Action Figure Drawing Tutorial: Stomping a Man Who’s Down

January 9th, 2012

In this next series of drawing tutorials, we’ll turn to drawing the human figure in moments of intense action (the previous series sketched the hand in many different positions).  The goal of this “action figure” series is to create quick sketches that you may later incorporate into more finished pieces.  

Detail of the two faces of soccer players in this action figure sketch

In these tutorials, I’ll teach you to use “right brain mode” to see your subject matter as a series of easy-to-draw, flat “jigsaw puzzle pieces.”  Paradoxically, sketching these small, “flat” areas produces a vividly three-dimensional-looking drawing.

 At the end of this post is a short video of how I drew the sketch below, using my “right brain” to visualize the drawing as a series of small, simple jigsaw puzzle shapes and creating a “custom grid” to help me draw them accurately.

Sketch of soccer players

Finding models for drawing human beings taking extreme action

Like many artists, I often want to draw people striving to achieve something they want very badly.  These are dramatic moments of life in which people’s deepest longings surface in their body language.

Unless you have a skilled model continually available, who can replicate what’s in your imagination and hold poses of extreme physical effort, you’ll rarely be able to draw these moments from life.  Yet as an artist, I always want to sketch from some kind of model, not from memory.

Drawing from memory means drawing a preconceived image of what a given action should look like.  For me, the thrill of doing art is falling in love with some new and very particular live body movement each time I draw.  Since I don’t have an always-available model who can embody the highly-specific scenes in my imagination, that means finding photographs that can serve as my models.

I often want to sketch some vivid action I can’t even find a photo of.  For example, I’m working on a new painting about Ivan the Terrible in which various members of the 16th century Russian nobility attack each other.  Since my style in these triptychs is satirical, the assaults are stylized, not strictly realistic.  In my current painting, noblemen and women will stomp on each other, kick, pull hair.

Photo used as model for this action figure tutorial sketch, "Stomping a Man Who's Down"

Often the best place to find images that at least approximate motions like this are sports photos.  Professional athletes give their all.  They’re not stiff or self-conscious, they’re completely in the moment.  Their bodies are often clearly visible, not hidden by a lot of clothing.  And because of the money and resources devoted to sports, you can always find high-quality, high-resolution images to serve as your models.

Action sketch tutorials

I chose the photo above for my own sketch because, at the moment it was taken, one player appeared to be stomping the other, who had half fallen to the ground.  For your own tutorial practice, either try your hand at this photo  or find another one that appeals to you.  My right-brain-mode “jigsaw puzzle” method applies to anything you choose to draw.

Detail "The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth"

Detail of center panel of "The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth," by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

For my own painting – and in these tutorials – I’ll be making a whole bunch of these action sketches. Later I’ll integrate them into my large Ivan the Terrible painting, which will portray a lot of noblemen. When I finally paint these guys on canvas, I’ll dress them up in Russian noblemen’s duds. For now, I just want to quickly sketch their movement and their facial expressions.

Above is an example of the finished product in my work technique.  Each of the fleeing Russians, Mongol warriors, and horses in this detail of a larger painting were based on photos I found to use as models.

Materials you’ll need and how to set up your work space

Please refer back to the relevant sections at the beginning of this drawing tutorial for information on how to set up your work space and the materials to use.  For my preparatory sketches, I use simple printer paper and an everyday Papermate Sharpwriter #2 pencil.  These aren’t art materials, just ordinary items that are always at hand.  I want to keep everything simple – my goal is to capture the action scenes as quickly as possible and then move on to combining them into a larger artwork.

Photo trimmed of background to make clearer for sketching

Be sure to have your paper upright, not lying down or at an odd angle, which will distort your drawing.

Have your “model” photo as close as possible to you and your sketch, because “right brain mode” insights about shape and size last only a split second in the brain.  If you have to turn your body or move your eyes over a distance, you’ll lose that insight by the time you get your pencil back onto your paper.  (See this explanation for how the brain works in “right mode.”)

I always stand up when I’m drawing because it enables me to move back and forth to see the drawing from various distances.  These different perspectives help me see the drawing afresh each time I look at it so I can evaluate and improve it as I go along.

“Where do I start?  What do I draw first?”

People often ask me where to begin drawing on the blank page.

When I first took life drawing lessons many years ago, I was taught to begin with a very basic line describing the overall form of the model.  This was partly to be sure that the entire figure would fit into and fill the paper.  The second reason was that it was supposedly easier to add the details of the drawing once the basic overall shape was laid out, like a sculptor carving an approximate shape, then progressively more and more precise ones.

However, in the type of quick action sketches we’re practicing here, I’ve discovered over the years that for even the very first pencil (or charcoal) mark, it’s always easier to draw a small, simple shape than to draw a big one.  I often begin with whatever shape is in the uppermost lefthand corner, usually a negative space.  In this sketch of soccer players, I first drew the negative shape formed by the upper edge of the stomping player’s arm and back of his head.

Left: First negative space as I envisioned it in my mind's eye, indicated in red on the photo (along with measurement to determine its size). Right: My paper with the first shape as I drew it (pencil). Measurement added on side in red showing how I determined size.

Well, you might say, of course it’s easier to draw that small shape rather than the big one of the entire body.  But how can you be sure to draw it the correct size to fit both people on the page?  If you don’t pay attention to the overall size of the two men, how can you be certain you won’t make that first corner so large that when you get to the bottom half of the drawing the legs won’t fit in?

The way you can still be sure to fit your sketch on your paper is to take a single quick measurement (I use my finger against my pencil to measure) to observe that the stomper’s hand sticks out to a level a bit less than one-third of the total height of the sketch.  Every shape you draw in this sketch will relate to and be measured by this first one.  So as long as you draw this corner of your first shape slightly less than one-third down the side of the paper, you’ll end up with the rest of the drawing correctly sized.

Drawing in “right mode”

In future tutorials, we’ll delve more into the concept of seeing your model as a series of flat “jigsaw puzzle pieces.”  For now, please look back at the video and text in this tutorial to grasp the basic idea.

Faces of the two soccer players

By the way, to quickly sketch in the faces of the soccer players, I use exactly the same technique.  I see each face as a series of shapes whose form and size I need to replicate.  It’s important to avoid thinking of what you’re drawing as eyes, nose, mouth, cheeks, forehead.  That will engage your left brain and make drawing much more difficult.  You can read more on why this is here.

Creating a custom grid as you draw

In an earlier post, I described how I create a “custom grid” as I draw, which enables me to correctly gauge the placement and size of each “jigsaw puzzle” piece of my drawing in relation to other pieces I’ve already drawn.

You can see this “grid” illustrated in the video below, where I’ve drawn in lines showing how I envision this “custom grid” as I work.

(My apologies for the jerky quality of this video.  Future ones will improve!)

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One Response to “Action Figure Drawing Tutorial: Stomping a Man Who’s Down”

  1. ati says:

    very nice

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