“What is the best way to simplify the human figure? As cubes or as spheres?”
The answer is neither. I see people all the time trying to reduce the human figure into a series of geometric shapes when they’re drawing from a live model. They draw spheres where there are joints (wrists, shoulders, elbows, etc.) and it always ends up looking like an awful mannequin. The problem with this approach is that cubes and spheres used in this manner have nothing to do with the actual anatomical structure and forms of the human figure.
When I teach figure drawing, I simplify the human figure into the three structural concepts listed below. If you draw the human figure with these structural concepts in mind, you’ll be pleasantly surprised that you’ll have a likeness of a figure in no time. The order of these structural concepts is important to maintain as well, as the largest forms are addressed first and then eventually working down into the smaller details.
Major masses are essentially the largest forms on the human figure. I recommend beginning a figure drawing by first addressing the torso, by far the largest form. The torso is where all of the limbs and the head intersect, so it’s critical to knock in the torso immediately when starting a figure drawing. The torso can then be subdivided into a rib cage and pelvis, which provides a sense of structure within the torso itself. From there, the head and thighs can be quickly added to provide more mass to the form. The limbs and the hands and feet should come in last.
There is an imaginary center line down the front of the torso and down the back of the torso. On the back of the torso, the center line is easy to spot because it is basically the spine. On the front of the torso, the center line starts at the pit of the neck, (the point in between the collarbones, aka clavicles) moves down the center of the rib cage, through the belly button down to the pubic bone on the pelvis. A center line is highly descriptive of the type of pose that is being struck by a figure. Look at the center line when a model is posing and ask yourself what the center line is doing: is the center line perfectly straight? Is it twisted, is it leaning to the right or left? If you quickly establish how the center line is behaving in your figure drawing, you’ve won half the battle.
Bony landmarks are areas on the human figure where the bone is directly under the surface of the skin. These landmarks are significant because they are consistent with every single person, regardless of how large or thin they may be. When you’re looking at a model, search for these bony landmarks and indicate them in your drawing. Some bony landmarks include: collar bones, elbows, kneecaps, ankle bones, shoulder blades, etc. Bony landmarks are considered to be details, so they should not be drawn in until the major masses and center line are well established.