The Figurative Artist’s Handbook: A Contemporary Guide to Figure Drawing, Painting, and Composition

by Robert Zeller

Unlike other figure drawing instruction books, this one begins with a 67-page crash course in art history. “Figurative art always conveys a narrative, a point of view. At the present, it is considered vital for a figurative artist to have his or her own artistic voice, and to exhibit some originality. How can you hope to be original, to continue the conversation, if you do not listen to the past, to those who have come before you?”

The instructional chapters of the book are divided by pose category: Standing Figure, Front View; Standing Figure, Back View; Reclining Figure; Portrait Drawing; and Portrait Painting. Here are some of the common themes.

“Gesture is a river of movement, energy, and rhythm that flows through the figure in any given pose… Once you understand gesture you will be able to see the essential rhythm of a pose, which will allow you to properly plan your drawing. Think of gesture as a conceptual road map. Before you start drawing with your hand, first learn to draw with your eyes… Begin by scanning the entire figure for gestures that flow through the various forms, learning to see how all of the parts of the figure are connected… Learn to see this axis of energy first so that when you draw, you will be able to forge greater unity among the various parts of the figure.”

“Account for perspective in the very beginning… Figuring out your eye level will tell you what you are looking up at and what you are looking down on… If you are not aware of your eye level, you will make mistakes in perspective… As artists who work in two-dimensional formats, it’s important for us to remember that our eye level will be the viewer’s eye level.” The author also addresses atmospheric perspective. “If one thing passes in front of something else, give that area a slightly heavier line weight. If it recedes behind something, give it a slightly lighter line weight.”

Colleen Barry, Female Figure, p.155

“One of the most important concepts for a figurative artist to learn is that of balance and weight distribution. Proper understanding of this will give your figure drawings vivacity and a sense of animation that living humans possess. In short, get this concept straight and you won’t draw people who look like mannequins… Determine the tilt, or axis, of the model’s pelvis.” With a standing front view, “look for the two ASIS points on the pelvis.” With a standing back view, observe “the conceptual line that connects the two great trochanters through the lower third of the pelvis… Remember, the tilt always leans in the direction of the bent knee… If one of the legs on your model is bent, the other leg becomes what we call the stand leg… It will always be found ‘under center’ in a standing pose. In other words, where the foot is planted will be the center of the pose.”

The book includes a drawing indicating the big three masses of the body (head, rib cage, and pelvis) as well as 19 joints and bony landmarks. “These landmarks will, if carefully observed, reveal what the boxes, and thus the skeleton, are doing. Memorizing these landmarks is a great help to understanding any pose the model may take.”

Masses and landmarks, p.138

Blocking in refers to a drawing process that moves from the general to the specific, whereby the largest shapes are first mapped out, and then broken down in to smaller, more manageable units. Artists typically only use straight lines until late in the process. In its purest sense, blocking in is a strictly perceptual endeavor. The artist draws only the shapes that are in front of her. She does not think arm, head, or leg. She sees, and thinks, only of shapes… When you begin to block in the figure, do not start on the outside. Begin with the internal, structural lines… Once the major sections are blocked in, and the proportions are accurate, you can then begin to refine things… As long as you stay with the general proportions, do not fear to change anything as needed. Everything is expendable.”

“Great figure drawing always addresses two considerations: the underlying planar/architectural structure, and the structure of the light and shadow hitting the softer surface forms.”

“Each of the major forms should have a dividing line between light and shadow. This line is known as a terminator. Light does not go past the form at that point… Filling in the shadow flatly is referred to as shading. Creating form in the light mass, by carving with directional strokes, is referred to as modeling… In the first pass of modeling, I’m trying to keep the architectural integrity of my block in. I’m also trying to impart a new structure that relies on the incremental gradation of values… Start in the shadows and work your way into the lights… Limiting the range of the values in the shadow is a cornerstone of traditional drawing and painting. In fact, one of the hallmarks of traditional painting is that shadows almost always take a back seat to the light areas with respect to dynamic range. In simplest terms: The lights are more exciting.”

Steven Assael, workshop demo, p.113

“One of the most important things to learn as a figurative artist is how to create a sense of strong light on the form. This helps with modeling, as it provides a greater range of values to work with… The figure should be modeled uniformly, meaning the value range in one area should be working from the same value range as another area. If the light source is close to the model’s head, then her feet should not be lit as strongly as her face. Controlling the light, understanding it, is just as important as getting proportions or anatomy correct.”

Zeller also notes, “Value range is important in portraiture… Higher contrast means more drama, more punch in the graphic quality of the image. Lesser contrast makes things more subtle graphically, less dramatic.”

The author has a few things to say about details “Focusing on detail at the expense of structure is fraudulent. The house needs to be able to stand on its own… It’s a mistake to work on isolated details without having a larger sense of how the light hits the whole form… If you overdevelop the face too soon, you will be locked into a value structure that might not fit the whole figure.”

“What you want to say about the model dictates what you put in and what you leave out of your drawing… And this is key: You do not have to draw the entire muscle to achieve convincing realism. In fact, subtle descriptions are often better when it comes to using anatomy in realistic figure drawings. It is far better to draw the light hitting the muscle than to draw the muscle itself.”

Although most of the book is about drawing technique, there is a chapter on portrait painting. “It is a general rule in traditional painting: Keep your darks thin and transparent and keep your lights thick and opaque.”

Camie Davis Salaz, Narcissus, p.249

“There is only one way to get good at the observation of light on human form: Study anatomy and practice with a live model… Maintaining a sketchbook for your creative ideas is best augmented by the practice of quick figure drawing from the live model. This helps keep your figure-drawing skills sharp, which is important because when not in use, these skills decline rapidly… Open figure drawing sessions have become ubiquitous for two reasons: a resurgence in the popularity of the figure in art, and the fact that such sessions are usually very reasonably priced… The shorter poses that are usually the focus of such sessions provide unique challenges on a technical level.”

“As I said in the opening chapter, the great movements in art cycle in and out of favor, and Figurative Realism is no exception. It appears that its time of ascendancy has come once again. More and more artists are working with the figure in a serious way, and the art establishment has finally stopped treating the trend with disdain. It is an exhilarating time to be working with the figure.”

The book includes beautifully reproduced artwork by old masters as well as many contemporary artists such as Steven Assael, Colleen Barry, Kent Bellows, Aleah Chapin, Sabin Howard, Alexander Kanevsky, Brad Kunkle, Daniel Maidman, Alyssa Monks, Guno Park, Christopher Pugliese, Julio Reyes, Camie Davis Salaz, and Patricia Watwood.

Zeller, Robert. The Figurative Artists Handbook: A Contemporary Guide to Figure Drawing, Painting, and Composition. New York, NY: Monacelli Studio, 2016. Buy from