Part II: Improving Your Speed In Life Sessions

Would you call yourself a slow painter? Do you struggle to get enough completed in a 2–3-hour life session? Maybe you find yourself zoning in on detail right away instead of working on the subject as a whole. Maybe you try to see too many color and temperature changes too soon. Before you know it, time's up, but you feel like you've barely begun!

Well last time, in "Improving Your Speed In Life Sessions," I said "You don't have a time problem. You have a goal problem." Overcoming your time problems starts with setting specific, focused goals. Today, I'm going to take that concept to the next level—Your goals may be different depending on what type of life session you're attending.

To conquer the time limit of a life session, you must set a goal that is appropriate for that type of life session.

Today, I'll recommend some goals for two types of life sessions—gesture drawing and portrait/figure painting. When carefully applied, these goals will be a tremendous help in improving your speed in life sessions.

Recommended Goals
When Gesture Drawing


In my opinion, your goal when gesture drawing should not be to produce a framable work of art. Sometimes that will happen, but most often it won't. But that's perfectly OK, because producing a framable work of art is not the primary purpose of gesture drawing. Rather, the primary purpose of gesture drawing is two-fold:

  1. To sharpen your eye for accuracy
  2. To infuse your drawings with movement and vitality.
Expecting a framable work of art from a gesture drawing session will distract you from the important practice you need. Instead, set a goal that complements that two-fold purpose of gesture drawing above. Here are a few examples of appropriate goals when gesture drawing:
  • To practice drawing a head in proportion to the body
    (See "Drawing a Head In Proportion to the Body)

  • To train your eyes to see the lyrical lines that the human figure naturally creates

  • To practice your coordination in drawing lines that are both accurate and lyrical

  • To practice envisioning the forms before you as 3-dimensional rather than flat
    (See "3 Ways to Conquer Foreshortening")

(For more about gesture drawing, see
"Creating Figures That Look Dynamic, Not Stiff")

Recommended Goals When Painting
A Portrait or Figure From Life


Ideally, I like to create paintings entirely from life. But for me, this usually requires the model to return for multiple sessions, and sometimes that's difficult. If you only have one session with a model, I recommend that you adopt one of the following goals:

  1. To start a painting that you'll complete later from photos
    (This is usually the goal I set, as I very rarely finish my paintings to a satisfactory degree within the time-frame of a single life session.)
  2. To create a study for another painting that you'll complete later from photos
  3. To practice on one weak area
    (Make this one of the fundamentals—drawing, value, edge, temperature or color.)
As I'm sure you can tell, I'm a stickler for working from life. But photos can be a great aid, and I admit to using them frequently. If you intend to start a painting from life and finish it later from photos, here are a few things you need to know about photography that will help you save time in the life session:

  • Cameras do a great job of "drawing" (provided you avoid lens distortion)
    You should always aim to draw as accurately as possible. But you can save lots of precious time if you remember that your drawing can be fine-tuned later from your photos. In a life painting session, if you can't establish a reasonably accurate preliminary drawing in 25 min or less, I recommend you practice drawing from life with dry media until you can. Becoming more efficient at drawing will free up valuable time to document the other things your camera has a harder time capturing (see 3rd bullet).
  • Cameras do a great job of capturing detail (provided you focus properly)
    I know you know this already, but we all need reminding. Detail should be your very last concern. It's so easy to waste time caught up in the details—believe me, I know. I suspect this is because we adopt a "walk away with a masterpiece" goal. Capturing detail is something cameras do very well, so take a few photos at the beginning and then make a conscious effort to ignore the details while painting. As you paint, document the necessities first (see next bullet), and you'll often be pleasantly surprised to find a bit of time near the end of the session to throw in a few details.
  • Cameras usually do a poor job of capturing values, edges, temperatures and colors the way the human eye sees.
    These are the fleeting elements you should use your precious time capturing from life, as they will probably be lost in your photos.


In Summary…

  • Your goals may differ depending on what type of life session you're attending.
  • Set a goal that is appropriate for that type of life session.
  • When gesture drawing, don't expect to produce a framable work of art. Rather, use the opportunity to practice an area of weakness.
  • Unless you're able to work on a painting for multiple life sessions,
    I recommend treating your work as practice or as a study.
  • Understand the strengths and weaknesses of photography,
    and set goals for the life session accordingly.

Does the huge array of paint color options at your art store cause you grief? So many beautiful colors; so little space on one's palette (and often, so few bucks in the art budget). How do you know which colors you really need? That's what I'll talk about next time in "The Very Best Color Palette"!

See you then,

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Improving Your Speed In Life Painting Sessions

Isn't it easy to run out of time when working from life? You're happily painting along, immersed in your craft while enjoying some nice music and refreshments. Slowly and unwittingly, you drift off to Artsyland, a realm that knows no time. Every now and then, you sense something is wrong when a break comes way too soon. But then the model resumes her pose, and you quickly fall again under Artsyland's hypnotic spell.

…Suddenly, someone announces "last 5 minutes!"

You blink. "What?! This can't be!" You look at your canvas. You have a rough outline of the head and a hairdo. Breathlessly, you slap down a few shapes that vaguely resemble the features of the face, and you vignette the rest.

I want to assure you that you're not alone. Working within the time constraints of a life session is a challenge for any artist, myself included!

You may be surprised to hear this…

The reason you run out of time isn't that you don't have enough time. You don't have a time problem. You have a goal problem.

To help you with your goal problem,  I'll ask you a question… 

When you attended your last life session,
what was your goal?

Don't just say, "I didn't have a goal." You didn't show up by accident. Something made you want to be there. So what was it? Why did you go? Was it for one of these reasons?

  1. Creating a good piece
  2. Getting better at figure painting
  3. Having fun
These might seem like good goals. But by themselves, each of these is likely to send you straight to Artsyland. Goals like these will continually leave you feeling as though you didn't have enough time.


"Creating a Good Piece"
Is Not a Good Goal

I'll let you in on a secret of mine. For every decent head study I share on Facebook, I've got one zillion "turkeys." If my goal for each of those head studies had been "creating a good piece," I would have been disappointed one zillion times.

We all want to create masterpieces. And every now and then, a life session will yield a great result. But most of the time, it doesn't. My recommendation is this: when you attend a life session, always strive to do your very best, but treat it as practice. When you do this, the pressure of creating a masterpiece is lifted. Now you are free to learn and actually improve your skills.


"Getting Better at Figure Painting"
Is Not a Good Goal

At first glance, this might seem like the "correct answer." But this goal is likely to slow your improvement for one reason—it lacks focus.

A runner's arm muscles are usually not as large as a body builder's. You would think that running—an exercise involving the whole body—would result in large muscles over the whole body. But it's obvious why that isn't so—building large arm muscles simply isn't the focus of running. If you want large arm muscles, you need to choose exercises that focus specifically on arm muscles.

Just like running involves the whole body, life sessions involve every fundamental art discipline (drawing, value, edge, temperature, color). Just like you wouldn't hope to build huge arms from running, you shouldn't hope to improve at any one art discipline unless you set a specific goal.

Instead of your goal being "getting better at figure painting," choose one of the fundamental art disciplines to exercise (drawing, value, edge, temperature or color). Now you've got some real focus!

Now, I know you're thinking, "How does this help me improve my speed?"

Well, like this: When you focus on just one discipline, you say "no" to all the other concerns that vie for your time ("No details, I'm working on value tonight!"). The more you focus on that one discipline, the quicker you'll get at accomplishing it well the next time. Before long, it'll be second nature. When that happens, it's time to focus on the next discipline.


"Having Fun"
Is Not a Good Goal

Actually, "having fun" is not a bad goal. If that's your goal, I'd like to encourage you to never stop having fun! But while "having fun" isn't a bad goal, it's also not a particularly good goal by itself.

If you often experience disappointment when your painting doesn't turn out as well as you had hoped, it may be an indication that, deep down, your goal wasn't really just "to have fun." If this sounds familiar, I'll encourage you to pick just one discipline to work on (read "Why 'Getting Better at Figure Painting' Is Not a Good Goal" above). Not a lot of pressure. Just one thing. If you learned something about that one thing by the end of the session, you've succeeded. And I'll bet you had fun, too.

Next time, in "Improving Your Speed In Life Sessions (Part 2)," I'll take this concept to the next level and share why you need different goals depending on the type of life session.

See you then!

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3 Ways to Conquer Foreshortening

You know it's not impossible. You've seen it done well before. You know your painting doesn't have to look flat, even though your canvas is flat. But no matter what you do, you can't get that foreshortened arm to look like it's coming toward you. Instead, it just looks too short!

Today, I'd like to share "3 Ways to Conquer Foreshortening." But first, I recommend that you check out "The 4 Actions for Accurate Proportions."  These "4 Actions" are your first step to successful drawing–including drawing foreshortened limbs!

Now for "3 Ways to Conquer Foreshortening."


1. Simplify Into Basic Forms

Anatomy, in all its complexity, can be intimidating. That's why it's very helpful to envision the parts of the body as simple forms. This type of simplification is a huge help with foreshortening.

For example, when the masses of the forearm are simplified into a cylinder and box, it's much easier to envision what that form would look like foreshortened, and such foreshortening becomes easier to draw.

2. Use Lines to Show
Overlapping Forms

In the first drawing below, the forearm doesn't look foreshortened. It just looks too short. But in the second drawing, it's obvious that the forearm is foreshortened.

What made the difference? Just a few overlapping lines at the wrist and elbow were all that was needed to communicate that the hand overlaps the forearm, and the forearm overlaps the upper arm. Now, the forearm looks foreshortened instead of too short.

3. Try This Little Trick

I almost always use this little trick when drawing foreshortened arms and legs…
First, draw the hand or foot in the correct place;
then draw the arm or leg.

The foreshortened shapes of the leg would have been more difficult to draw accurately had the foot not been placed first. By drawing the foot first, it was much easier to see that just a few simple lines were needed to communicate the masses of the leg.

Whew! We have covered a lot of ground in this series on the figure! I've shared how to achieve accurate proportions, how to create figures that are dynamic and not stiff, how to draw a head in proportion to the body…

But there's one big challenge I haven't discussed yet. Tune in next time for "Improving Your Speed In Life Sessions."


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Drawing a Head In Proportion to the Body

It's a very common problem—your hand was flying during that gesture drawing session as you raced against the clock to capture the model before you. You thought everything looked good. But now, stepping back from your work, you notice a big problem (or shall we say a "little" problem)—A full-grown adult was modeling, but a little child ended up on your drawing paper. What happened?

In the rush of things, you didn't notice that you had drawn the head much too big for the body (or perhaps the body too small for the head).

For me,
the greatest help in overcoming this problem was memorizing a diagram of standard head-height proportions like the one below (drawn by me after Andrew Loomis). Notice the figures have been divided into 8 "head-heights":

Note: If an 8-head figure looks too tall to you,
do a Google image search for a 7.5-head figure
by Andrew Loomis, Paul Richer or George Bridgman.
Exactly which diagram you memorize is less important
than just memorizing one of them (as long as it's from
a trusted source like one of the above artists).

I used to disregard diagrams like this for 2 reasons:

  1. I thought, "I don't need this—When am I ever going to draw a figure just standing up straight like that?"

  2. "This is useless—How often am I going to draw someone with the exact same proportions as these?"

But I've changed my mind about this. I've found that memorizing standard proportions is invaluable to me when I'm drawing a figure. Here's why:

  • You'll be able to accomplish tough poses with confidence, even when the model isn't standing up straight like in the diagram. For example, let's say the model has her arm stretched way out to the side. Just using your eye, it can be tough to know exactly how long to draw her arm. But if you remember that the length of the arm is about 2 head heights from armpit to wrist, you can make a quick measurement and draw that arm the perfect length.
  • You'll know what to expect. When you don't know what to expect, you have to solve the same proportion problems afresh every time you draw a figure. Having prior knowledge about proportions will aid you in achieving an accurate drawing much more quickly and efficiently.
In addition, You'll be able to accurately compensate when the model has different proportions that the ones you memorized. When my model is shorter than the 8-head figure I've memorized, I can compensate by drawing each division of the body a bit shorter. But if I hadn't memorized the head-height diagram, I wouldn't know what the divisions of the body are to begin with.

I recommend memorizing the head-height diagram in this email by drawing copies of it until you can make an accurate copy without looking at the original. You'll find it a great help next time you draw a figure from life.

Now, you might be thinking, "You say that memorizing head-heights can help me draw figures in proportion, but what about tough situations like foreshortened limbs?" Well, I'm glad you asked, because that's exactly what I'll talk about next time in "3 Ways to Conquer Foreshortening."

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Until next time,

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