Stripped down: Exploring nude figure drawing


Karen Ma

She hands the money to the moderator and takes a seat. Soon after, the timer is set for one minute. Brush in hand, she observes the model before her and begins sketching. Thirty more seconds. She takes one last glimpse and, before she knows it, the timer goes off. The model switches poses, and the timer is reset — this time to two minutes. For the next three hours, the cycle repeats, the moderator resetting the timer each time to five, 10 and, finally, 30 minutes.

Since June 2016, senior Ellen Li has attended the Live Figure Drawing Sessions offered every Monday at the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View, where she draws nude people in different poses to study human anatomy. Use the sliders below to see her progress.

“I feel like it’s helped me gain a better understanding of the human body, which is really important because I’m going to go into character animation, which involves a lot of drawings of humans,” Li said. “So you need to really understand how the body works and proportions and stuff.”

The little-known location was recommended to her by a friend, who has already graduated and now attends the ArtCenter College of Design. She was eager to accept the invitation — but the nudity took some time getting used to.

“As an artist, I was always taught that I shouldn’t be scared of naked people like normal people are because it’s just body parts — like, everyone has body parts,” Li said. “But that was my first time seeing a lot of naked people in person, so I was a little intimidated.”

She recalls the first few sessions she attended when she’d tried, unsuccessfully, to do full-body drawings, unaware of the one-minute time limit. During a break, while observing other short pose drawings, she noticed that many artists focused their sketches on one part, such as torsos, faces or feet. After trying it out herself, Li has been able to hone in on drawing certain body parts and their natural dynamics.

“I can now draw toes,” she said. “And boobs. And spines.”

According to Li, the purpose of the short poses is to learn how to capture movement and gesture with as little detail and as few lines as possible.

“It shows that you have a good understanding of the body and you don’t need to go in with erasers and edit things out because from the start, you’ll know what’s happening,” she said.

She has also attended three-hour sessions where the model maintains only one pose. Although she found them dull at first, she soon realized that the long sessions allowed her to practice patience and attention to detail. After having tried out both session durations, Li recognizes that they each have benefits.

I feel like I can practice a lot because you’re doing it from a live pose and not a photo reference, so no two drawings are the same,” Li said. “You’re not copying existing artwork, which I feel like is a [frequent] problem. People often can’t find original work because they’re copying from existing photos, so doing it live is really helpful.”

Li realizes that drawing nude people can be uncomfortable for some. However, the benefits she has reaped, as well as being able to learn by example from the artists around her, have made the sessions an invaluable experience for her as an artist.

“Most of the people at the sessions were really experienced artists who were kind of old and I was like one of the very few young people there, but I got to see what people who have a lot of experience are like and how they did it and like their techniques,” Li said. “I was very impressed.”