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.