Life Drawing Essentials

A graduate of the Royal Academy Schools, London, and director of DVSA’s Advanced Studio program, John Wilkinson is an experienced veteran when it comes to teaching drawing fundamentals – not just at Dundas Valley School of Art, but also at university art programs throughout Canada and the UK.

“In today’s world, not every visual artist is required or needs to study life drawing,” says John. “However, there are significant transferable skills to be learned while juggling many thoughts at once. This involves practicing mindfulness to focus on what you determine to be the objective of the work. In turn, this can assist in the development of analytical and critical thinking skills which are so valuable for all artists.”

What are the life drawing essentials? Below, John shares some of the best practice developed over the years that he feels a student should keep in mind.


Before You Start

There are many differing ways to initiate a work, each with their individual objectives, but they all start with the following steps:

  • Choose a view that interests you, where you can clearly see the model. If possible, ensure there’s a clear path behind so you can step back from your drawing to assess the work.
  • When using an easel, place your board at a height where the centre of your drawing will be just above eye level. If you are right handed, align the paper to the left edge of the board. If you are left handed, align it to the right edge of the board. Make sure the board is vertical and parallel to the picture plane.


  • Avoid working on a flat table surface. If you do, you will not be looking straight on at the paper and therefore cannot directly compare the subject to the surface of the paper. Furthermore, the drawing may appear distorted in length due to viewing the drawing surface in perspective. If you must work at a table, stand over the table rather than sitting at it.
  • If seated at a drawing horse, face the model directly – not at an angle. Look over the top of the board – not to the right or left of it. The objective is to make the distance between the subject and the paper a simple eye turn, not a turn of the head or body.


  • Whether at an easel or drawing horse, ensure your drawing materials are between the model and yourself so you can avoid turning away from the line of sight.


  • Be aware of the size and distance from which you see the subject, relative to the size you wish to make your drawing. Move as close to the model as possible if you intend to make a large image. One way to ensure your drawing will fit on the page is to mark points 5–8 cm from each of the four corners. This will form a preliminary border and create room to spare, should the drawing grow bigger than expected.


  • After you’ve set up your work space, walk around the model to gain a full appreciation from all angles. This will help you understand what you can’t see from your drawing position.


The Drawing Process

  • Work at arm’s length, so you can see both the model and your drawing at the same time. Ask yourself, “Where are you in relation to the model? What’s the distance and where is your eye level in relation to the model and the surroundings?” This will give you a better understanding of scale, proportion and perspective in selecting and then conveying what you see.
  • Stand with one leg in front of the other so you can move back and forth into the same position at the easel. If you are right handed stand, with your right leg forward. If left handed, then the left leg goes forward. This will also prevent you from getting too close to the drawing and therefore, no longer looking at the model.


  • Keep your eyes on the subject. The hand should always follow what the eye sees – not the other way around. Remain focused on observing the model and not getting lost in the act of mark making. To determine measurements/proportion, use only one eye – your dominant eye.
  • Step back every now and then as you work. Turn around occasionally and walk away and then look back at your drawing. This will help you view your work with a fresh and critical eye. Think of yourself as two people – the practitioner and the teacher. When you stand back, you are the teacher. Question and determine what’s required and then return as the practitioner.
  • If possible, during the pose, walk around the model to review what you can’t see or understand.

This is just a beginning. To go deeper and further develop your life drawing skills, visit our Classes page and look under Drawing and/or Painting to see our upcoming course options.