Saturday, 19 July 2014


Learning how to draw is as much about learning how to SEE, as how to manipulate your chosen material.  After all, you can "draw" with anything........charcoal, pencil, brush, crayon......the choice is endless........but if you are to draw well, you need to sharpen not just your pencil, but also your observational muscles.

Before I go any further, I do want to say that I am afraid there are no short cuts to excellence.  You can be given endless numbers of short cuts and hints about how to draw  but at the end of the day, it is only by copious amounts of practice of many of the basic principles of drawing, that you will achieve good quality in your drawing skills.

So - let's just take another look at the business of using PLUMB LINES plus a couple of other pointers - I have highlighted them in bold for you.   I have touched on plumb lines before - the idea of working with a mental grid - but it was a while ago, so I am going to mention it again because I keep seeing students' work which does not take them into account, yet they are so very, very useful.

Here is a quick, student line drawing of a dancer:

On the face of it, not too bad...the weight of the dancer seems to be on her left, standing leg, which seems logical and right;  her head is tilted forwards;  there is a suggestion of three dimensional form.  The arm on the barre looks a bit thin and there is an odd bulge on the other arm, but in general...not too terrible.

But let's look at the original source photo.

Aha...we can see quite a few errors now.  The head is not just tilted forwards, it is turned too.  And is bigger than in the drawing..which helps to show that it is a child. In the drawing, it looks like an adult - children's heads are proportionally larger than adults heads are, in relation to the body.   So...the head, and the arm, have problems with proportions.
And let's use PLUMB LINES to re-see the two images, to find out where the other problems are.  The natural inclination for most students is to draw the outline of the figure from the photo, and then "fill in" the shadows. But the problems seen in the drawing will become clear when I use plumb lines which have nothing to do with outline, and everything to do with seeing with more accuracy.
1. Take Line A.  See how, from the side of her head, the line drops down well outside her knee.  But doesn't.  That leg is further over to our right.  This affects the distribution of weight, and balance of the figure.
2.  Now look at line B.  The side of her head is in line with the centre point between her legs.  But in the drawing, it isn't.

3.  Line runs from the strap of her leotard, to the back of her heel.  In the drawing, we can see that there is an inaccuracy.
4.  Now let's use a line going across........from the back of her raised heel, the line cuts her other leg just below the knee.  It doesn't in the drawing.
5.  Finally - another shift in vision for you...I want you to look at the negative shape between her arm on the barre, and her body.  I have outlined it in brown.  In the drawing, the shape is elongated.  In the photo, it is a tiny triangle.
I think I have shown you that there is a need for honing the skills of observation, and sometimes, it is helpful to use some extra "seeing tools" to help us find greater accuracy.  Eventually, accuracy will combine with artistic feeling to enable you to produce drawings with sensitivity as well as accuracy. 
Having looked at a student drawing, now have a look at this beautiful drawing below.  Notice the use of plumb lines, but also straight lines which help to define angles and changes of direction. You can hold up a straight edge, and compare it against a curve to see the irregularities of the shape in relation to the straight line.
  See how the artist (Harold Speed -  from his book published about 70 years ago!) has so very carefully observed all the subtle changes in the curves of the form, where muscles bunch, and tendons pull straight -  and the subtle changes of form within the body as well as throughout the outline... it is a very fine piece of work, amazingly well observed and not the least bit slapdash or hoping-for-the-best.  This chap knows his anatomy, as well as how to draw it.
 I really recommend that you use these extra visual tools to improve your work, particularly if you have the luxury of time, for example, when working from a photo, as so many do these days.  It may take a little while to achieve the kind of sharpness of observation you can see clearly in Mr Speed's work - but you will get there if you train your eye to see more than just an outline and a bit of shading.  
  • Check proportions carefully
  •   use plumb lines in both directions to check positioning,
  • observe curves, and changes of direction, by using a straight edge for comparison
  • observe the play of light which gives us the form. 
  • observe negative shapes around the body and between forms - these often give us extra clues to us.
  • spend a little time studying the anatomy of the human figure.  This can only add strength to your drawings, both of the nude, and of clothed people (you often have to envision the form beneath the fabric of clothing),  and will help enormously when the photo is inadequate and needs some reinterpretation. 


  1. Thanks for a very useful blog post. I will see how I can apply it to my life drawing sessions I do Tuesdays. I have recently returned to drawing from a life model and having been struggling with proportions and foreshortening. I have often seen articles about using plumb lines and I went to Camberwell, a school renowned for its use of the plumb line in earlier days. However, it wasn't used when I was there in the 70's and I have never quite mastered the technique.

  2. It takes a bit of practice to use the plumb line technique, but if you go to your class armed with something long and straight oil brush, a ruler.....and keep using it, ideally with one eye shut, you will find it extremely helpful. Eventually, you will find yourself using plumb lines continuously, they will be "in your mind" and an automatic reaction to use them when drawing any kind of figure. I use them myself all the time.

  3. Really REALLY useful post - and a timely reminder. Thank you!


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