For as long as there has been art, there have been figurative drawing artists.

When it comes to the subjects of your work, there is no shortage of inspiration in the world around you. Figurative drawing brings the inspiration inward, with a focus on the human form and all of its many iterations, idiosyncrasies, and elements.

Figure drawing is, by definition, a very broad subject matter. To help break it down, we’ve put together this quick guide on the subject, covering both the general topic of “what is figure drawing?” and the specifics of how to do it, including the basic steps of how to start (and how to improve) figure drawing pieces in your own artistic practice.

Here’s what to know.

figurative drawing
Skillshare student Clara McGinnis shares her work as part of a class on beginner figure drawing techniques.

What is Figurative Drawing?

Figurative drawing, also called life drawing, is an artistic technique focused on capturing the human form. It encompasses everything from highly technical and anatomically correct interpretations of the human figure to looser, more abstract sketches.

When you ask for a figurative drawing definition, many people might instantly come up with the image of a nude model in a room surrounded by artists at their canvases. And while it’s not far from the truth (much of figurative drawing is focused on the nude form), it doesn’t fully cover all that figurative drawing entails.

Figure drawing sketch from Skillshare student Madeleine Onstwedder. 

Think of figure drawing as a means of capturing all of the human body—not just its nude elements. This includes muscles, anatomy, textures, and postures, with figure drawings of both nude and non-nude subjects. Sometimes it will be an entire human, head to toe. Other times, the focus is honed in on a specific body part, such as the head, or even a leg. Likewise, some figure drawings will include additional details like clothing and accessories, while others will be fully entrenched in anatomical structures.

Skillshare student Cadence Vaz explores various ways of drawing the human leg. 

When we ask “what is figure drawing?” we’re also asking “what’s the point?”. Aside from the fact that most artists will feature humans in their work at some time or another (and thus need to know how to draw them), the practice of figure drawing offers benefits beyond the obvious.

When you figure out how to do figure drawing, you’re also figuring out how to identify and encapsulate forms of various other types in your work, with techniques that help you capture all of their complexity. And the more you learn about drawing figurative works, the more you’ll improve your drawing skills in general, regardless of what subject you tackle.

What is the Difference Between Abstract and Figurative Art?

There are various notable differences between abstract and figurative art, including the fact that figurative art provides a realistic interpretation of a subject while abstract art offers a non-realistic interpretation—particularly one that doesn’t project real-world objects.

To put it into context, it helps to consider where abstract and figurative art fit in among the three basic drawing styles. So, what are the three types of drawing? Realistic, symbolic, and expressive, with some overlap depending on your style and purpose.

Realistic Drawing

When you’re drawing figurative art, you’re drawing with realism. Realistic drawing is all about taking what you see with your eyes and translating it onto your canvas—or more specifically, taking the three-dimensional and making it two-dimensional. It’s easy to see where figurative drawing fits in here, since its primary purpose is the accurate rendering of the human body.

Realistic human face drawn by Skillshare student Olive B.

Symbolic Drawing

Here’s where things get a bit more abstract. Symbolic drawing is the use of symbols to represent real world objects and ideas. This can be lines, shapes, or other types of marks—including abstract doodles—and the symbolic meaning can be obvious or not-so-obvious. It can also refer to the use of letters and words within your art.

Words, shapes, and symbols can add extra dimension to your art, as illustrated by Skillshare instructor Jordan Hill. 

Expressive Drawing

Last up is expressive drawing, and this is probably the category where abstract art really comes into play. Expressive drawing is the communication of things that aren’t necessarily visible—think motions, emotions, and ideas. Often, expressive drawing starts with something real (such as the human body), and then brings in abstract elements to tell a different, and sometimes fuller, story around it.

Abstract meets realism in this piece from Skillshare student Amy Nalette. 

A lot of times, artists blend together the different drawing types within singular pieces of artwork. This is how you end up with an abstract figurative drawing that combines real-world elements of the human body with more imaginative, less realistic features, or landscapes that appear both natural and fantastical at once.

One of the best parts about improving your drawing skills—figurative and otherwise—is that it gives you a chance to experiment, blending together various artistic formats and mediums to achieve new outcomes. The more you practice, the more concepts you’ll be able to explore—and the more you’ll be able to take ideas out of real life (or out of your head) and bring them to life in your work.

How to Practice Life Drawing

How do you start a figure drawing?

Figurative drawing artists follow a unique set of steps, though your own best practices might vary slightly depending on where you like to begin. For example, some artists prefer to start figures at the head and work downwards to the toes, while others start with the torso and build out the form from there.

The order is up to you, but here are some of the basic steps that will help you out.

Step 1: Draw a Rough Sketch

Figurative drawing sketches created by Skillshare student Sunny Saucedo. 

Figurative drawing is inherently detail oriented, but it’s often helpful to start with a rough sketch or outline. This will help you work out your proportions before you get to work, specifically when it comes to the relation of various body parts.

Step 2: Define Specific Body Parts

Figures start to get a bit more defined in this still from Skillshare instructor Robert Marzullo’s course on the basics of improving figure drawings. 

Begin working more detail onto your sketch by adding definition to specific body parts. This doesn’t have to be highly specific, but should include things like adjusting proportions to a more realistic scale and adding in shoulders, knees, and waist lines.

Step 3: Get More Detailed

Skillshare instructor Arleesha Yetzer adds in important details to a figure drawing in her course on expressive life drawing. 

Here’s where you’ll start to add more complete details to your figure drawing, such as the placement of facial features, hair, and muscular definition. As you did from the very outset, begin with a rough sketch and then refine each element from there. This is key, since establishing proper placement of features is necessary before you get to work making them look realistic.

Step 4: Enhance and Finalize

A realistic figure completed by Skillshare instructor Brent Eviston for his course on capturing light and shade in life drawing. 

Your last step is to enhance each detail in your figure and capture them in their true form. This includes everything from working in light and shadow to adding in extra elements like clothing, if applicable. This is also the time when you’ll want to polish your piece, making sure that things like movement and posture are accurately portrayed and that all of your elements are in proper alignment with each other.

In terms of how to improve figure drawing skills, learning how to perceive the human body is just as important as learning how to put it onto paper. Work on developing your understanding of human anatomy, especially proportions. You’ll also want to develop your eye for movement and natural texture, which will help you with how to do figure drawing pieces that more accurately translate the human form.

Need Help Drawing Hands?

Take Mastering Hands Part 1: A Beginner’s Guide to Drawing Hands.