October 4, 2008

The Standing Pose: Rhythm and Contrapposto

The traditional standing pose comes straight down from the Hellenistic Greeks, who seemed to have figured out almost everything about portraying the human form without benefit of figure drawing websites. In their figurative sculpture they sought to capture the essence of activity within the static marble or bronze forms, and they emphasized the shifting balance through the body to give a sense of arrested action – as if the figure was pausing between two postures, like in the act of shifting weight from one leg to another. It’s interesting when looking at the statues of the Greeks that often the facial expressions of the figures are in repose, often seemingly blank of emotion, while the position of the body is full of action and stress and strain (the Laccoon Group would be an example).
I’ve wondered how much we read emotion differently than the ancient Greeks – if we read emotions through faces much more than they did. The interesting point of comparison would be our dominant modes of dramatic storytelling – for the ancient Greeks it was theater, where the performers were masked, and relied, along with text, on movement that was possibly very akin to dance to convey the emotional states of the characters. Our dominant form of dramatic storytelling is film, which relies heavily on the close-up of performer’s facial expressions – often in the cinema an actor’s face projected on the screen can be the size of a building, and we’re attuned to every almost imperceptible flicker of facial muscles.
In any event, this standing pose, with the weight clearly on one leg, was rediscovered in Renaissance Italy and conveniently given a name: the Contrapposto pose.

con·trap·pos·to n A relaxed asymmetrical pose of the human body in art, especially sculpture, in which the shoulders and hips are turned in different planes

It conveys a series of opposing balances, one shoulder higher than the other, then the opposite side of the pelvis higher than the other, and leg on the side of the higher pelvis carrying the weight down to the floor.

One can visualize the weight of the body coursing down from the head to the ground like water down a mountain stream, the sinuous shape of the water buffeted from side to side, rock to rock (another image might be weight falling down towards the earth like balls in a pachinko machine, if that works for you).
The point of the Contrapposto pose is to avoid straight lines that lead too directly to the ground, but rather to create opposing rhythms that arrest the eye and move it across as much possible. And that’s an interesting goal right there – to deliberately move the eye across the whole body, and to feel the rhythms and life of the figure in every part.
Artists after the Renaissance codified the Contrapposto pose into a specific series of lines and relations, and while we aren’t about laying down rules here, guidelines are helpful, to be ignored whenever we feel like it (we can draw people in the act of falling over if that’s what we want to do).
It helps to visualize a line of gravity that falls straight down from the head to the ground – if the figure is looking straight at us, you can draw the line from the chin down to the ground. From the head to the ground, the body’s gravity moves as a series of diagonals back and forth across this line, until moving through the dominant, weight bearing leg to the foot, which lines up under the chin (“Ball of the foot under the chin!” a teacher of mine used to declaim to the class, “Ball of the foot under the chin!”)
In the Ecolé des Beaux Artes, this was further codified to a line that began along the neck of the weight-bearing side, passed through the torso to run along the inside thigh of the leg, and then crossing over the leg to outside ankle.

And we can see a direct relation between the Doryphoros by Polyclitus, seen above in a fragment of a Roman copy (of the lost Greek original bronze) and the pouty hip-thrusting pose of every fashion model ever.

And we should immediately note that people rarely arrange themselves so perfectly in day-to-day life, and a person can look very solidly planted on the ground without a line running through their body in this specific way. It is, after all, a pose.
Remember our first, original goal – to draw figures that look like real, living beings, with hopes and dreams and thoughts, rather than mannequins leaning against the wall in a warehouse. If the Contrapposto pose is, in its essence, a contrivance, it’s only because the act of drawing itself is, in the service of conveying life and action.

September 18, 2008

Syllabus and the New School Year

Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible. - Paul Klee

And we're back - a new school year, a new class to teach, and the scent of autumn has finally come to grace the air in New York City. Here for all to see is our syllabus for the Fall semester:

Figure Drawing III

Issues of Technique and Expression
New York University
Tisch School of the Arts
Department of Design for Stage and Film

Grading will be based entirely on boldness, generosity of spirit, and personal growth in class.

Class Schedule

September 3
First Principles of Figure Drawing and Costume Sketches – a review of the how and why of figure drawing
• The illusion of form
• Volume and Form
• The major masses of the body
• Review of proportion and general principles of anatomy – the major landmarks

September 10
Balance and Force
The Standing Pose and Power of Gravity

• The Line of Balance
• Opposing rhythms and directional forces
• Tradition and the Contrapposto

September 17
Body Types – the range of sizes and shapes in the human form
• Pears, Cylinders and Wedges
• Changing Ideals of Beauty

September 24
Watercolor Warm Up
• Review of watercolor fundamentals

• Color theory – purity and mud

October 1
Age and Body History
The changing proportions and appearance of the body from infancy to maturity
• The body’s continuum and this moment in time

October 8
• Color and Shape
• Social History and Meaning
• Grey Hair (draw the instructor)

October 15
Watercolor Part II

• Warm and Cool
• Light and Shadows

• Color palette variations – warm and cool compositions

October 22
• Review of fabric types
• Sheen and reflection

• Layers and Transparency

October 29
Fabrics II
• Fur and leather
• The life of fabric
• How clothes don’t fit

November 5
Fabrics III
Patterns and weaves – painting opaquely

November 12
Opaque painting and different carriers
• Acrylics and matte mediums
• Gessoed surfaces

November 19

Introduction to the 21st Century
Photoshop and the computer

November 26
Photoshop and the computer II

December 3
Figure Drawing Extravaganza
Multiple models and special guests

Nonstop drawing rave

Art is our best way of connecting with life, and it is our best way of shielding ourselves from life.
- Thomas Mann

July 30, 2008

More Skulls

Just because I've been drawing and painting little else. Time to move on to other matters.

July 29, 2008

Faces on the Subway

A natural step after my recent obsession with drawing the skull was to take my sketchbook (a clever little Moleskine that flips open like a reporter's notepad) and try to draw the skulls within my fellow human's heads. Which is a morbid way of saying I went out and drew people's portraits, in this instance while trying to look nonchalant on the subway. And in most cases the people I chose to draw were not skeletal, with prominent cheekbones, etc., but as much as possible a good New York City cross section of body types, genders and races.

What's also morbid is the aggressive halogen light that glares down on one and all in all its civic gloom, throwing eyes into shadow and making all complexions sallow. Still and all, there, hidden underneath, are the eye sockets, the cheekbones, the maxillae and mandibles we all share in common.

I'm still under the spell of the drawings I did, noted below, of my cast skull draped with a cloth, and how drawing a face or head or all of the figure is essentially drawing the surface that shows hints of the form within.

April 27, 2008

The Skull Beneath the Skin

"I have a real passion for bones … Have you noticed that bones are always modeled and not carved, that you always have the impression they come from a mold, that they were first modeled in clay? Any bone you look at, you always find fingerprints on it … The fingerprints of the god who amused himself fashioning them—I can see them on any bone whatsoever."
- Pablo Picasso, quoted by Brassai in his book "Conversations with Picasso"

Go get yourself a skull, perhaps a nice inexpensive plastic cast (here, or here), or a really nice cast (here or here) and have it sitting on your desk in a Cezanne-like tableau, and hold it and feel it and draw it all the time.

Holding it in your hands is vital - understanding the mass of the brain case, and the barrel shape of the teeth and jaws, etc., really comes from feeling their shape under your fingers. I strongly feel that if you know and understand a form, you can't not draw it.

Far too often people draw the head as a mushy balloon shape with features imperfectly stuck on the surface. If one really knows the skull's form - if one feels it in one's bones would be the apt phrase - then you know those peaks and valleys, the eye socket and the zygomatic arch and all the other landmarks as well as you know the way home.

Like everything in drawing the figure (like everything in life) we begin by finding the simple shapes, and then build on and revise them. For the skull we start with a sphere for the brain case, which we then slice the sides off of, like so:

Hanging down from this is the mass of the face - filled with holes like swiss cheese for the senses: eye sockets, nasal opening, mandibles, and ear holes on the side, to access the world out there.

Note the proportions shown in the drawing. The wonderfully complex shape just needs to be explored and drawn, both from life and from memory, both genders and every race, until you can see them effortlessly under the skin of everyone around you. And it's not a creepy Halloween vision, I promise, it's about the animating force of life.

(The Electronic Media Arts site has an interesting page here with many photos of a good skull cast from every angle, and in the absence of a real skull or cast, a nice afternoon could be spent drawing these).

March 29, 2008

A Brief Word on Painting Gold

When it comes time to pour gold accessories on a figure - capes and necklaces and chains and belts - the naive artist will reach for their tube of gold p
aint. It seems to make sense: gold thing is painted with gold pigment, which looks like it's made from actual gold. By the same logic, when we come to paint flesh tones, we should reach for that tube of 'flesh' pigment, made from real flesh.

I have nothing against gold paint, and have a nice collection of tubes and jars of it, including all sorts of bronzing powders and gold leaf, and on summer afternoons I pull them all out and look at them sparkle in the sun. But when rendering a gold object they don't work, at least not by themselves.

Gold paint is generally a particle with some natural iridescence, such as mica, suspended in a clear binder, and this iridescence catches the light in a pleasingly metallic way. But there are several objections to it's use when trying to depict an object in space. Were we to paint a gold ball, for instance, and dutifully drew a circle and filled in the shape with gold paint, it would glitter nicely but would remain looking like a circle - there would be no sense of the third dimension, no shadow or highlight, nor would it reflect the world around it.

The best method is to paint gold with an opaque medium like gouache, as a mass of several colors, and to do so we must acquaint ourselves both with the colors of gold and its behavior. In the example I have done of a golden statue, I have followed a classic scenic painting technique, with the following steps:

1. A brown underpainting, in raw sienna and black, which models the form - this is transparent and layered.
2. Another wash with olive green, for gold has more green than one suspects at first.
3. Highlights and reflections painted with cadmium yellow deep, which as you can see is a lovely orange color.
4. Finer highlights and reflections in cadmium yellow pale - and this is the trick: the yellow is painted only on top of the orange color. Also, it is used mainly for the highlights - reflections generally remain orange.
5. The brightest highlights are then added with permanent white, which as before is only painted on top of the yellow.

6. As this statue is outdoors, I added a little cool sky blue - mixed ultramarine and white - to pop out the warm tones by contrast.

Let's look at actual, real painters, like Rembrandt and "Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer" - the whole painting sparkles and shimmers like gold, but he used no gold paint. If you can, go to the Metropolitan Museum and stand before it, and look especially at Aristotle's chain - thin glazes of rich oranges and browns with thick glops of yellows and whites on top.

If you can get to the National Galley in Washington DC, take a look at David's portrait of Napoleon. Gold objects abound, like the chair to the right, and the epaulets on his uniform - again, no sparkly gold paint used, just browns, oranges, yellows and whites.

As I said, you can use gold paint if you want, why not? My suggestion would be to not paint it directly over white, or to use it flatly. Try painting it over a black or dark brown base, and try to stipple and model the object you're trying to convey, as in my quick example here:

(One of the issues with using gold and metallic pigments is that they copy and scan unpredictably, and obviously without their sparkling character translating.)

Observation is the key, as ever, so look at all the reflective, shimmering things in the world and take note.

March 16, 2008

Drawing Fabric - Part 2

The recent homework assignment was to drape cloth over some object and draw the tableau with charcoal and chalk on brown paper, with an eye to making the object within understandable - the assignment yielded some wonderful results (we'll try to post some soon). I tried my hand at it myself, wrapping a plastic cast of a skull in a dishtowel (I sort of threw the game by poking in the indentation of the eye socket).

It is a fascinating activity - I kept reflecting on how in drawing a face and head of a fellow human we're drawing the thin membrane of skin that covers the skull, and in recording the topography of the face we're also aware of the mass of the skull underneath. And in more mature years, people's faces become less taut, and the skin will pucker and wrinkle in ways that suggest loose fabric. I've drawn my plastic skull many many times, but drawing these studies I had an eerie feeling of evoking the actual person who in time past spoke and ate and listened to music and saw the sun shine, before dying and yielding their skull to be cast and molded plastic.

March 1, 2008

Drawing Fabric - Part 1

The folds and wrinkles of fabric are endlessly fascinating and can be overwhelming in their shifting complexity. Some simple observations to help us:

Just as we study the forms of the skeleton so that its masses are always understood to be within the body we draw, so the body itself (and the skeleton within it) are understood to be within the clothing of the person we're drawing. The folds and draping shapes of clothing are thus defined by the body the clothes cover, enfold, surround, and hang from. We essentially draw the effects of gravity on the cloth that dresses the figure.

The variety of folds and wrinkles - always changing as the figure moves - are a series of transient abstract shapes that express the action of the figure, and pass by like clouds on a windy day. But like clouds, their abstract shapes have been given names and organized into categories - just as wispy, insubstantial clouds are labeled 'cumulus' and 'cirrus,' so folds have been given a series of names by George Bridgeman, the influential drawing teacher at the Art Students League a hundred years ago. His categories:

Pipe Fold
Zigzag Fold
Spiral Fold
Half-lock Fold
Diaper Pattern
Drop Fold

It is, one will soon discover, a bit arbitrary, and fabric sometimes acts as if it never read Bridgeman's books at all, but it's an entry point.

A basic idea is that fabric wants to hang from a point - let's say a shoulder - in a series of perfectly coned-shaped pipe folds, but other forces - like other tensions and compression points - will interact with the pipe fold shape and create the other forms. We can see clearly, usually, that the diaper pattern is really two sets of pipe folds radiating from two hanging points and creating new valleys and ridges as they meet together. There are many ways to visualize this, but let's begin with the following illustrations:

February 15, 2008

The Head and Face

We 'read' the faces of our fellow humans in greater detail than anything else we look at - we see endless, fascinating things in the expressions that flicker across someone's face. If only we could read elbows and bellies, and shadows and sunsets, as deeply - we would all be mystics and saints!

We want to immediately draw the parts of the face that interest us - the eyes, of course, and the mouth and nose - and tend to ignore everything else, but we need to understand, as ever, the whole form, and how the whole shape works together.

We should see the head, the shape defined by the skull, as a ball, the shape that roughly encompasses the brain. And attached to this is egg shape of the face, where all the interesting parts - the eyes and and eyelashes and lips and so on - are arranged.

Like every part of the body - the body as a whole - understanding the proportions is the key to the whole matter. I even suggest in this instance rote memorization - copying charts such as I've drawn here, until you can do it in your sleep, and then experience the joy of seeing how the real world - the actual heads and faces we encounter in life - follow and diverge from the system.

In drawing the 'egg' of the face, one first divides it down the center north pole to south pole, and then the equator. The equator line is where the eyes fall - right smack dab in the middle of the head. This at first seems to grant people far more forehead than seems right, but if you look you'll see that faces are all scrunched down in that lower half of the head - when we begin drawing we for some reason cheat people out of their fair share of brain cases.

The next division is a leap of faith, but it works, I swear - indicate the hairline on the egg of the face, and then divide the distance from the hairline to the jaw in three parts - this gives us the brow and the bottom of the nose. And even with just these marks indicate we begin to have a compelling face. Try it, it works.

You see here I used the same proportions to draw Beethoven and a 40's actress, and the same proportions hold for Ernest Borgnine and Bertolt Brecht and Ella Fitzgerald - a wide (infinite!) array of faces, all built on the same schema.

The features themselves bear being practiced in isolation. I'll do a deeper posting about each of these individually, but for now I'll note that we tend, when we first begin to draw, to adopt a series of naive symbols for each of the features which in truth blinds us to what they actually look like. The eyes are often drawn as two arcs joined together, horizontally symmetrical, when in fact the shape of the eye is far more complex - always, when you draw the eye, try to remember how it is a ball in a socket, with folds of flesh (the lids) wrapped around it.

I think of the lips as two 'M's' and a 'W.' An elongated 'M' forms the upper shape of the lip, and second, generally more shallow 'M' forms the line of the mouth, and then an elongated 'W'
forms the lower lip - what is the relationship between the shapes? That is what makes each individual mouth unique.

And the ear! Again, we'll look at it in greater depth later, but look at, and commit to memory, the parts:

- The helix, the 'C' shaped piece of cartilage that gives the overall shape to the ear
- The anti helix, the major shape contained within the helix, which branches at the top
- The conch, a smaller 'C' shape that encompasses the passage into the ear canal
- The tragus, the little ridge that protects the other side of the ear canal
- and everyone's favorite, the lobe.

January 19, 2008

Take these arms

The bones of the lower arm perform one of the great tricks of the human body, which we do every time we do something like turn a key in a lock or look at our wrist watch - the twisting motion that, even though we do it without thinking, involves some of the most interesting bone shapes in the body. There are two bones in the lower arm, the ulna and radius, and each is responsible for a different action - the ulna carries the lower arm up and down, like when one lifts a weight, and the radius, as the name suggests, twists the lower arm.

The joint of the humerus at the elbow has an interesting spool shape that the ulna moves up and down on - and the ulna has an answering shape that has been called the 'parrot's beak.' The radius pivots on a shape on the humerus joint that's called the capilum, a half ball shape that fits into the radius's half round joint.

These shapes don't express themselves in figure drawings, of course, but their action does, and the differing shapes the forearm makes as it moves. When the palm is up and the thumb is pointed away from body's centerline, ulna and radius are parallel - in the supine position. When the palm is down and the thumb is pointed towards the body, the radius is crossed over the ulna, which we call the pronate position. The radius attaches at the wrist on the thumb side, and we can imagine the radius carrying the thumb this way and that as it moves.

These two side by side, or crossing, bones, give the forearm its distinctive shape at the wrist, twice as wide as high. The bones at the elbow, upper arm and shoulder are essentially buried under the thick cords of crisscrossing muscles that perform the many actions of our expressive arms.

The leg bone's connected to …

There are three large major bones in the leg, the femur (or 'thigh bone') which connects to the socket of the pelvis, the tibia, which engages with the femur at the knee, and the fibula, which runs roughly parallel to the tibia from the knee down to the ankle, and whose purpose mainly seems to be getting broken on skiing trips (my father, working as a radiologist in the ski resort town of Tahoe, said that broken fibulas put me through art school). The femur and the tibia are the largest, longest bones of the body, with large knobs at either end, such as make good weapons for cavemen in cartoons (note especially the hammer shape of the femur where it engages with the pelvis).

The knee joint is protected, if that is the word (again, it seems to get injured all the time) by the bony cap of the patella, which connects to the tibia with a large wedge of ligament.

The important thing to note about the bones of the leg is that none of them are truly vertical - the femur, from the front, is held out and away from the body's centerline by its engagement with the pelvis, and then is angled back towards the body's centerline as it moves down towards the knee. From the side we also see the femur travel down and back as it moves towards the knee - it's at a one o'clock position rather than noon, if you can picture that. Likewise the tibia and fibula, while roughly parallel to one another, echo the femur's movement towards the body's centerline as it travels down to the ankle, and tilts slightly back when viewed from the side (though closer to vertical than the femur - maybe 12:30 rather than noon).

Be sensitive to the beautiful, changing angles and rhythms of the leg as it travels from hips to ground, and avoid the straight vertical shaft that is appropriate in drawing a robot (but only a pre- '50's robot) but undermines a figure drawing.

January 9, 2008

Hand drawing

Everyone has tried to avoid drawing hands at some point, maybe by posing their figures with their hands insouciantly behind their backs, or with mittens or even better a muff. The challenges of drawing hands are several, not least that the parts often seem to exceed the whole - it often seems impossible to fit five fingers on the palm, which is no doubt why cartoon characters from Mickey Mouse to Bart Simpson have four fingers.

It seems to make sense to divide the hand into three parts: the wedge of the palm, with the mass of the thumb as a separate mass, then the fingers. The four fingers of course can hold all sorts of poses - I don't think anything is more articulate and expressive than the human hand, besides maybe a cat's tail - so it takes careful study.

I copied one very expressive hand here from Burne Hogarth, who was very helpful in visualizing the knuckles of the fingers as a series of disks the flesh of the fingers bulge or pinch at.

It was in class just this November that I noticed for the first time that the horizontal lines on the palm (the 'heart' and 'head' lines in palmistry) line up with the knuckles on the back of the hand, something you think I would have noticed before now.

The last drawing here is a Disney model sheet from the 30's of Mickey's hands. This comes from the always-interesting site Animation Archives, where lots of wonderful how-to-draw images, most from decades past, can be found.