Rendering the Figure, Part-One (principles)

Abrieviated steps of this tutorial (click to enlarge)

To view a high resolution file of the finished drawing click Here.

Some Important Concepts to Understand

Before moving forward, it’s necessary to address some key concepts and terms. Below is a ‘standard’ full value range sphere lit from the top-left, categorized in 9 values. Value number 1 is white and 9 is black. The light in this case hits the sphere most directly on the top left, making it a pure white value #1 and the ‘lightest light’. Moving along the surface of the sphere away from the light, it gradually becomes darker into the light-halftones, half-tones, dark half-tones, until finally reaching the core-shadow. The core-shadow is the point in which direct light no longer reaches the surface. In most circmstances there is some light that reflects back into the shadow shape, making core-shadow little darker then the reflected light. This is what creates the ‘band-like’, linear characteristic of a core-shadow. If there is no reflected light, everything beyond the core-shadow is black (the moon is an example of this, or in other more extreme lighting conditions).

Value Categories on a Sphere (click to enlarge)

Role of Rendering

After accomplishing a solid block-in, i.e. all major ‘architectural’ and proportional problems are solved, you can ‘hand over the job to the rendering crew’.* A common suggestion offered in drawing is to ‘bring the whole things up together/at once’. If you’re working on a shorter pose (say 1 session), it makes sense to build your drawing this way. This helps achieve unity in the drawing.  However, when working on longer poses and when an objective is to bring the drawing to a high degree of form/finish, it’s more effective to use your block-in as the unifying factor and work one area at a time when rendering.

The finished product of a life drawing is not like a photograph, or single ‘snapshot’ in time. It’s many moments woven together by the selective guidance of the artist.  When working from life there are always at least small changes from pose to pose and from day to day. This can be used to the artist’s advantage. Say for example while working on the shoulder you notice a variation of the shadow shape that you find would improve your drawing. As long as you don’t uproot any ‘block-in pillars’, there’s no reason to not take advantage of subtle changes along the way.

Variation of the Shadow Shape on the Shoulder (click to enlarge)

My teacher explained to me once that a hallmark sign of great work is a wide range between the broad and the specific. In other words, a work of mastery grabs a viewers attention from across the room through its broad design, and when he/she is drawn close they see a world of exquisite specificity and uniqueness. This ‘world’ of specificity and nuance is accomplished through the rendering process. This is why it’s helpful to slow down and work one area at a time; to capture the subtle undulations of the form that are unique to the model and time. Jumping around from area to area when working from long poses tends to yield generic looking results and makes dealing with pose shifts more difficult.

At a certain point however, when the artist has become proficient enough, any of these steps can be mixed/matched/combined into a process that works individually.

Where to Begin Rendering and Why

In deciding where to begin I usually look for an area that is both of central importance and contains the full value range of the pose. Then, starting in the shadows I first establish the Darkest Dark in order to judge how dark to render in them. Your initial marks will always appear darker then they actually are unless you are working on dark toned paper. This is especially the case when working on white paper. A common problem related to this phonomenon is the artist will think they have rendered dark enough in the shadows, then proceed to the half-tones and lights and suddenly find a ‘muddy’ looking drawing. This is the result of rendering the core-shadow and shadows too light in relation to the half-tones and lights.

The sphere below expresses how the shadows can appear lighter then they actually are. #1 and #2 appear to be similar in value, but are not.

#2 is a whole step darker then #1, even though it’s part of the reflected light and appears to be the same value

The sphere below is the same as above except the lights and some half-tones have been ‘blown out’, as well as put against a white background. This simulates how dark these same shadows would appear against white paper. Notice how the shadows appear darker in the version below even though both are identical.

The same shadows placed against a white background and blown out lights


To compound this problem, artists will often perceive the lights to be darker then they actually are resulting in both the shadows and lights gravitating towards the center of the value spectrum. This destroys both the value range and value separation of light and shadow and is a very common problem in figure drawing. If you render your shadows and core shadows lighter then they are, you will also need to render your half-tones and lights correspondingly lighter to maintain enough value separation between your lights and shadows. This is referred to as a ‘high key drawing’. The sphere below illustrates what happens when the lights and shadows ‘fall into the center’, resulting in a ‘muddy’ and flat look. It should be mentioned however that there are some instances where decreasing the separation of light and shadow is desirable (i.e. objects in the distance, veiled in a foggy mist, grouping elements/figures into a fixed range so as to not distract from focal areas).

Example of when the darks and lights ‘fall into the center’

Below is a ‘high keyed’ version of the sphere, where all values have been equally bumped up a few steps.

High Keyed version of the Sphere

Color Temperature, Which Pencils To Use?

In terms of color temperature, in this pose I observed a general ‘color temperature theme’ that is a common in many classical works: generally warm in the shadows, cooler in the dark half-tones coming out of the core-shadow, getting warmer moving into the half-tones and light-half-tones, and finally getting cooler again in the lights. In terms of translating this with the 4 colors of ‘chalk’ at our disposal, here is how I broke that down:

Shadows : Mostly Brown and Red with Black where values needed to get darker what is achievable with the brown.

Core Shadow: Black and Brown

Dark Halftones: Black (in order to get a cooler temperature)

Halftones: Black mixing with Brown mixing with Red as values get lighter.

Light Halftones: Gentle light-handed rendering with Red.

Lights: White (to get cooler again)

Color Temperature Map (click to enlarge)

It’s a good idea to at least mentally map out a ‘temperature theme’ before diving in. In painting, I often will create a ‘value-temperature strip’ on my palette to get a preview of those relationships beforehand. I find it’s useful to first concieve of the broad color temperature theme and then find the variations upon it. For example, there will be certain areas that will be contextually warmer or cooler that stand out as exeptions, such as the particular warmth usually found in the ears, cheeks and nose; or the cools found in grey hair or beard etc. In addition, subtle modulations of color temperature on top of a general theme will yield more life-like results. Remember, color is flexible whereas value and drawing are comparatively not. Below exemplifies this: in the hair white and black were deliberately mixed to produce the exceptional cool grey (one of the only places in the drawing), and almost pure red was used in the shadows of the ear.

Especially Warm or Cool areas (click to enlarge)

Click Here to proceed to the next section of this tutorial.

*Attributed to artist Juliette Aristides

All content on this page is © Georgetown Atelier/Tenaya Sims unless noted otherwise. Reproduction of part or all content is forbidden unless arranged with Tenaya Sims.