Step By Step Figure Painting

Motivated by my latest struggle in painting from the live model I spend my session today creating a step by step figure painting process.

If you have read my blog for a while you may know how I deal with a problem. Usually, I recognize the problem or attempt to recognize it, I analyze the problem, then I determine the best way to fix it. To some, it may sound technical and to others, it may sound obvious. But you would be surprised of how often we don’t even recognize an issue, we ignore it and hope through time it just goes away. I take a more active approach.

Step 1: Placement and Head Height

Establish the extreme width or height of the figure on your canvas. Then measure the head heights the entire length of the figure is. Depending on the pose you may want to measure the width also.

This figure was 4 and 3/4 head heights. This is a general measurement and may change a bit as you move through the painting constantly correcting your drawing.

Step By Step Figure Painting, step 1
Step 1: Position and head length

Step 2: Initial Contour

Now I begin the establish the contour of the entire figure. I work through this very slowly measuring when necessary which in some cases may be quite often. I’m using a burnt umber mixture thinned down generously with linseed oil.

It is important to note where your head heights that you measured in step 1 end up on the figure. For example, two head heights ended to the exact right side of her breast. The third head height ended in the “V” shape that her legs made at her pelvis.

I’ll say again, work SLOWLY, this is the most important step, get it as close as you can or the rest of the painting will be much more difficult due to many corrections.

Step By Step Figure Painting, step 2
Step 2: Initial Contour

Step 3: Shadow Shapes

I could have broken this down into two steps. After my contour is pretty close I begin to outline the shadow shapes. Here I take as much care as with the contour. I use the information I gather from the shadow shapes to influence the contour and make changes.

The more concrete information you gather about placement the easier it is to get the drawing correct. Most of the time these bit of information are based on vertical and horizontal lines. For example, if I drew a vertical line through the far right of her breast it would also meet the edge of her elbows.

Horizontal and vertical visual comparisons are the best tools to use when comparing and checking your drawing.

Step By Step Figure Painting, step 3
Step 3: Shadow shapes

Step 4: Lights Block-in

I feel like if you got this far and the drawing is correct then the rest of the painting is going to be easy. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way.

Here I’m blocking in the light areas. I do try to keep the value similar and in some cases, I think about the temperature of the color but in general, it is all one mixture. The idea is to establish these areas in simple shapes. Again, gathering more information and correcting any drawing mistakes throughout.

Step By Step Figure Painting, step 4
Step 4: Lights block-in

Because I’m working from a photo I have the ability to compare my drawing directly with the photo. Luckily I have Photoshop which makes this process fairly easy. There is a lot of technical knowledge that goes into working with Photoshop but the most important thing to remember is camera distortion. There is always going to be a bit of distortion from the camera so you have to take this comparison as guidelines and not perfect indicators of incorrectness.

After making corrections to the photo of my painting to compensate for camera distortion, I overlay it on top of the photo and make some marks to help me see where my drawing is compared to the photo.

I was amazed at how far off my head shape was. This was a pretty big mistake because I use the head length to measure almost everything else. But, luckily everything else it pretty close. Except for the top knee and bottom thigh.

I’ll use this information to make drawing corrections for the next session before I begin the next steps.

Step By Step Figure Painting, compare
Overlay compare with photo

It is important to note that these steps took me over 2 hours to complete. Most of the time was spent on the initial contour. I would suggest that if it takes you 10 hours to get the drawing spot on, then it is time well spent. Now I just need to be able to translate these step into working with the model from life.

Step By Step Figure Painting, setup

Session Details