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In The Classroom - Expressive Figure Drawing


In The Classroom - Expressive Figure Drawing

Cathy G. Johnson

How can figure drawing be adapted to benefit cartooning in the classroom?

Figure drawing is a well-known art exercise for students of all ages, and can be approached in many different ways. The excitement and joy of cartooning is not the precision of drawing, but the communication through marks and forms. Therefore, my approach to figure drawing with my students is not about capturing the perfect form, but instead capturing the emotion that the figure is conveying.

Below is a lesson plan I developed for two different high school classrooms: an advanced drawing + painting course, and a beginner's drawing class. Students were grades 10 - 12, but I have done similar group activities with elementary and middle grade students, who also enjoy the challenge.

Work by 12th grade student.

Work by 12th grade student.

Lesson Plan


Drawing can communicate sensations, feelings or ideas to someone else. Drawing describes new understandings of the human experience.


  • Assignment 1: Dancers + Ballerinas
  • Assignment 2: Student Emotions
  • Assignment 3: 30 Minute Pose


  • Kathe Kollwitz
  • Edvard Munch
  • Jillian Tamaki

Learning Outcomes and Objectives

  1. Develop different drawn mark-making techniques and approaches.
  2. Use drawing as a symbolic language to think and understand the world.
  3. Use drawing to communicate emotions and form.
  4. Compare and understand one’s own interpretation of a work of art with the interpretation of others.


  • Charcoal
  • Pencils
  • Drawing Paper
  • Drawing Boards
  • Easels


  1. Impressionism: a 19th-century art movement characterized by relatively small, thin, yet visible brush strokes, open composition, emphasis on accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities (often accentuating the effects of the passage of time), ordinary subject matter, inclusion of movement as a crucial element of human perception and experience, and unusual visual angles.
  2. Expressionism: from the beginning of the 20th century, to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas. Expressionist artists sought to express the meaning of emotional experience rather than physical reality.
  3. Dynamic: having or showing a lot of energy // of or relating to energy, motion, or physical force
  4. Gesture Drawing: A gesture drawing is a laying in of the action, form, and pose of a model/figure. Typical situations involve an artist drawing a series of poses taken by a model in a short amount of time, often as little as 10 seconds, or as long as 5 minutes.

Learning Plan


Before beginning assignments, we look as a class at a slideshow of image references. My slideshow consists of work by Kathe KollwitzEdvard Munch and Jillian Tamaki. I feel it is important to share drawing work when in a drawing class, as much as the temptation may strike to share other media types. (I fudge this stipulation slightly with some lithography work, which still contains marks originally made by drawing on stone.) We then discuss the references: What are the subjects in the image feeling? How did the artist used visual language to convey that feeling?

Assignment 1: Dancers + Ballerinas

Work by 11th grade student.

Work by 11th grade student.

Introduction: To introduce students to the idea of expressive + emotional figures, we begin by watching various dance videos. Some favorites are India Bussey performing an interpretive dance to "Black Butterfly", and Uliana Lopatkina dancing the Dying Swan from Swan Lake. We then discuss emotions through body movement: What emotions do you think the dancers were trying to convey with their body?

Exercise: Experiment in mark-making while watching the dancers. While re-watching the videos, students use observational drawing to describe the dancers' emotions. Focus should be placed on development of mark.

Discussion and sharing of techniques and choices: How hard or soft are you pressing? How big or small are your marks? Are you smudging or using value in your marks? How does the type of mark you use express the emotion of the dancer?

Assignment 2: Student Emotions

Work by 11th grade student.

Work by 11th grade student.

Individual students will pose for the rest of the class in short intervals. The model will choose an emotion and pose to communicate the feeling.

  • Inspiration for poses may be drawn from the dance videos, or any other personal or observed experience the student has had.
  • The pose is held by the student a maximum of 5 minutes, or for more complicated and physically taxing poses, less time is fine.

With charcoal, the class will create an observational drawing of the model using marks, shapes and shadow to capture the figure with a visual language that communicates the emotion.

  • Gesture drawing may be used by the students to capture the figure in a short amount of time.
  • Recalling the drawing experiment with the dance videos, students should explore symbolic mark-making to convey the model's emotional prompt.

Assignment 3: 30 Minute Pose

Work by 10th grade student.

Work by 10th grade student.

We ended our figure drawing unit by inviting another student with a free period to pose for us in a reclaimed position for 30 minutes. This opportunity gave students the chance to slow down their process even further, and capture the figure with deliberate marks. Having a student from outside the class made this easier, since no art student would then lose 30 minutes of their class!

Again, students were asked not to focus on perfection, but on expression and emotion. Final drawings are below, which show the exciting range of figure drawing students were able to achieve in this lesson. By removing the idea of realism, students were able to be freer in their personal expression.


Figure drawing can be used for more than learning how to draw the figure with perfection and observation. By exploring the emotional expression of bodies by observing and watching dancers, students are prepared to explore and push the boundaries of what would normally be expected of a figure drawing course. Class participation adds an element of fun and humor, and a longer pose at the end allows students to utilize all the personal mark-making they developed into a final piece.

Figure drawing is a great addition to cartooning in the classroom! It allows student to explore how figures and the marks used to draw them can communicate emotion. With the right preparation, figure drawing can be extremely fun and freeing!