamentals but it is up to you what order you approach them in. With each fundamental you learn, you will find your work improving more and more. Work on training your hand daily, and take on new fundamentals as you feel ready. It is absolutely possible for you to learn them all, but it takes time.

    Lastly, I recommend this video by concept artist TB Choi which does a good job introducing some of her fundamentals and having a healthy mindset towards learning:

    Gather as many materials as you can to learn, because an outside point of view is very helpful.

    Good luck on your art journey, and feel free to ask any questions you may have!

    • slump edited this post on November 2, 2021 9:32pm.
    • slump edited this post on November 2, 2021 9:32pm. Reason: editing to fix the youtube thumbnails!
    • slump edited this post on November 2, 2021 9:34pm. Reason: editing one last time, hopefully the video thumbnails will look right this time :')
    • slump edited this post on November 2, 2021 9:37pm. Reason: wow I'm really bad at this apparently, last time I promise

    I had a lot of trouble trying to get the video under composition about camera angles in film, so posting it here!


    Thanks for the insightful reply! Also if you dont mind, is there a way to gauge improvement in art? I know when setting goals there must be accountability so i can determine whether ive acheived it or not.


    No problem!

    This is somewhat of a difficult question, but I think it has to do with training your eye to be sensitive to what successful work looks like, and then doing some self-review as you finish more work. I'm sure you will get a feel over time for how to guage your improvement, but I have a couple of tips until then!

    Build a collection of artwork that you like. Get a feel for what "good" art looks like in your opinion, and ask yourself why you feel that way about it. Is it because of the composition? The lighting? Maybe a particular artist is really good at rendering muscles, and you want to be able to do the same. Maybe there are things that you don't necessarily like about it. Get thinking critically about art and what your tastes are, then ask yourself what fundamentals you like from the piece and how you can learn them. (Artstation is a fantastic place to start, there are a lot of industry professionals on there - just know it is easy to feel like that skill level is hard to reach, this is totally normal).

    Also (and this is very important!) build collections of pictures taken from real life that show principles you're trying to work on, or just things that visually appeal to you. This can be pictures that showcase different muscles, indoor vs outdoor lighting in different weather, shots from your favorite movies - anything to help inspire your work. This is referred to as a visual library, and is very helpful to pull out when you need some inspiration or reference. It also helps to observe the world around you and to take your own photos and think about just why things look the way they do. For example, you might observe that on a cloudy day there actually fewer shadows than on a sunny day. This is because the clouds diffuse the light from the sun like a lampshade and cause it to hit everything more evenly. Start making observations about how things look, and find out why if you are able. Keep all of this in a journal or sketchbook if it helps (and if anyone asks about it, you're an artist - we're all a little eccentric). While looking at other people's artwork is important for training your eye, it is much more important to make sure you're studying what things look like in real life because all art has its base in reality.

    Both of these things should help you start to train your eye and mind to recognize what exactly it is that you wish to replicate in your work, and after you learn enough it will become easier to create your own original style and works. You will also start to build a sort of mental library of knowledge on how things look and why, and how other artists' work replicates what you see in real life. You can even directly compare pictures from real life to your favorite artwork to see how other artists express the real phenomenon you've observed.

    Next, get into some healthy self-review. I keep a document with records of what I get done each day, how I think my work ended up, and what I can do better next time. Write a list of questions to ask yourself at the end of your art sessions: What fundamental did I work on today? What did I learn? How can I improve next time? Etc. When you finish a piece, write down some notes on what you think works about it, and what needs improvement, then write down a few goals for next time: Do more gesture drawings tomorrow, Study muscles in arms more, Practice drawing faces, etc. Make sure to be nice to yourself in your notes, improvement takes time!

    Keep a folder of your art, and after a month or so compare the new with the old and take some notes on how you've improved and what looks better. I like to do monthly and weekly reviews where I write down what I learned that month/week, how I've improved since last time, and what to work on next. Asking for constructive criticism can also be helpful. Having someone with an outside point of view (even if they aren't an artist) helps a lot. Make sure to ask what works about a piece and what doesn't.

    I also realized that my answer from last time was a bit vague and I didn't realize you were talking strictly about figure drawing (my bad!), so I wanted to revisit that real quick. For figure drawing, I would say the fundamental things to learn are anatomy, gesture, volume, and light.

    Knowing at least the basic accurate proportions and where body parts line up is most important at first, but knowing all the muscles and bones eventually will help tremendously. After learning at least the basic proportions, train yourself to draw gestures in around 30 seconds (or start longer and work your way down). These gestures can be extremely simple, but should include a line of action that captures the general expression of the pose, and major landmarks like the head, ribcage, pelvis, and limbs (the course I recommended earlier by Ariel Olivietti should help a lot for simplifying the body). For the subsections of your limbs (upper to lower arm, etc.), I recommend using more expressive, non-straight lines. For gestures, focus on capturing the motion/expression of a pose within the amount of time you give yourself. I reccommend doing large quantities of quick gesture drawings and only moving forward with gestures that you feel really capture the energy of the pose.

    After your gesture is down, you can begin adding volume and muscles. An easy way to move from your gesture to the final piece is to block out the sections of the body in 3D volumes and carve the details in. Much like this or this. At first it will be easiest to use more literal shapes, but you can move into more advanced shapes like in the second reference as you learn more anatomy and have a better feel for things. Lastly, your understanding of light will come into play when it comes to rendering the final image if you wish to move past lineart.

    Well that was a lot again, and I hope this helps!


    Thanks again! that cleared up quite a lot of confusion ive had. Also if you dont mind, is there any way for me to know whether i am heading in the right direction? Whether i am doing the right or wrong things in practising art in general? I seem to have this anxiety where i stop practising out of fear that i might be practising the wrong habits and will have to unlearn them later.


    Now this is a tough question! It really comes down to learning how you learn through trial and error and observing at what rate you seem to be improving (which is another reason why self review is important!) Gaining an intimate knowledge of how your own mind works is one of the best things to come out of being a dedicated artist.

    I recommend trying out new things in small, quick doses and seeing if you feel like you're learning and improving. The reason I recommend doing quick, non-committal work is because you can end up wasting a lot of time on larger pieces and lose sight of your initial goal, and it is important to isolate what single thing you're trying to focus on without the distraction of detail work thrown in. This can mean doing a bunch of 30 second gestures with a new technique and seeing if that works better for you vs a different technique. You could also do studies of pictures from online and limit your time (10m, 30m, 1hr, etc. depending on how complex of a concept you're exploring), then compare the results at the end trying different things with some self review: What do I like about the results? Does it look better than x technique and why? Is this an improvement? Even if you aren't quite happy with how it turns out, you can see which techniques you'd like to explore more deeply vs others that don't work for you. Move on with the approaches that yield good results, and you will start to learn what personally works for you and learn more efficiently. It is all about getting to know yourself better and learning how you learn best. This will also help you learn other unrelated subjects, so it's pretty useful!

    For some examples of different approaches, let's say you want to work on how you draw the human head. You could try drawing the skull first, then drawing everything else over it. Or, you could start with a circle for the top of the skull, then add the jaw and mark where important features go before drawing them in. You could try breaking the face down into different shapes based on the volume of the head. Get creative with what you try! If you feel you aren't able to complete your experiment in the amount of time you give yourself, take more time on the first try and work your way down to faster results as you learn. Another way to do this is to draw the same subject multiple times, but try different approaches that feel natural to you. If one approach feels better, try it several more times to see if it sticks for you. And if you feel stuck on what to try, you can always give yourself some time to process and come back to it later. I find that a break can really help you subconsciously process things, whether that means a few hours, overnight, or a few days.

    Once you discover what works for you personally, you can try out your new techniques on a larger piece. As a personal anecdote, I was trying to figure out some new techniques for how I painted people. I did a series of 1 hour portrait sketches, then when I was happy with the results applied my new knowledge to a longer-term painting, which helped solidify what I'd explored.

    Let me know if there is anything else you're wondering about, I check this site most weekdays! Also, back on fundamentals again I remembered a few more books that helped me. How to Draw: Drawing and Sketching Objects and Environments From Your Imagination by Scott Robertson is a fantastic place to start learning perspective drawing. There is a followup book on rendering as well.

    Not trying to spam, I promise! But I realized there is a term for what I was describing above - failing faster. It is expected to fail, sometimes multiple times, before getting something right. No artist gets everything right on the first try. You want to get these missed attempts out of the way as quickly as possible, which some call "failing faster." There is absolutely no shame in doing things wrong, because every wrong attempt is one step closer to being right as long as you learn along the way! Good luck again on your art journey!

    • slump edited this post on November 4, 2021 10:53pm. Reason: remembered a word

    I cannot thank you enough for having the time to type out a response like this, i will reply to this post if i still have any questions in the future. Thanks again! Your art is amazing btw!

Login or create an account to participate on the forums.