What is academic drawing?

Academic art is a style still practiced today throughout the world. Considered as the inheritance of old masters of the renaissance era, academic drawing is a tool of communication, just like classical music; In order for one to know how, when, and why to express a drawing, a basis of communication is necessary.

Academic drawing is an ideal representation of reality which is a state of existence expressed by the artist; for I see things as you see them, but I understand them differently. Therefore, academic drawing helps the artist create an artwork based on strict rules of visualization and analysis brainwork.

In the academic tradition, drawing is to be mastered in order to create an artwork.

Acquiring the right principles of academic drawing helps the emancipation of an intriguing composition with the acquired knowledge of observation and constructive analysis skills, along with a unique style, which I call talent, an inventiveness emerging effortlessly.  


What are the objectives of 21st-century academic drawing practices?

Academic art was always, and still to this day, considered solely for elites. Schools that are still teaching these principles are very few, not to mention that fees are extremely high.

Nevertheless, nothing is impossible, since one is capable of acquiring strong technical skills with the urge of creative expression, but it’s going to take more time and effort.


What is the function and characteristic of academic drawing?

One of the first identities of academic drawing, and academic art in a broader sense, is the intellectual discipline that comes along. Depiction of religious and mythological scenes, along with portraits, for example, is to be portrayed following strict rules of academism.


When do you know that the drawing is over? when do you identify that moment of not putting more or less in the artwork?

Personally, I take steps back or use a mirror to reflect the progress of my artwork, or simply I hide it for a couple of days (even weeks in some cases) then, after going back to it, I’ll see if there are modifications to do, etc. One must have a clear idea of what is the objective and the end mean of the artwork creation, which means one must not lose sight of the original idea.

Take for example the Russian art academies principles: it is not only based on visual copying of figures (example, Sight-Size method) but on the visual understanding of nature and the analytical understanding of how complex forms of reality are shaped through anatomy, composition, and values with the identification of main geometric forms. This means the ability of the eye to deconstruct complex forms into simpler ones, and then the reconstruction of these varieties into a whole, transcribing the expression of the artist. It’s the rearrangement of natural forms to create a story.


Constructive Analysis

Academic Drawing practice is not only about copying what you see; having a well-trained visual eye using techniques like the sight-size method, drawing exactly what you see by accurately draw what’s in front of me. You also need to implement a constructive analytical method, in order for you to draw from your own imagination, and also understand the forms and shape, anatomy, and values that make up the whole composition, thus creating a conceptual composition inspired by the model to create an artwork.

Understanding the construction of elements and grasping the shape to conceptualize a 3D form in one’s mind with the use of anatomy, perspective, proportions, etc. are what makes this approach intriguing.

It’s not only about copying what you see but also understanding (analysis thinking of treating information) the main geometric form, anatomy, values, and tones, etc. in order to boost imagination. Therefore, one learns the skill of craftsmanship in drawing, but the talent is inherent and unique, this unique expression that comes from someone and using the right tools (in this sense the academic art discipline) to transcribe them into an artwork in order to communicate with the outside world or the spectators.

Analysis and constructive approach help the artist to be more creative by letting his imagination expresses itself in the composition based on a model. 

Manipulation of Correct Forms by acquiring the proper knowledge in proportions and anatomy

  • 2D drawing: Charles Bargue’s drawing technique helps you draw using a sight-size method: a 2D drawing such as the Bargue technique will guide you to understand form and values in order to draw a 3D cast and a live model. Starting with a main geometric form identifying the contours and main shading lines, then drawing smaller forms by constructing the shading planes, then the values and the edges.
  • Cast Drawing: is the drawing of a 3D form to have an approach with a 3D model. In this step, one understands the essential visualization of values (from darkest shadow to lightest value) with a natural light projected on a 3D cast. This enables the eye to see the 3D form shaped by light and shadow, as well as it will help you understand the concept of composition. Allowing to draw the cast from any point the artist wants, will help the elaboration of a story-telling by understanding the principles of composition. Composition helps the artist express why he chose to draw from a certain point of view, or simply arranging the cast in an intriguing visual way so it relates to the original idea in the artist’s mind; what is the story that the artist is trying to tell?
  • Figure or Model drawing: After the acquisition of accurate proportions, anatomy, values, and the fundamental principles of composition, the artist is capable to draw a human model, a still life, or an outside scenery with natural light creating an artwork. What’s interesting about the human model is the expression and light changes, meaning that the artist must be able to create an artwork based on the primary expression. Sketching and fast drawing help the depiction of primary expression. Later on and based on this basis of expression, what will remain is aided by the style that comes along.


2D Drawing: Bargue’s technique along with the sight-size method

Cast drawing, inspired by Bargue, 6b pencil on Ingres paper, 50 x 35  cm, 2017.

A very effective exercise to understand the fundamental principles of Academic Drawing (proportion and values) is the Charles Bargue technique which consists of copying a 2D drawing using a single pencil. It’s one of the easiest ways to confront a 3D dimensional figure.

Reproducing an artwork already drawn by Charles Bargue will help you with the outline and to best master your drawing pencils by blocking out shapes and identifying the shading planes. You can start with a 2B pencil to create the main lines and finish your drawing with a 6b which is best for shading.

Most important in this step is to master the pen lines (refining and controlling strokes to express lines with the handle of correct tools and materials), and identifying and manipulating values (from the darkest shadow to the lightest value): remember that shadows create an atmosphere, and light is nothing but form. For that, use shading to create form which is identified by light.

NB: I found that this article is really interesting on the topic of sight-size measurement method for those of you who were curious about it:


This first step will help you with the following:

  • Outline: Identifying main Geometric Forms with vertical and horizontal lines
  • Accurate Proportions
  • Values Rendering and pencil grades
  • Mastering pencil
  • Patience by taking steps back to grasp the shape
  • Introduction of 3D form

Note that theory and history of art are very essential for knowledge and inspiration.


Cast drawing

Cast drawing of a mouth, 2b & 6b pencil on paper, 21 x 29.7 cm, 2020.

This step allows you to perceive light and shadow found in nature through natural light. The perception of values with a different gradation of shadows influences our visual understanding of form and shape (for more information on that step, click on the link below)


Values are important as well as strokes and the pen or pencil used to create texture, including the accuracy of mass with accurate proportions, control of material used (pen, pencil, charcoal, sanguine, etc.) on paper (moleskin, Canson, Ingres, etc.), and the transition between light and shadow through edges.

There are many ways to depict the relationship between light and shadow with the gradation of values: one can use a black mirror, standing back, etc. personally I use a normal mirror to reflect the drawing so I can look at it from another point of view.

In this step, you’ll learn the basics of composition and how to create an intriguing relationship between the artwork and the viewer: composition is a relationship between the subject and the environment surrounding the subject. We talk about variety and unity to define a focal point, the elements of design, the definition of a visual equilibrium so to create an interesting story to tell through the artwork. Take a portrait, for example, it’s in the middle in a triangular fictitious line, motionless and expressive through the face. Take Japanese scenery, for example, everything changes and becomes a more dynamic painting because the artist is trying to tell a story. The easiest way to define a composition is to know the story you wish to tell, which means you need to understand what is the objective behind the artwork you want to create.

Along with the relationship of the figure values with the background values, the artist is capable of creating an atmosphere and depicting depth. Understanding the shadows is essential for the completion of a composition: Dramatic, Tension, etc.

My advice to you is to:

  • Set up your own cast and define a focal point, remembering the relationship between Unity v/s Variety and so on… Here the focal point is the main part of the artwork which will attract the viewer’s eye through elements in the artwork
  • Pay attention to the environment around the cast to create intriguing shapes. Shadows are atmosphere thus guiding the eye towards the focal point.

Note that the drawing of a cast has so many elements that must work together for the purpose of the focal point, which means the background shouldn’t be too immersive (unless that’s your purpose), some elements must be left out of focus, not forgetting to create depth, etc.

Last but not least is the understanding of Anatomy which will help you with the analytical process of creation. Anatomy will guide the artist in the depiction of weight and mass in a single composition.


Figure Drawing

Le Départ des volontaires en 1792, Arc de Triomphe Drawing, Black pen on paper, 42 x 29.7 cm, 2019.

The forms in Nature are essential (human body, architecture, etc.) are important to understand and elaborate expression and composition. When drawing a model, one needs to gasp :

  1. The psychological state of the model
  2. The interpretation of the artists’ vision

We’ve started with analytical and “mathematical” knowledge, but we’re not engineers (although engineers are artists in a way), thus in this step we sketch out our unique talent (for me it’s the expression of my strokes that I keep in my painting). 

Body studying is amazing, it has its own expression and gesture. Each body is unique, and along with the composition and the atmosphere that surrounds it, one can create a unique and original artwork.

5 principles are important to keep in mind in this process:

  • Accurate Proportions
  • Anatomy of the body
  • Gesture or Expression
  • Depiction of accurate proportions, anatomy, and values.
  • Composition


Controlling the transition of the shading gradation by working with the gradation of the values will create the 3D form the artist is depicting. Part of the composition is the expression of the human model. Being able to keep the initial expression and present it in the final outcome, needs practice. It’s easy to erase over and over again, but what I’ve learned from experience is that the first initial expression is depicted when sketched. Therefore sketch out directly on a big canvas, after identifying the right composition you wish to depict (NB: sketch every day for drawing strokes practice). In the end, your strokes are your style, and that what makes your artwork unique because of strokes with the initial expression.

Therefore, when I create an artwork, I keep my initial expression, work academically but pay great attention to my strokes, because they are my “signature”.

From simple outline to dramatic gesture, while being precise and accurate with regard to proportion, body type, and gesture.

La Résistance de 1814, Arc de Triomphe Drawing, Black pen on paper, 42 x 29.7 cm, 2016.

This is the end of Part #1. I’m not going to lie, it takes years to master, but if you have the right tools and the correct technique, with the will of creating amazing artwork, then you’ll make it.  In part #2, I’ll be giving you steps to create an academic artwork along with tips and hints so your drawing pops out and look real ^^

Follow me on my Youtube Channel for more art academic drawing: 



Recommended books:

Charles Bargue and Jean-Leon Gerome drawing course (9781788840446)

Lessons in classical drawings by Juliette Aristides (9780823006595)

Foundations of arts and design (9781856695787)

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