Life Drawing for the Real World

Posted on September 19, 2014

Traditionally, one usually learns to draw other humans by paying one of them to take off their clothes and stand very still for you while a teacher points out anatomical features and holds forth on proportion, measurement, and other essential skills. It’s basically effective, except that after years of these life classes I’ve noticed that people tend to get really good at drawing a very still naked person on a featureless platform in a featureless room.


“Nude man seated” by Thomas Eakins – Scanned from “Thomas Eakins:Artist of Philadelphia” by Darrel Sewell. ISBN 0876330472. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

However, the real life applications of this skill don’t just materialize of their own accord. Real people in the real world move around, even (or especially) if they know you’re drawing them. They tend to wear clothes. And they usually move about in places other than model stands, like parks, train stations, shopping malls, and houses.

As well as greenhouses, where they sometimes play the guitar…


Drawing THOSE people can be really interesting, as well as quite difficult: it’s a skill you can only get by drawing real people, clothes and activities and surroundings and all. In my life classes, I make students draw clothing early on in the process, and, even more sadistically, I make them draw the model from memory after he or she leaves the room. Field trips are the most fun. The more captivating the setting, the more likely one is to include it in the drawing, and the better one becomes at knowing and rendering how a figure is connected to the space around it.

These are some student drawings from a field trip, with model, to the Seattle Central Library…


This one is mine from that session.

This one is mine from that session.

The real-real world part comes in when the “figure”is a stranger going about their business. When I draw on the bus, those hundreds of life classes are in the back of my brain, feeding the beast, but the only way to learn to draw the people on the bus is by actually drawing the people on the bus.


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  1. redharparts
    September 19, 2014

    Good points, all. I do draw strangers on the street. I’ve also discovered an in-between situation: a local geeky pub hosts “Drink and Draw” with costumed models. So there are lots of clothes, sometimes bizarre but the models do hold still for a few minutes. The poses range from 2-10 min.

    • Jane Richlovsky
      September 22, 2014

      That’s true, there are a lot more casual life drawing groups that meet in bars and such these days, at least in our fair city. I’m also going to be teaching a class at the Kirkland Arts Center, starting this Wednesday, that I hope will help people bridge the gap. We’ll draw the traditional posed nude model, then move on to clothed models acting like real people. I heard somewhere that you have about 3 minutes to draw a random stranger before they move. But you can still add detail and character after they change positions – that’s one example of a skill that can be practiced in a controlled setting and later taken into the field.

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