Figure Drawing For Artists: Making Every Mark Count

by Steve Huston

The two most fundamental concepts in Steve Huston’s approach to figure drawing are structure and gesture—the parts and the relationship between the parts.

“To understand and use the idea of structure well, it’s best to think like a sculptor, meaning we build our drawing and painting (as in sculpture) through a series of constructed forms… Think of it as the scaffold on which to hang your designs and rendering techniques.”

“Constructed forms automatically feel three dimensional when done well because the lines move over the form. Another way to think of it is that every mark we make, whether carefully rendered or loosely sketched, should act as a visual arrow.”


“Gesture is the connection, the relationship between the shapes… Gesture is the lifeline embedded inside any living form… This gestural idea makes your art look natural… It keeps our drawings from looking stiff, mechanical, and pieced together. It’s what gives the subject a lively and organic quality.”

Gesture is the long axis curve of the structure. “Gesture is defined by the long axis because all body parts connect end to end… Any artist who just focuses on the pieces ends up with pieced-together results. Art’s job is to orchestrate life into something powerful, effecting, and meaningful—something greater than the individual parts… Gesture is the chef’s secret sauce.”

“The longer and more graceful the gestural curve, the more smoothly the eye moves over the various forms… Always err on the side of the more dynamic. That means, if the gesture is curved, make it more curved. If the shadow is dark, make it a little darker.”

Huston also discusses contrapposto poses, where the body’s weight is unevenly distributed, generally causing hips and shoulders to adjust at opposing angles. “Why is this so important? Because as soon as the weight shifts, the pose becomes dynamic. It becomes asymmetrical. Those pose has more potential energy, and that feels more alive to us. It’s the play between symmetry and asymmetry that’s the real meat of good design. It implies change is about to happen. That’s interesting. In storytelling, they call it drama, and it will keep you busy for the rest of your career.”

The book includes a chapter on perspective. “When you draw, just imagine the surface of your paper—called the picture plane—is a window… The model faces away, leans against, and tilts in and out relative to that plane.”

“The tilt gives us the most trouble because we are telling, in effect, a lie. The paper is flat. It has no depth. And yet, we want our audience to feel the torso bending and tilting into that flat plane.  As we build out the drawing, we want them to feel that muscle and bone bulge off the surface. We aren’t creating depth, space, or anything like that; we are creating the idea of it—curves and corners, my friends, curves and corners.” Huston recommends exaggerating the tilt for a more dynamic drawing.

The book also includes a chapter called The Laws of Light. “It may seem impossible to the uninitiated, but the rule of different value = different plane lets artists take brush or pencil to flat paper or canvas and make it look like rocks, or water, or a figure, or all of those things.”

“If we try to capture all the subtle values one mark at a time, as we might assume Zorn did, it’s overwhelming and we’ll almost certainly fail. So, we fall back on one of our earliest strategies: big and simple, followed by small and complex. We start with the foundational ideas and save the subtle details for later, if at all.”

Huston explains the two-value system. “The only values we’re obligated to show our audience are the light and shadow values. And we’re thinking big and simple, so we only need to find two values; one value for the light and one value for the shadow.  We can certainly add rendered value onto those two values. In fact, we can add as much detail as we want. That becomes an added step by turning the two values into two value ranges.”

“If the beginning of the shadow is a corner, then the halftone’s most important job is to round the corner. The more gradation, the rounder the form gets. That means we can render those spheres and tubes so they are completely convincing. Our two-value system becomes two value range once we add halftone. (By the way, it still needs to pass the squint test.)”

“When those values are pushed toward the extremes of light and dark… it’s called chiaroscuro, a Renaissance term meaning light-dark. It means playing one value against the next for dramatic effect… The safest thing to do, until you’ve really nailed the chiaroscuro idea, is keep the shadow detail simple. Use line. Stay away from the reflected light stuff. It just makes drawing harder in the beginning. Who needs that?”

“Stay light with your lines as long as possible. It pays off.”

Reclining Redhead, 2005, Steve Huston. Gouache, pen and ink on paper.


Part Two includes chapters on drawing the various parts of the body: the head, the torso, arms, hands, legs, and feet.  Huston offers this tip for dealing with a twisting torso. “An S-curve isn’t always a twist, but a twist is always an S-curve.”

There is also a section on materials. “Every material has its limitations. Don’t try to get deep darks from a hard pencil…. I use pencils in earth-tone colors. Why? A brightly colored pencil doesn’t work well for shading. Shadow is the absence of light. Bright colors suggest light.”

The author explains how to hold a pencil correctly. “A relaxed grip is so important because you want to make sweeping strokes like an orchestra conductor, meaning from your shoulder and not your wrist or finger joints. Your line quality will be nervous and scratchy if you draw from your fingers.” He also explains a technique used by automotive and entertainment designers for building up values with markers.

Huston taught classes at Art Center College of Design and workshops at Disney, Warner Brothers, and Dreamworks. He presents a challenging topic without overwhelming the reader and he writes in a casual style which reveals a sense of humor: “You could spend a fortune on the perfect setup, but, really, you don’t need many resources to be an artist. Start simply. Start cheaply. You can always ease into massive debt later. There’s no hurry.”

“Art is not designed to convince the rational mind. Science handles that. Art, at its most powerful, appeals to the emotions… No matter how fantastic the worldview is, it needs to be absolutely consistent. Only then, will the head relax and let the heart take control… Focus on gesture and structure with every mark you make and it will lead you to great things.”

Huston, Steve. Figure Drawing for Artists: Making Every Mark Count. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers, 2016. Buy from

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