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).