Figuring Out Figure Drawing

On Thursdays the Palette and Chisel runs one long-pose session on the 3rd floor, and one short-pose session on the 2nd floor. The first time I attended the long-pose session, I took my time and aimed for accuracy.
When I arrived I had to find a place at the back to work. There were a lot of painters at the session. This was their second week on the pose, and they had already claimed the prime real estate. My drawing was somewhat dry and stiff, but I liked the results. It was accurate, which was my main goal.

The second time I attended the Open Studio, I went to the short-pose session. At one extreme, we practiced one-minute poses, which were good for loosening up and looking for the largest gestures in the figure. I trashed those. At the other extreme we practiced 30- minute poses, which I found frustrating. They were too long to not want to launch into a full-scale drawing, but too short to draw as slowly and carefully as I felt I needed to.

I got the best result when I went a little more abstract, reducing the figure to sharp angles and simple lights and darks.


My best drawings were the three-minute ones below. The time was short enough to force me to go loose and easy but long enough to actually get something that looked like the model.


The model matters. This one was imaginative and expressive, calling on all of us to get the motion of her body–its dynamism–into our sketches.

I told my teacher I liked the long-pose best, but he reminded me that poses of varying lengths have different skills to teach me, and these figure sketches helped me figure that out.

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On Drawing: Seeing, Feeling, Knowing

Sometimes, in the course of learning how to do something as complex as drawing, it’s important to write down the big lessons learned. Here are three that have been key for me.

The first was that learning to draw is about learning to see–not symbolically, for a subject’s meaning, but aesthetically, for its form. Accurately judging placement, proportion, and perspective is the key to representation. Cezanne said it best. “Monet is only an eye, but my God, what an eye.”


The second was that learning to draw is about learning to feel–with a pencil. Learning to feel with a pencil is not pouring the same sentimental wash of pretty color over every subject. It is searching with the pencil for the distinctive features of a subject: the texture of its surface, the direction of its energy, or the balance of its forces.


The third is that learning to draw is about knowing how things are built. Drawing a portrait well demands anatomical and structural knowledge of the head as a whole and of each part individually. We only “see” some things if we “know” they are there.

the nose

An eye, a heart, and a mind. No wonder learning to draw is so difficult.


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Saying Uncle: On Giving Up

Originally I was using this site as an artist’s portfolio, a place where art directors in the children’s book world could access my work. I had written, illustrated, and self published one book of poems for children, but I wasn’t having much success trying to find a publisher for my second or third books. Worst of all my narrow focus on producing a children’s book was limiting my growth. So I did what everyone tells you never to do.

I cried uncle. I gave up. And it was one of the best things I ever did for my art.

First I painted abstractions, compositions of simple shapes that allowed me to experiment with different ways of putting paint on a canvas. With brush, with rags, with fingers, I used everything from thin watercolor-like washes to  thick, juicy impasto. Then I took to sgraffito, scratching out monsters, demons, and love cowboys by the dozens, filling the walls of my home with anything that bubbled up from the deeper recesses of my mind. And when I grew sick and tired mucking about in my subconscious, I took a hard turn right into realism, setting out to master portraiture and the human figure.

I don’t know know where I am going, or where this blog is going. But I do know that giving up on getting somewhere is sometimes the only way of getting anywhere.


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The Railto Cafe, Denver

Not an image for a kid, I realize. But summertime is sketching time, and sketching time is play time, and play time is kid time–for me at least–so there, that about justifies including this sketch of the 16th Street Mall in Denver. It was early morning. I was having a coffee at an outdoor table at Starbucks. It was a lovely little spot to watch the city come to life, the businessmen clicking by in their shoes, the tourists strolling out for breakfast, the delivery trucks starting to make their rounds. Ah, Summer!

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The Roller Skaters (from the Sketchbook)

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Baby Binky’s Red Binky

Little Baby Binky
See him sinking deep?
Little Baby’s Binky
Puts a boy to sleep.

Little Baby Binky
There’s no need for sheep.
Little Baby’s Binky
Lets his Mommy sleep.

Little Baby Binky
Sleeping in a heap.
Little Baby’s Binky
Makes his Daddy weep.

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Picnic Palms

This is a sketch from my Western sketchbook, a picture of palms in a picnic area in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. The bright light of the Mohave desert in June is not something to be trifled with–but trifle I did. While visiting my father this summer, I got up early every morning to sketch and draw around town and in the desert, before the heat made any work out of doors unbearable. This is a lovely little place called Rotary Park. There’s a nice promenade that takes you all the way down to the London Bridge, grassy spots with shady trees where the locals walk, jog, and practice yoga in the morning, and a sandy beach for swimming, picnicking, and sunbathing. An oasis.

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Greg’s Muse

The muse is a demanding sidekick, a greedy little inspirational figure, always digging his chin into our shoulders, always calling for another song, another painting, another act of artistic derring-do. Even on a Spring day, with the lilacs riding their purple ponies fresh through the open window, he calls us back to our instruments, like a bored monarch distracting himself from his own riches–and his harem bickering in the bath! An artist is a fool for a ghostly king, and there’s nothing to do but put a smile on our faces and play him yet another tune. This one’s for my friend, Greg.

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Illya Kuryakin

Who knows what a self-portrait says about an artist? When I look at this one I think of Illya Kuryakin, the Russian spy in Man From U.N.C.L.E.? Maybe it’s the turtleneck that reminds me of Illya. Or maybe it’s the strange, alien, enigmatic character of the face. Illya was much more handsome, the 5th Beatle, they called him. But his persona was built on half-light and absence, concealment and silence. As David McCallum, the actor who played Illya said, “No one knows what Illya Kuryakin does when he goes home at night.” In any case, this is me, as a modern, abstract, Secret Agent man, a sort of Mod Brainiac.

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This little happy chick is called Narcissus. Closed in on himself, he is a picture–for his eyes only. He is his own fine feathered friend! We really can’t blame him, if he doesn’t pay us any mind. Look at that tail! But oh how we wish he would come out to play! Out in the sun, so all of us could see his lucky rear–and he could see ours!

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