This scene shows captured prisoners from the Moche culture of ancient Peru, painted for National Geographic.
It was developed entirely from studies from the model, not from photography. (Photography is a useful tool, too, but I'll cover that in other posts.) If you’re doing a reference study of yourself or a model taking the pose, you can capture all the reference information you’ll need by working on tone paper.
In most art schools, the tradition of drawing posed figures on tone paper tends to be regarded as an end in itself, or else purely as a timed practice exercise for training the eye and hand for observational drawing.
But for most of the last five centuries, tone paper drawings were merely a means to an end, and the drawings themselves were not highly valued.
A light gray or tan paper works best for figure studies. The tone of the paper should be approximately equal to the darker halftone—the point where the form turns away from the light just before it enters the shadow.
You can begin either with vine charcoal or with a soft charcoal pencil and draw the pose lightly in line, noting the dividing line of the shadow and the boundary of the cast shadow. Once you’ve got the pose where you want it, reserve the charcoal for the shadows and accents.
The light side of the form can be defined with just a few careful touches of white chalk or white charcoal pencil. Where the form turns more to the light in the brightly illuminated halftones, you can scumble a light tone overall, saving your strongest touches of pure white for the highlights and accents.
As you work on your studies from life, don’t just draw what you see. As Howard Pyle said, “Don’t copy the model, but make a picture.” Accentuate the muscles and tendons that are important in telling the story. Describe to your your model the character you want them to act out. Better yet, act out the part yourself, and ham it up a little. Your model will feel less inhibited if you make a fool of yourself.
Let your imagination guide your eye. This mindset leads to better drawings than ones where you are just copying what you see. The drawings you produce as preliminary studies for a finished work will have more urgency and confidence than the standard 20 minute studies that are done without feeling or imagination.