What Figure Drawing Teaches Me About Characterization

Disclaimer: None of these drawings are finished (they’re all mine, of course), nor do I claim any mastery in figure drawing whatsoever! They’re also nude, though I censored the detailed ones.

I used to draw in college, but then travel and writing and life in general took over for a while. Still, I’ve found that different artistic 20140211_204013pursuits can really inform and inspire each other, and so this year, with final edits on WORDLESS due, my sequel moving ahead full swing (also due), and other projects in the wings (and occasionally stealing the spotlight for a few moments of writing time), I thought it was, in spite of all the hecticity, a perfect time to take up drawing again.

I enrolled in a figure drawing class, followed by an open session where the model poses without an instructor present, and I’ve since learned a lot from both a 20140211_203805teacher and simply by doing it myself. Not only about drawing—about writing, too, particularly characterization. While I’ve been sharpening my rusty drawing skills by sketching elbows and collarbones, I’ve also been focusing on how I approach building my characters.

Sound odd? Maybe. But something about sitting (or standing) in front of an easel for hours really awakens my inner muse.

So, without further ado, here’s where I usually start drawing, and where I often start building my characters on the page:

Gesture (Drawing)

Gesture drawing is a quick (1-3 minute)  attempt to capture on a flat, still surface (often my newsprint pad) the energy and movement of aGestures C - A Strickland figure. You don’t need a clearly defined and detailed person at this point; you’re really trying to draw something else, and too many details can often weigh down such energy.

To me, this movement is much like the energy of my characters on the page: what they want and what they’re doing to get it. As several great writing instructors have said: on every page, at any given time, it should be obvious what your character wants. So, much like an artist often first draws a gesture to capture the model’s energy before settling in for the long haul, in order to avoid spending hours on something flat and dull, it’s important to give readers a sense of your character’s motivation and momentum at all times, before you go launching off into the other details and risk bogging down the story. But obviously, if you only have movement and no detail, you have all action and no character, so don’t stop there….

Contour (Drawing)

Contour at its most simplistic.

Contour drawing is what it sounds like: tracing the edge of the figure to capture their overall outline. For me, this type of drawing has always been a crutch, the next step after the stick figure. (NOT that there aren’t masterful contour drawings of all sorts; this is me speaking personally, here.) It’s easier for my eyes to find the edges rather than the inbetweens, and this is often where I’ve started… and finished.

In writing, contour drawing is like establishing your character’s parameters, both physically and emotionally—quite literally, it’s a character outline. Sometimes, unfortunately, this is as far as more two-dimensional characters get.

Writers can masterfully outline characters on the page in a way that isn’t so, “Hi, I’m tall, seventeen-years-old, and endowed with a six-pack, dark eyes, and a moody temperament.” Those are all important details, but if they come all at once, it paints a pretty simplistic picture. Much like a lot of great contour drawings, plenty can be suggested by having unfinished lines, foreshortening, or, say, leaving off a foot that just sticks too far out of the frame to be practical to include. The model has that foot, and you know it’s there, but do you need to draw it?

Reclining C - A Strickland
I introduced a little more shading, but this is still mostly contour.

With a character too clearly defined, they’re sort of written into a small, cramped box. We want a sense of their boundaries, but more importantly, their hidden depths (and heights): in other words:

Value (Drawing)

My drawing teacher handily defines value as “where light meets dark.” This is where we get a sense of the three-dimensional shape and volume and weight in a drawing, all where the brightness intermingles with darkness… or where one overpowers the other.

Sitting 2 C - A Strickland
Still too heavily reliant on contour, but getting better! I should have spent about five times as long on this one (there’s still time!), so don’t mind the rough feet and the “stool” (that barely warrants the name).

To me, this applies perfectly to writing. If a character is too obviously delineated, this can throw off the sense of value. For example, in drawing, if you’re trying to discover the brightest brights and the darkest darks, you can’t have a big fat line crossing between them to show where one starts and the other ends. Sort of spoils the effect. You need that subtle interplay that almost better suggests where the boundaries of this person are (whether in drawing or writing) and where the person crosses them.

Sitting C - A Strickland

You character’s values—what they need (not just want), fear, love, despise; how much they’d hurt or help someone; else how far they’ll rise, how far they’ll fall—are just as important, if not more important, than anything else, for building a fully formed character that can almost step off the page and shake your hand (or spit on you). They still need those contours and energy so they’re not just an amorphous blob of shadow, but this is their core, their substance, the very clay from which they’re made. (Aaaand now I’m bringing in sculpting, so I’d better just stop.)

P.S. Just for fun, here’s a portrait progression that follows nearly every step I’ve discussed (from flat contour to more and more value), with my teacher yelling over my shoulder the entire time (okay, maybe not yelling) to push myself harder—like a good critique partner or editor. The “final draft” still isn’t perfect, and I’m by no means a master at either drawing or writing, but it’s nice to know that I can improve. Drawing, like writing, just takes a lot of practice.

Portrait 1 - A StricklandPortrait 2 - A StricklandPortait 3 - A Strickland


What type of art (or anything) informs and/or inspires your writing?

adriannestricklandAdriAnne shares a home base in Alaska with her husband, but has spent two cumulative years living abroad in Africa, Asia, and Europe. While writing occupies most of her time, she commercial fishes every summer in Bristol Bay, because she can’t seem to stop. Her debut YA sci-fi/fantasy, WORDLESS, is coming August 8th, 2014 from Flux Books. You can follow her on Twitter and like her on Facebook.

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