This guide will help you prepare for your first life drawing class. Whether you’re working in-person or online, there are some strategies to get the most out of your time with the model. I’ll describe the benefits of life drawing, good life room etiquette, some material recommendations, and give you some helpful exercises to keep in mind. The most daunting part is showing up to your first session, but hopefully this guide will have you looking forward to your first class instead.
The Benefits of Life Drawing to Artists
A common misconception about life drawing is that it isn’t useful unless you make figurative art. The life room as a practice is steeped in tradition, but it no longer solely exists in the traditional sense, of long academic drawing and careful measuring. It absolutely can be this if you wish, but classes are as varied as the artists that lead and participate in them. There really is a life drawing session for every kind of artist, and an untutored class can be whatever you choose.
Life drawing not only helps us to describe the human body, but through practice instils an understanding of composition, form and balance to our work. With often limited time to place the body on the page, having to rapidly conjure up a visually appealing image ingrains these skills as second nature. The body becomes a vessel for experimentation through material, mark making and technique.
Practising observational drawing is a core skill, and the life room is the perfect facility for honing it. When you are completely focused in the life room I find that you can forget you’re looking at a person, and it becomes much more about focusing on tone, texture and structure. The silence and time you consistently work through allows you to tap into this kind of concentration more easily when you’re back in your own studio. It’s like a muscle of sorts that needs to be trained. I find that when I’m regularly life drawing, I can focus better on my own work outside of these sessions.
Good Life Room Etiquette
Once you’ve committed to going to your first life drawing class, it’s important to know the appropriate behaviour whilst you’re there. Much of this seems like common sense, but if you’ve never been before it’s good to keep these points in mind so that the model and attendees are comfortable, and can get the most out of the class.
1. The most important rule is to have complete respect for the model. What they are doing is brave, requires great muscle endurance, and is an art form of its own. Brilliant life models can hold poses that seem effortless despite being under great strain. For context it can be interesting to try to hold a pose you’ve seen in a life room, to understand the tension different muscles in their bodies were under for a prolonged time. Never forget that these are people working at their job, and it is never appropriate to touch or take photos of a posing life model unless they have given you express consent to do so.
2. Alongside this you should never get your phone out whilst they are posing. To you it may seem like replying to a quick text, but it’s impossible to know that you aren’t secretly recording or taking photos. When a model is posing you have to pay attention to them and your drawing, and if you suddenly need to do something else then it’s best to leave the session.
3. Arriving on time to your class (especially in person) is very important. If you’re attending a tutored class you should hear the introduction to the session and meet your tutor and model. It is rude to turn up late and be the person opening the door half way through a pose, where the tutor has to re-explain things, the model may be distracted by the movement going on whilst they’re focusing, and the class is distracted by a person moving around and setting up when they’re getting into the zone.
4. Silence is expected in life rooms whilst you’re working. Avoid being the person who is chatting or whispering away.
5. Try not to expect to be brilliant on your first try! Even if you are great at drawing people before your first life class, this is a totally different environment & skill set. You don’t have unlimited time to perfect drawings, and it can be hard getting those first marks down. The life room is a space to improve and grow, and you’ll only get better through practice. No one is great at life drawing until they’ve put countless hours into it.
6. Finally, contributing to a supportive environment in the life room is so important. It’s easy to assume that everyone knows what they’re doing and thinking that you’re the only one who’s new, but this is almost never the case. Everyone there is trying to improve their skills, and it is a lifetime pursuit for many. If you’re given the opportunity to have a chat about each other’s work in class by your tutor, speak up! There’s a lot to learn from your peers.
Choosing Your Drawing Set Up
In general most life rooms will be full of easels or chairs in a circle or semicircle around the model. If you haven’t drawn from an easel before it can feel unnatural, but I would encourage you to try it. Make sure that you stand with the easel on the side of your body that has your dominant hand, and feel free to move it around to suit you. You want to have an unobstructed view of what you’re drawing without looking back over your arm. Make sure to adjust the height of the easel too – you want to be able to naturally reach all of the corners of the paper without straining up or down.
Once you’ve set up the angle and height of your easel, just quickly check around you that you aren’t in anyone’s view. There’s nothing wrong with asking someone if they can move along a little if they’re encroaching on your space. Getting the spacing right at the start of the session saves time later when it starts to bother both of you.
When you stand at an easel keep both feet planted on the ground. It can be tempting to lean and sway but your whole body should really be engaged in the drawing. If you’re standing unstable and shifting around, your drawing will have continually different angles of reference. Some life rooms will have high chairs or stools that you can sit on too, and I’d give the same advice where you should try not to shift around too much during a drawing.
Some life rooms will also have donkey easels that you can sit on. They are a little bench that you straddle and sit on, facing an angled piece of wood that you prop your drawing board on. These can be great for a lower angle on the pose, and give a real sense of stability.
You can also draw from your sketchbook in the life room, on your lap or on a board. This can be useful for quick poses, or for drawings that you want to be able to refer back to in a portable format. Some sessions that are untutored require you to bring a sketchbook and don’t have easels, whereas others you’ll have total freedom, so make sure you check. For your first class I would encourage you to go to a tutored session, so you can hear the advice of someone who’s done lots of life drawing.
Useful Materials to Bring With You
The most common life drawing dry media is definitely charcoal. Many sessions will have some you can borrow, but it’s good to keep a pack in your bag. Developing on your charcoal drawings, conte can be a useful addition. You can reach deeper blacks, and make much more permanent marks with it once your charcoal drawing feels resolved. Most venues won’t allow you to spray fixative on your charcoal drawings inside, so definitely take them home with some newsprint or spare paper in between and spray them, or possibly spray them outside of the venue.
Pencils are of course another key medium. I don’t love using graphite pencils in the life room as I find I end up smudging them when working rapidly. I much prefer using coloured pencils, in black or grey, for similar effect but much greater permanence. Sharpening can be annoying when you’re trying to work through lots of drawings, so I find that a lead holder can be a great addition to your kit to bypass this issue.
Once you’re feeling more confident, pastels are a great way to introduce colour into your life drawings. Painting in the life room can also be rewarding, but you’ll need to check the requirements of the venue. Some won’t allow oil paints, but a watercolour palette is usually fine. Acrylics can be great too if you’re working on a longer pose.
Ink is great for creating rapid, expressive drawings with a brush, or careful considered ones with a dip pen. I personally love the speed at which you can lay down tones and vary your mark making.
Once you’ve tried many of these media at your classes, mixing them together can be an exciting next step. Here I’ve shown a few examples of drawings with mixed media.
Many classes will have some standard paper you can use, usually newsprint or some basic cartridge paper. These are ideal if you’re working through lots of studies, but when you want to make something with greater intention, considering a higher quality paper to bring along will enhance your work. Consider toned paper, the weight of the paper, and the medium you’ll be using on it. I usually bring a variety of a few papers with me to see which I may be inclined to use when I see the poses.
Life Room Exercise Ideas
Once you’ve been to several life classes, you’ll get to know some of the exercises that are regularly used in tutored classes. You’ll find lots of classes have ingenious new methods to offer, but in general there are some classic exercises you’ll encounter. Knowing what they are can be helpful when you find yourself in an untutored class if you’d like to add some structure to your session, or if you’d like an idea of what to expect before you go.
Many life drawing classes begin with quick poses to warm up the class and get you visually engaged. These can be as quick as 30 seconds to a minute, and you’ll have to rapidly capture the essence of the pose in a few marks.
Another is when the model moves around the room or dances, and you are tasked with drawing the movement rather than the model themself. This can be tricky at first but becomes intuitive with practice. The model may stop several times and hold a pose during this movement, and you draw on top of the movement map you’ve created. This makes for a drawing full of vitality and energy
Drawing with your non-dominant hand can be interesting to free yourself up if you’re getting too bogged down in the technicalities. The other hand always has a very different language, and can open up new potential mark making techniques that your dominant hand can adopt.
In a similar vein, making a drawing without looking at your paper heightens your reliance on your observation rather than your own invention, and can teach you to trust what you’re seeing more than what your brain is correcting you to draw on the page.
Prolonged poses are the opposite of these rapid, spontaneous exercises. You may be drawing from the same pose for 30 minutes up to a whole day session, or over several classes. This can be great for achieving a much more developed work that has evolved past being a study.
Continuous line drawing can be a great cure for when your line lacks confidence and purpose, and working out how to describe volume with just line engages you creatively.
Online Life Drawing Classes
Life drawing from a remote session has its own pros and cons. The immediate pro is that the size and shape of your screen become a framing device for the position of your model on the page, like a viewfinder. This can be helpful if you’re working on where to place the figure in space, but also can be a drawback if you begin to rely on it too much and don’t exercise your personal choice. Working in total privacy in your own space can be a huge pro for some people, without having anyone walking around and watching you draw. Although comforting, the slight pressure of drawing in a group can often make me focus better and longer, and the more you do it the more confident you’ll feel anyway.
Remote classes are also brilliant if you are drawing from a remote area, or want access to a specific tutor that lives across the country without having to leave your studio. The freedom of materials you can use in your own space is liberating too, where a venue may not allow you to paint, you can decide for yourself what media you need online.
In terms of drawbacks, working from a screen gives you a huge loss in detail and sense of weight and scale of the figure. There is no way to work from a laptop that will give you the same encounter as drawing from a person a few metres from you. I find it harder to breathe life into these drawings in the same way. Also, losing the immediate interactions you have with classmates and the tutor online can be a drawback. I find that although you can chat online, you miss those important little snippets of one-on-one advice that you can in person. Everyone attending life drawing classes contributes to a community environment, and this is a different feeling on a video call with cameras off.
I’d encourage all artists to try a life drawing class, regardless of their personal practice & experience level. The more you put into it, the more you gain, and it can be very rewarding through the challenges. Often I’ve found that the exercises you find the most frustrating in the life room are the ones to really focus and push at until you make something that you love.