Australian Fine Artist

Life Drawing and Painting

 Tutor: David Chen

An important thing to remember when drawing or painting the human figure is to look at the overall shape created by the body and the pose. The positive and negative shapes in and around the body are an important compositional element in your artwork. Understanding how to make these work together is important.

(NOTE: Drawings of nude female figures follow in this article)

Positive shapes are those made by the model and anything they may be sitting on, leaning against, or that is ‘cutting’ into their body like surrounding cushions or draping material. Negative shapes are those in the background or surrounding areas that are not an important element in the depiction of the figure.

When you look at your model and have worked out a pose that you like, and that they can hold for you to draw or paint you need to decide what are the important aspects that you want to emphasize, and what you want to remove or reduce. the decision-making of what is important, what your focal point is and what features you may wish to bring out more, will help you in deciding what are your positive and negative shapes.

You may wish to bring in some shapes that are not in the composition, you may wish to put in a window to indicate where the light is coming from, or put a painting on a wall to help to create a more unified painting. Alternatively, you may wish to include something as part of the positive shape with the model, like some interesting cushions, as I did for my painting during the session.

These ideas can all be worked out when you do your preliminary sketches. As with all types of art, drawing is the foundation of painting. When painting the nude figure, quick sketches get your ‘eye in’ and help you to familiarize yourself with your model. the usual routine for a life drawing class is to begin with very quick 1 to 3 minute sketches and then move on to a few longer 5 to 15 minute observations. As you work through these drawings, you will notice that you gain confidence drawing your model, and you will start to see the things that make their body unique and interesting. You will also hopefully, start to see the positive and negative shapes in and around the model.

By the end of your preliminary drawings you should have a good idea of the tones that help to give the body form, the light source, the shapes and the basic composition you would like to use for your painting.

When you begin to paint your model, do so as you would any other subject. Start with your darks and biggest shapes, block in the big areas and remember to refrain from going into detail or lighter tones too early.

Look for the shapes not only of your model, but around them and how each shape relates to the others. Looking at all the shapes will help you to see if for example, you have the arm on the correct angle to meet the knee if it is on it, or the gap between an arm and the torso is too wide or too long. Each shape relates to another and each one will help you to get the proportions correct. Even without too much knowledge of anatomy, you can still obtain a good result by careful observation, and making sure that you have your lines and shapes working.

After that, you can concentrate on the light and colours. Getting the tonal values and colours working will help to create the form that shows the shape of the model, and putting in both warm and cool colours of the body and reflected by the light and surrounding objects, will also give it life and form. Remember that in some parts of the body the blood is closer to the skin making it warmer, and in other spots there is more flesh so that may be cooler. The light will also affect the skin’s temperature, so as it goes into shadow it will look cooler, and if the light is a warm light, that will be reflected in the skin.

I have included amples from this week’s session below (3 minute sketches, done with a 2B pencil on paper), and the painting (3 versions, as it was completed later). The group decided on the final pose which was a standing position in contrast to the reclining poses in the drawings. David adjusted the face in the painting, changing the angle of the eyes, to show how he had seen the model from my viewpoint, but the rest is my work, and the final adjustments were done in my studio from memory, to help the head ‘sit’ more comfortably on the shoulders.
life drawing 1 life drawing 2 Life painting-1

Above: Notice that the neck and head look wrong.

life painting-2

Above: I worked on the hair, shoulder and back, adding some cool colour to add form.

life painting-3
Above: The oil sketch now looks better, as the head and body now look connected and the shoulder and under the elbow are looking more like I remember wanting to paint, with cooler colours pushing the body back behind the arm, and the hollow created by the back bone defined a bit better.

Notice that the cushions in the foreground are part of the positive shape created by the model, and the painting on the wall and drapery are negative shapes around her are only a support for the composition.

If you are interested in beginners’ drawing or painting lessons, I can be contacted by filling in the feedback section in this blog or emailing me at:

Lessons begin at $44 per 1 hour session, per student, including GST. Groups are welcome.
I am also available for demonstrations and art lessons for clubs and art societies after hours.

For more advanced classes refer to David’s website details below.

Please note that David does not allow photography in his workshops. Students may photograph their own work at home after the sessions, but any alterations by David should be acknowledged.

David Chen’s workshops are in very high demand and many are booked out in advance, but you can go on to a waiting list as sometimes spaces open up. If you would like to go on the waiting list, you can contact David via his website:

Please mention you have been referred by Janice Mills.

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