4 Simple Steps to Drawing from Life

One of my jobs here in Florida is teaching life drawing at the Naples Zoo. I alternate classes; one week I’ll teach drawing animals, and the other week I’ll show my students how to draw botanicals. In these classes, I teach people to truly observe and replicate.For the purpose of this article, I will demonstrate the process I use for drawing from life. Whether you choose to put your skills to the test out in nature, or you decide to go with a photo to start, this method will help you develop as an artist.And, it can be applied to any subject matter because, regardless of topic, the same theory is at the core: You must see things as basic shapes first, and then add tones and blending techniques for dimension

The Initial Sketch

In this step, you learn the importance of angles. Above is an initial sketch of a bobcat. I manipulated the image of the drawing to be darker than what it really is, so it’s easier to see.

At this point in the process, draw lightly so you can easily make any needed changes. If you look closely at my bobcat sketch, you can see my “working lines” where I erased and made corrections.

You can also see where I drew the straight lines onto the drawing to show the angles of the form. In reality, objects are usually not as rounded and curved as you think. These straighter edges, helps make drawings look more realistic.

By drawing the angle lines in, it is easier to see the distances between shapes. For example, you can clearly see the distance between the legs and from the head to the leg in the bobcat sketch above.

As you draw, it’s always important to visually measure things. Ask yourself, “How far over, and how far up?” when drawing one shape to another.

Simple Line Drawing

Now it’s time to look over the sketch to make it’s accurate. Double-check all the shapes of your subject to be sure they are the right size and placement. Then you can remove all the angle and working lines from the drawing with a kneadable eraser, which leaves a simple line drawing to build on.

At this point, you can analyze your subject and place the shadow areas into the drawing. In my drawing above, you can see that this helps describe the contours seen in the curved areas and muscle regions. And what’s more, at this stage, the dimension is already evident.

Applying “Color”

This is the stage where the blending is applied with a stump or tortillon. This can establish the illusion of color in your drawings. For example, blending helped establish a sense of color for my bobcat drawing.Make sure you have enough graphite on the drawing before you start blending by building up your tones enough with the pencil first. Make your contours dark enough to still show through after blending.

Make sure you have enough graphite on the drawing before you start blending by building up your tones enough with the pencil first. Make your contours dark enough to still show through after blending.

When you are ready to blend, use a light touch so you do not rough up the paper. And, try to make the tones as smooth as possible.

Adding Details

This is the finished drawing. Remember, this is sketching from life in a sketchbook, and not designed to be a framed piece. This bobcat is a lot looser than the illustrations I do for my books.

I added some background tones to make the Bobcat stand out. By doing this, you can see how the reflected light shows up along the edges. The darkness also gives the essence of depth behind the cat.

This is also the stage to add details. Note the spots where I added to the fur. Each area is different and follows the contours of the cat.

Studying the patterns and not placing them in too harsh is key at this step. In my sketch, the bobcat’s details vary in tone and have been blended out for softness. If I drew the spots at the same value dark and with the same shape, they would look like polka dots. If any areas of your subject become too dark or a little too unwieldy, use a kneaded eraser to gently lift out some highlights.