"You're just born with it."
"It's a gift."
I often hear these phrase used unjudiciously in reference to the talents of a visual artist, as though I came out of the womb with the abilities I have in life accumulated, spending the rest of my time idling around and waiting to create the next big masterpiece on my to-do list.
Drawing is in fact a practice one can never perfect, for while technology and theory grow and change and even ease the way we draw, it is with a combination of extensive knowledge of form, of theory, and a gained intuition and coordination for articulating both that we can move forward. As with learning music or any other kind of study, we are face with the task of understanding concepts in order to actually improve.
I have been fortunate enough to moderate a figure drawing group at the local arts center, and found myself with a large collection of figure sketches that I personally feel I don't need. However, I realized that an online inventory might prove somewhat useful for students looking for examples of what one is after, or how one might approach these figure drawing sessions.
We will both keep in mind that there is no one right way to draw, but I might bring up something here that you've yet to consider, or perhaps you've hit a roadblock when attending these groups and need to figure out why (if you have any questions that you feel are unaddressed with this project, you can feel free to hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org). The sketches below were mostly rendered on rather small pads, about 11 x 14" and on newsprint. I also tooled a little bit with the contrast and exposure in Photoshop, but only for the sake of visibility.
Figure drawing sessions often begin with 30 second to two minute poses. No matter the time limit, your goal is a finished drawing. No exceptions. You need to draw the whole figure in that gap. What advantage does this offer, you might wonder?
Students often have difficulty in the beginning, and this is because popular culture trains us from a young age, with animation and coloring books and comics, to focus on outlining the forms. This presents a problems when trying to understand how the body balances itself, where the weight of the figure falls, and how limbs and posture bend in ways we don't naturally realize. Hence, we use these short poses to create gesture drawing, which capture all these qualities. We create gesture drawings over, and over, and over, until all of this unique knowledge becomes intuitive. Gesture drawing focus on the impression of the figure, and can reveal quite a lot of the personality of the model.
We see here three drawings of the same pose, but with differing goals. The first drawing is a gesture, and the other two are further developed. Note that simply because the top right drawing seems more finished, it doesn't retain the ease and emotion of the other two. Lines in the first inform us of a shoulder blade, and other suggest the down-turned head and the hips. However, that's all the information we need to read it as a human being.
We sometimes have clothed models, if due to either model preference or a different challenge. While you may see some "outlines," note how loose they are. I start most drawings by finding where the spine is. From there, it's a simple task to locate the shoulders and hips. Beginning with the head, as we are so often taught to do, creates a problem when trying to measure the rest of the body. Remember - most of the emotion of a figure comes from posture, not from the face, which will in many of these cases remain indefined or unfinished.
The drawing in the middle is the most successful, here. Lines inform us of both where weight is being force on (the left leg) and where shadows fall (under the right knee).
Over time, by building outward, you do come to understand the overall shapes that define a figure, but only through building that understanding, not by trying to lock in on it from the beginning.
Here are forms with figure internal lines, but that feel natural. Through repeated construction of the form, I understand how the bones and muscles affect posture. Legs and arms and spines and necks and fingers all have a natural curve we need to master in order to avoid stiff drawings. Again, I put a little emphasis on shadows and planes, which we'll get to, soon.
Working with a model time and again has its benefits. It allows you to get to know them, and you'll eventually realize when your drawings successful capture their personalities (or not). There's very little information in the drawing on the left, but it's one of the best I've done.
Charcoal allows us to focus on sculpting form. We do this through an attention to planes. Planes are essentially the sides of an object. Human bodies are defined by many, many subtle planes, but understanding them allows us to realistically render light and shadow. For instance, when we make some areas darker than others, and do it correctly, we create visual intrigue.
In this quick portrait, you'll see I emphasized various planes by isolating them and varying my shading. This is, of course, only a sketch. If you really focus on a finished drawing or painting, and move even closer, you'll find all kinds of planes. The top of the bottom lid, the various curves of the nose, etc, etc. A strong knowledge of these planes will guarentee better drawings. For instance, ever notice how the top lip is always darker than the bottom? This is because it's at a slight downward slant and thus catches light somewhat differently. It's on a different plane, and should be rendered as such.
With vine charcoal, one can simply use the side of the stick to render believable planes.
In this sketch, I played with negative space, which refers to the "empty" space surrounding the subject.
Not interested in drawing a male model? Get over it. You need this experience if you're going to create compelling drawings of men. There are difference nuances to their form and character that need attention.
We see here that attention is paid to form, planes, and even facial expression. However, I only left the information in the face that I felt was needed. If you focus too much attention on the face, it'll be overworked compared to the rest. Remember - you can always add more to balance the drawing, but it's harder to take away.
Planes on the portrait of this older model help define the overall shape and expression.
Getting the posture of your model is essential. There's no more important way to start your drawing. Again, notice the lack of attention to the face - there's no time for that during shorter poses, if drawing the entire figure.
That's it for Part I. I'll finish the second half, and link you there from here, shortly.
I animated the scene below, based on the character design by my intern, Guinevere Reilly. It's a rough cut of one of the scenes from our upcoming animated short (which still remains untitled).
To see some of Guinevere's work, visit her artblog.
It's a coincidence. A weird but consistent one.
I swear it's strictly platonic; a determinedly clean, healthy relationship that I have with ballerinas. You see, I've never witnessed actual ballet, and I'm not all that invested in going to a ballet. Is that how you say it? Is a performance called "a ballet," because if I speak the common colloquialism "go to the ballet," it makes ballet seem more like a place. It's not a place, right?
However, many of my favorite artists are outright obsessed with this ballet shit (not the proper term). What's the common thread, one has to wonder, and how are the dancers and the media used to accentuate these very different forms of art, all consumed in very different ways but no one greater than the other? The important conclusion one must draw, of course, is that I'm not the creepy one here. It's these guys:
BALLET SERIES by Edgar Degas
Beginning around 1870, French Impressionist Edgar Degas started a series of paintings in both oil and pastels depicting the ballet, both in rehearsals, backstage preparation, during performances, and the performers curtseying before their grateful audience.
The only painter, or rather, traditional visual artist that I cite when referring to influences, Degas is the one artist I can always look back to as a reference and something of a mentor from another age. His paintings are of the few that will always remain alive, impressive, and challenging to me, and are less passive than those of his contemporary impressionists and of the expressionists who would follow. His compositions speak to the cinema, the mood to music, and the movement to both.
The reasons for Degas' pleasure or obsession with this subject matter may stem partially from his fascination with music and performance. Not only did the opera house offer many spectacular backdrops and motifs to employ in his artwork, but composers Emmanuel Chabrier and Ernest Reyer were counted among his comrades. When it came to the dancers themselves, he enjoyed their company and freely afforded them the dignity and respect he was often infamous for not offering others, including his closest friends.
THE RED SHOES by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Powell and Pressburger, commonly referred to as "The Archers," were two of the greatest filmmakers who ever commited their lives to the craft. From subject matter ranging from war, to the road trip, to sexuality, to life itself, these two mustered more colorful and specifically realized masterpieces together than any ten directors.
It's The Red Shoes, however, that to me remains their defining accomplishment. I can confidently say this is my favorite movie of all-time, but would have difficulty in expressing why, because every meticulous detail and construction of the film is perfect in a staggeringly objective way. Every scene and line of dialogue serve the story. Every performance is perfect. The major dance sequence is not only the best in all of cinema, but, combined with the craft of surrealist filmmaking, it emerges from both ballet and film as an entirely new artform.
In this production, ballet can refer to any artform, and Moira Shearer can stand in as any brilliant artist faced with the heavy sacrifices that challenge many of us. Art has to be lived, and there often isn't room for family and other luxuries. As Shearer responds in the film when asked why she wants to dance: "Why do you want to live?"
BALLERINA by Van Morrison
Van Morrison is a popular singer/songwriter who broke into the scene in the late 60's. He brought to the fore a kind of music no one since has been able to classify, though some have declared it its own genre: "Celtic Soul." I don't consider myself much of a fan, but I have to admit that "Astral Weeks" is not only his greatest work, but easily one of the greatest records of all-time, and a desert island record I wouldn't want to live without.
This is due to songs like Ballerina, which is arranged around the idea that a woman is emotionally drifting from her lover, the singer/narrator of the song. Yes, that is a tragic sentiment, but as with the 7 other tracks on this album, it demands closer scrutiny to understand its emotional and musical depth, the kind that few have ever matched. Our narrator refers to his lover as a ballerina, as she is becoming as mysterious and otherworldly as a dancer on a far away stage; he can no longer understand what she does, and how she carries herself, but her unraveling is occuring with the serenity and beauty with which she earned his affection. It's not until the final song of Astral Weeks that we finally understand that the horse she rides "is white as snow," and her death is both forthcoming and foreseeable to both of them.
Is there a common thread or use of the ballet, or a reason why these three ballet-inspired works of art capture my imagination? Although they all feature a careful aesthetic beauty, that alone is rarely enough to draw me in, hook, line, and sinker. What ends up winning me is the combination of beauty, carried out with a purposeful, academic approach.
In other words: every element is there for a reason. For instance, when Van Morrison pleads the line, "Child, you're headin' for a fall," and the drums suddenly hasten their tempo, raising the emotional stakes. When Lermantov explains the fairy tale of The Red Shoes to his composer, essentially (yet with casual grace) spilling the story of the film, itself. When Degas' dancers direct the eye across the image, not only with their composition and implied movement, but with the saturated hues of their uniforms, suggesting a color scheme far more modern than the Impressionist movement generally offered, but all rendered with a technical efficiently which gives respect to the classic tradition of drawing human anatomy.
Why even ask questions like this? Why bother reading into things that appear to you instantly perfect and chill-inducing in their presence? Well, how else will I learn, except from the best? And what is it about the ballet that captures the imagination of some of our greatest artists? To better understand, I've tried to portray this obsession myself numerous times:
After overthinking it all this time, I can't make anything of it. What is important, however, is that I've learned a great deal reaching that nonconclusion.
Sean Boyce, Devin Westland, and I have been traveling around Massachusetts, painting out in public, hustling on the streets, and doing our thing in general. Here are some short videos generously posted by Mr.Boyce.
On Tuesday nights from 6:30pm to 8:30pm, I host a figure drawing class at Three Fish and a Ram Community Art Center in Mashpee Commons, Massachusetts. Folks from a variety of ages and experience levels turn out each week, and it's quite a fulfilling endeavor for me, personally.
The following are some recent sketches resulting from our group. The times for the poses range from 1 minute in the first few drawings to ten minutes by the last.