Principles of Figurative Drawing

figurative drawing


Without considering its shape, which can take a thousand forms – and is not even considered here – the shadow mass is produced graphically in a short time by darkening a sheet of light-coloured paper to the desired degree with charcoal powder and cotton or chalk powder and a rubbing brush (Wischer, estompe) or whatever.

  • The effect of this process, whereby the bulging and indenting particles of the paper are equally darkened, is called velvety (velouté, sammtartig).
  • On the other hand, if the drawing material (chalk, charcoal or graphite) only touches the surface of the bulging parts of the paper, leaving the deeper parts of the paper (in microscopic terms) intact and therefore light: this effect is called crisp or crunchy (prickling).

Therefore, one of the main qualities of a shadow is its serenity; in a drawing, therefore, the shadow should be corresponding, i.e. velvety. Objects in shadow cannot be definitely distinguished with complete precision; their shape is rather a matter of the imagination, and therefore another of the main qualities of shadow is mystery. This property is imitated and characterised by an indefinite faint spottiness.

There is always a layer of air, more or less illuminated, between the object in shadow and the eyes of the spectator.

This layering is a powerful factor in the artistic perfection of the drawing. This effect can be achieved by treating the shadow with a velvety and then again with a crisp treatment, so that both the colour of the paper and the first velvety treatment remain visible under the crisp one, thus giving the impression of three layers on top of each other.
The shadow should therefore be calm, mysterious and layered, i.e. transparent.


In the treatment of light and shade, one must always handle the bright parts of the drawing with a crisp touch, in contrast to the treatment of shadows. Therefore, the illuminated portions of a black velvet dress should be rendered with a sharp, crisp black, while the shaded portions should be drawn with a velvety black. Hence, it would be a mistaken approach to use a velvety treatment with white chalk.

If the surface of the drawing paper is smooth and of a gray or darker hue, then the bright parts of the drawing should be emphasized with white lines that allow the underlying color of the paper to shine through. This technique aims to achieve the desired vibrancy of light and is especially appropriate for larger objects to be rendered.

As with all things artistic, it is in the proper execution of technique that true mastery is attained. Thus, the skilled artist must be both bold and precise in the handling of light and shade, employing every method at their disposal to achieve a masterpiece of beauty and brilliance.

How to Draw the Plaster Head

It is most advisable, therefore, to choose a paper of moderate gray tone, corresponding to the E-F plane of luminosity, and on such a paper the modelling and rendering of the light mass of the head drawing will require two shades of white and two shades of faint black before moving to the shadow mass.

  1. Once we have gained clarity regarding the cast’s lighting, following the aforementioned rules, we should sketch out the outlines of the cast with charcoal on the center of the drawing paper for better visualization purposes, extending our arm and holding the paper at a suitable distance. The head, together with the shoulders and neck, forming a unified whole, should occupy the center of the paper, ensuring that the margins on all sides remain equal and proportional.
  2. The shaded mass, along with the reflections, should be gently rubbed with black chalk or charcoal powder to achieve a velvety effect at the degree of darkness appropriate for the reflections. To attain simplicity and uniformity in the shaded mass, it is advisable to periodically squint and observe our subject, i.e., to partially close our eyes, allowing only a reduced level of brightness to filter through the eyelashes, thereby separating the essential from the nonessential and simplifying our perception accordingly.
  3. Once the preliminary work has been completed, we proceed to place the delicate white mass on the paper with a crisp touch, and for comparison purposes, we position it directly adjacent or in close proximity to the model.
  4. Any adjustments that may be necessary as a result of the comparison are then followed by the drawing of the shadow accents, also with a crisp treatment, in such a way that the shading applied the first time remains reflective, i.e. backlit.
  5. Next, we apply the highlight with a stronger white, – in full force only when we are somewhat sure of their position,
  6. Lastly, we add a delicate transitional shade between the paper’s clean base color and the edges of the shadow, rendering a subtle gradient that brings depth and dimension to the composition. Thus, with patience and precision, we achieve a work of art that is both masterful and sublime.
  7. The cardinal rule of painting and drawing is that the background must be serene, layered, and recede into the distance. By doing so, its handling becomes less abrasive, and it will be fashioned with a different texture than the main subject (in this instance, the head).
  • Those who draw a dark background to the bright side of the main subject or a light or vivid background to its shadow side or, without just cause, encircle the drawn head with a halo of light, are indeed in violation of this rule.
  • An erroneous background is also one that exhibits the same intensity of color as the shadow of the head, for colors of the same depth indicate an equal distance, causing the shadowed side of the head to appear to blend with the background.
  • Finally, those who create the head’s shadow and the background behind it with identical texture also err in their ways. In such cases, the need for differentiation is overlooked.

Often, the premature application of transitional and intermediary shades can ruin a drawing if slightly darker tones are used than necessary, a common mistake among novice artists.

This transition, when exaggerated, provides a false value for darker areas and easily turns towards pitch black. The result of this exaggeration is that, exhibiting a stronger plane break than necessary, it lends an over-aged expression to the subject’s head.

It is also desirable that all of these shading levels stand their ground squarely, separately, and without bleeding into one another.

Perceiving Complexity: The Gradual Unveiling of Objects

The main principle to adhere to is that the painting of the head should progress from afar to near, from uncertain to certain, from whole to detail, from light to dark, and from soft to crisp. The gradual progression of these natural stages should never be overlooked.

This process is akin to approaching an object in the distance, where with each step we take, we can discern more and more of its components and details. Our cognitive faculties operate in the same manner, becoming more acquainted with the essence of things the more we immerse ourselves in their intricacies.

For example, from a great distance, a shiny ball appears merely as a glowing speck. As we draw closer, we perceive that it is half lit and half shaded. Nearer still, we distinguish the transition between the bright and the shadowy halves as a distinct gradation. Finally, up close, we observe that even the bright portion has its own degrees of luminosity and that a reflection is present in the shaded portion.

Thus, during the creative process, the drawing must be kept in a state of constant development, and it would be a mistake to restrict it prematurely with definitive lines. Such an act would also limit the imagination’s participation in the endeavor.

The Art of Whole-Hearted Creation: Putting the Design before the Details

The misguided approach of proceeding with an artwork by completing one detail after another is bound to result in a disjointed and haphazard creation. Indeed, even the most gifted poets and writers do not embark on the creation of a novel or drama by immediately penning the first chapter or scene in its entirety, with all its minute particulars. Rather, they first endeavor to gain clarity on the overall design and key elements of the poetic material they intend to develop.

In this way, they establish a coherent and harmonious whole, laying the groundwork for the detailed elaboration to follow. A well-conceived plan is, therefore, an essential precursor to the meticulous execution of any artistic endeavor, and must precede the elaborate elaboration of its various components.

The Duality of Drawing Techniques: The Smoothness of Stumping and the Crispness of Chalk

Allow me to introduce you to the two opposing methods of drawing – the smoothness of stumping (rubbing cloth, Vischer, estompe)  and the crispness of chalk. Representing the two contrasting approaches of treatment, these two tools prove to be far more efficient than the use of charcoal, which as a drawing medium, allows for the application of both methods.

However, emphasizing the contrasting procedures with charcoal can prove to be difficult, demanding more skill and the use of top-quality paper with adequate roughness or “grain,” which can be challenging to acquire. Charcoal also poses the dangerous quality of being easily erasable, tempting one to engage in erratic, indecisive and careless scribbling.

Therefore, it is with great pleasure that I advocate for the use of stumps and chalk, which offer precision and finesse in their respective techniques, providing a sense of balance and harmony in the creative process.

The Art of Perfection: Drawing Inspiration from the Masters of Antiquity

For if one were to repeatedly behold and keenly observe the old, illustrious statues (or their plaster casts) that present the human form in its utmost perfection, then in the act of drawing them, the student of art, when faced with a living model, will not be inclined to focus on individual flaws and unsightly details, as is often the tendency of novice and untrained artists lacking a discerning eye.

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