Let's start by clarifying what we're talking about regarding 'imaginative drawing'. I like to keep it broad, and regard any drawing of something that doesn't exist in the form it is portrayed in, in front of the creator as an imaginative drawing of some kind. This, like any form of drawing from life, can encompass a wide range of styles and sensibilities, from realistic to abstract, surreal to conventional, symbolic to impressionistic. There is also a fuzzy boundary – imagined elements can invade observed drawings.
This isn't to say we cannot have a reference, only that the end result is something that doesn't exist in real life. Indeed, reference can be vital in providing the material we want to manipulate. This of course, seems very at odds with life drawing, where the intention of many is to accurately portray the figure in front of them, or interpret some property of the model in a convincing manner, such as gesture.
Life drawing is useful for many reasons, by directly influencing our ability to draw figures from imagination, and also contributing to our drawing skills. In general terms, life drawing is a fantastic way to improve our drawing. There is no getting around it – it is tough! It might not feel like it when we are struggling, but we are forced to learn to draw things in proportion, and improve our accuracy. Each act of drawing improves the dexterity with which we handle our tools. Looking from our drawings to the model and checking for errors teaches us to be more objective – more effective critics of our own work. These are useful skills in almost any form of visual art – not just for those of us who draw figures. For example, sensitivity for proportion will spill over into almost any form of design.
As we narrow our focus to figures, the benefits of life drawing are more direct. We become more familiar with the appearance and structure of the figure as we draw a wider range of people, and see bodies in different poses, and at different angles. This builds up a mental database of sorts, as we encounter new visual material every time we draw a model. The more we draw from life, the bigger this gets, and we can inject increasingly complex things into our imaginative work. There are many approaches to drawing the figure, depending on the experience we want, or the outcome. With the goal of being able to reproduce and pose human figures from imagination, we can keep a few things in mind.
Building the figure from the inside out. With a figure before us, this becomes about interpreting what we see in terms of 3D forms, and starting to develop a better understanding of the structure of the body. This will often have us starting with rudimentary shapes, but as we gain familiarity with the body, we begin to understand the complexity of its forms. With this, the better we get at rotating and posing the body without a direct reference.
IMAGE 01 – Anatomy studies for the upper leg.
Some find it dry, but anatomy is going to take you a long way if you want to draw realistic figures. Even if you aren'tinterested in imaginative drawing, anatomy can be tremendously useful. With it, you understand what you are drawing. That dimple on the side of the leg? That weird bump on the wrist? Understanding what is making those happen gives a figure drawing cohesion, as body parts 'link up' under the surface. When time is limited, it gives us the clarity from knowing what is important.
If we think about what anatomy is doing as we draw the figure, we improve our understanding. I like to think of it as reverse-engineering what we see. Carrying anatomy into imaginative work, it gives rich detail and believability to our drawings. Even in more simplified styles, it is vital; it can tell the viewer what the body is doing with the most minimal detail.
IMAGE 02 – Alphonse Mucha – Simple changes in contour lines do just enough to show the twisting action of the arm.
The most direct use of life drawing for imaginative work is to make studies. Artists will hire models to pose for larger projects – or pose themselves if time and funds are short!- and make drawings (or in more modern times, take photos) that will be used as reference and inspiration.
IMAGE 03 – Raphael – Drawings created as studies for the painting 'The Transfiguration'
There are lots of sketches by old masters to demonstrate this, but it isn't a dead tradition. Shooting reference of oneself is very common – especially for tricky areas like hands or tough head angles. For big projects, the expense of hiring a model to draw from or for a photo-shoot will show in the end result.
IMAGE 04: Normal Rockwell – 'The Gossips'. Here Rockwell works loosely off his reference, exaggerating expressions and features.
Life drawing is a fundamental tool for drawing figures from imagination – even without access to live models, good reference would be essential. To produce convincing drawings of any subject, we need two things; knowledge of how it works, and experience of drawing it from observation.
Lancelot is an illustrator and painter and teaches our Saturday tutored life drawing at Draw, as well all of our imaginative drawing classes.