This year I’ve been on a bit of a quest to improve my figurative drawing, most of my own illustration work (commercial and personal) usually involves landscapes and animals, so it’s an area I’ve not really moved around in much before. So I asked for some tips from a few of my insanely talented illustrator friends, who are all masters of figurative illustration in one way or another. I’ve collected together some of the best tips for anyone else out there, whether you’re starting out in the illustration world or (like me) fancy evolving your subject matter a bit into the world of figurative illustration!
~ Ben O’Brien
Andrew Lyons - “I often look at photo reference when I’m getting warmed-up, stock photographs, or a few Photo Booth shots of myself, and draw from them. Shadows really make the difference for me and turn a fairly plain looking figure into something much more interesting. The pose you choose is everything, some will look good or interesting when you draw them and others just lack any impact or interest. I always illustrate figures first then build my backgrounds around them, but this process could depend on the illustration style.
I tell a story primarily through the use of the figures and their body language. In order to get the right references to work from I sometimes act out scenes myself in front of the camera, making expressions and trying to use certain poses to carry the meaning of the illustration. I tend to break up my illustrations into a kind of collage of different elements, with each different ‘panel’ telling a different part of a story, a bit like the way a comic strip works, except my way of doing it is a lot less organised!”
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Gareth Axford - “I approach drawing figures from an animator’s perspective, one very important lesson to be learned from classic animation is the importance of a strong silhouette. If you can tell what a character is doing or how they are feeling just from their outline then the image is much easier to ‘read’.
A strong silhouette should go hand in hand with a clear line of action (as defined by the mighty Preston Blair, ‘An imaginary line extending thru the main action of a figure’). If you start with the line and build your figure from there you should find your drawings have a lot more dynamism, weight and movement in them. One important thing to remember about the line of action is that is should never be straight or squiggly, one simple arc (or two separate arcs if necessary – one for the body and one for the arms) is all it should take to help you pose your figure – too straight and your character will seem stilted and stiff, too wiggly and you lose any force or dynamism.”
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Marc Aspinall - “Getting figures right takes a lot of practice; and even then there’s always tweaks, ways to improve. Currently I’ve been using an 18” articulated Spiderman figure as reference, shooting him in different positions, pertaining to my working sketch; it’s helped my figurative work a lot, placing those awkward angles and solving foreshortening woes. But adding soul and character to figures isn’t coming from a plastic figure, that comes from my mind. I find with most of my work I tend to overshoot poses slightly, exaggerate expressions; not caricaturing but a halfway between realistic and those of Sasek, Kiraz etc to ensure a lively illustration and something that’s easy to read. A lot can be said with the hands too; they can direct the narrative even; if the face isn’t visible.”
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Steve Antony - “Carry a small sketchbook with you and draw people from observation. Don’t think about styles or how it should relate to your portfolio, just draw with an open mind and try to capture movement without worrying too much about anatomy. For that reason I advise against photo references, but if you can’t get out and draw, then use video as reference. Try drawing family and friends when they’re not looking. I have heaps of sketchbooks of people and it really has helped me become more confident with how I render people into final work. Observational drawing all the way, I say. Once you start thinking ‘how do ‘I’ draw people?’ it’s easy to fall into a trap where your drawings are contrived. I find this approach works for pretty much anything. It’s all about confidence and ‘knowing’ what it is you are drawing. By building up a good sketchbook of observations you are in essence creating a vocabulary of marks that will inform your work.”
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David Cousens - “It’s important to always consider what your characters are feeling when you’re drawing them. Give them a story, even if they’re in the background. Once you’ve chosen your story, before drawing anything, quickly act the poses out in front of a mirror. There are a whole manner of things that you won’t consider until you try to do it (humans shift their weight in very unique ways depending n their mood/clothing/environment). Take a photo as reference. Using photo reference is good, but do it with restraint as images that are slavishly copied from reference look a little flat, be informed by your reference but not limited by it. Additionally, drawings of people are best exaggerated like performers do on a stage, the exaggeration helps the audience read what’s going on and offer more than simple photography can.”
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