Get Better at Life Drawing with the Illustration Academy Process

Learn the process developed in part by illustrator and painter, Mark English, more than 25 years ago at The Illustration Academy.

Drawing the human form from observation is an essential step in improving your drawing abilities. Continued practice is one of the most effective ways to improve your drawing skills. Attending drawing sessions with friends and practicing life drawing with more experienced artists is a great way to refine and advance your abilities.

The following notes and drawing exercise will demystify the challenges and hurdles of illustrating the figure and capturing shape, light, and mood of your model.

The Illustration Academy Method is used by some of the biggest names in illustration and is a powerful point of reference for any artist working to improve their life drawing techniques.

The following is the process created for Illustration Academy students to improve their life drawing skills. Students attending the Illustration Academy attending figure drawing sessions at least 2 to 3 times per week, putting to work the drawing techniques, studying shape, learning the process of posing a model, and more.

Figure Drawing by illustrator & painter, Mark English

Figure Drawing by illustrator & painter, Mark English

Figure Drawing by illustrator & painter, Mark English

Figure Drawing by illustrator & painter, Mark English

The Life Drawing Process

We are making a light object on a dark background. For this technique, light and dark are relative to only each other. The following five steps will act as your compass in sharpening and improving your drawing skills.

1. Blocking in the figure drawing

Block in the entire figure just a little better than a stick figure. Get the gesture first, then proportion, scale and of course shape. Do this all in the light tone, with no lines allowed in the pure version of this technique. Get the shape of the leg, the shape of the head, and the of the arms.

2. Adding Shadows to the Figure drawing

Add darks around the figure and never inside the figure. Look at the samples of drawings included below. You should only allow one or two small accents of dark on the final. Be sure to design the darks and not just put a “halo” around the figure.

This process of life drawing is similar to using clay. You can add light, and take it away by pushing the darks over it. If you take off too much, push the light back into the dark, etc.

3. Creating Magic Tone

If you have applied just enough light pastel, and just enough dark pastel, then when you rub the whole thing with your entire hand (not just a finger or two), then you create what is called the magic tone. This tone is not the paper, not the light pastel, not the dark pastel, but something new, that is a combination of all three. It doesn’t exist anywhere but on the page.

4. Re-establish the Darks

This is the step that everyone leaves out. By doing this, it forces the “magic tone” to become the shadow value of the figure.

The magic tone must therefore be dark enough, and light enough to function as the shadow of the figure and still be lighter than the background. It is important to remember, we are making a light object on a dark background.

5. Rendering Light

Paint in the areas of the model that the light is illuminating. Do not render the shadows. In addition, do not put darks into the shadows with the exception of one or two small accents.

The Illustration Academy Figure Drawing Assignment

  • Produce 4, 5 minute drawings for yourself to warm-up and practice. Choose the best of the 5 minute drawings.
  • Produce 3, 30 minute drawings using the technique mention above.
  • Be sure to follow all 5 steps.
  • Don’t get caught up in detail and rendering
  • Pay attention to your value-control
  • Try to be sensitive with the materials, don’t use too much pastel in your life drawing

Important Materials for the Drawing Exercise


  • You will need a neutral, smooth, mid-toned paper.
toned gray sketch paper for life drawing

Toned gray sketch paper for your life drawing exercise

Drawing Board: 

Any drawing board will work for this exercise!


  • Naples Yellow Light 247-P
  • Warm Grey Medium 219-P

The colors listed below work as well as those above, so any combination will work, as long as you have a light and a medium dark. The idea is to have a light-value pastel and a medium-dark value pastel.

Additional colors and numbers:

  • Shell Pink 366-P
  • Warm Grey Medium 219-P
  • Warm Grey Light 239-P
  • Sepia 293-P
  • Van Dyke Brown 283-P

We hope that this is a helpful resource as you continue to refine your skills as an artist!

Recommended pastels for Illustration Academy life drawing exercise

Recommended pastel colors for Illustration Academy life drawing exercise

Other Resources:

Looking for more Life Drawing? Join us for Illustration Isolation drawing sessions and draw alongside world-renowned artists.

Illustration Isolation is a free livestream event that brings together some of the most talented working illustrators for drawing, painting, and conversation.

As an attendee, you’re invited to ask questions about life drawing, posing models, lighting your subject, selecting the best art materials, developing your style, and a myriad of other art world questions.

This is a totally free event and all levels of experience are welcome to join. This is the perfect weekly event to draw with a community of artists. Poses are selected in advance. The models for this event are not live and the poses are still images.

Learn more about Illustration Isolation here.

Classes now enrolling:

Figure Drawing for Illustrators, taught by John English

This is one of our most popular mini classes we offer. As a student, you will be personally mentored by illustrator, painter and Visual Arts Passage Co-founder, John English.

Each week of the class, you will discuss topics such as model poses, lighting the models, working with different materials, and more. This class is hands-on, including sessions for students to draw and practice the art of shape design, lighting, shadows, and more.

Check out this free figure drawing tutorial by illustrator, John English

In this hour-long video, illustrator and painter, John English, completes a life drawing demonstration, discussing the foundational skills and techniques to improve drawing the figure. This includes working with different models, posing the model, finding shape in the figure, and more.

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