Drypoint Engraving – Bowman – and why painting and drawing the figure is challenging

Bowman 9.75 x 7 inch Drypoint Engraving with Watercolor (available framed here)

Getting the Figure Right

Why is it that you can paint a successful landscape or a still life – with color, layout and shape a little cattywampus – but if you paint a human with the face or figure askew, it’s uncomfortable to look at? I’m not talking about seasoned paintings of figures that were deliberately rendered with a little squash-and-stretch, like the work of Picasso, Modigliani or Moore.  I’m referring to the work we strain over in figure drawing classes, and our cartoon-warped attempts at cafe-goers during an urban sketch crawl, or our well-intentioned plans to paint friends and family from favorite snapshots. A next day review of my figurative work from a distance at the studio door jam usually erupts in mumblings like “pin head”, “orangutang arms” and “popeye-face”. Getting anatomy right is painful to the thin-skinned ego. Mastering the human face and figure demands a certain amount of accuracy to be easy on the eyes.

a watercolor palette next to an in process drypoint of an archer

Adding layers of watercolor glazes to the drypoint

Find the Ugliest Baby

On a trip to Italy twenty years ago with dear family friends, we spent glorious afternoons in museums staring at amazing paintings. Artwork inspired by scripture has always fascinated me for the clues into the painter’s character, and the story they were trying to describe: people of little means often couldn’t read, so paintings adorning church walls helped illustrate the sermons and biblical narratives being broadcast from the pulpit. My friends challenged me to join their traditional quest to find the ugliest baby in the Medieval paintings, because – well – most of them really do look like little troll men. (Read this article by Phil Edwards about why babies in Medieval paintings look like misshapen old guys.)

ugly baby example from a painting done around 1460

Carlo Crivelli’s “The Virgin and Child With Infants Bearing Symbols of the Passion,” circa 1460

We Like Attractive

In articles about our hard-wired affinities – what appeals to us and qualifies as attractive – symmetry plays a big role. In this study, symmetry in a face equates to good health, so it follows that if you’re portrait painting of cousin Elsa has slightly crooked eyes (I struggle with this constantly), or the nose is just a skosh to the left, your audience might wince just a little. The wincing is the same in real life; when we see people born with physical deformities, we have to will ourselves not to stare. That’s a real thing, and some scientists call it the Hijacking of the Amygdala.  If you’re interested in the climb towards mastery of drawing and painting the human figure, check out Scott Eaton’s online courses.

an art exhibit display panel at a festival outdoors with a group of paintings framed on display

Mister Bowman keeping company with other art a few weeks ago at the San Diego Artwalk

Why Do We Like What We Like?

If you’re interested in the tug of war between abstract and figurative art over history, this comprehensive essay does a great job of pointing out some of the whys and hows of our collective art tastes over the years.

Although the figure did not have the dominant presence in twentieth century art that it did in previous times, it has been particularly important to two styles – social realism and Expressionism. Social realists have deployed the figure in their attempt to accurately record contemporary social life. And Expressionists have put the human figure at the centre of a style devoted to celebrating human yearnings and anxieties.  ~The Art Story

Train Your Brain

Our brains are wired to like the face and figure rendered with undulations and curves over sharp angles and points, according to a study cited in this article. Perhaps as we practice drawing and painting people, we get better at dropping the telltale beginner hard lines around lips, nose and eyes. We learn where to lose edges, and how to adjust length and angle of limbs to portray more relaxed, natural poses. When I’ve been working for days on a figurative piece, I lose sight of what’s off-kilter, and I have to resort to tricks to see my work with new eyes. I peer at the art over my shoulder using a convex mirror, or snap a photo on my phone so I can see the figure as a postage-stamp-sized thumbnail. Or I remove all the color and look at the work in grayscale to observe the accuracy of my values. I need all the help I can get.

You’re in Good Company

Lest you should feel singled out in critiques of your figurative work, this article about Degas’ monotypes, paintings and sculptures of teen ballet dancers includes some of the reviews written about his work in newspapers. Keep your chin up, and your sketchpad open. These human anatomy rendering skills will take some practice. And may I suggest an audiobook streaming into your ears – for it will help muffle the din of your own internal naysayer. #gettowork

“With bestial effrontery she moves her face forward, or rather her little muzzle – and this word is completely correct because the little girl is the beginning of a rat.” (The adolescent corps de ballet at the Paris Opera were known as petits rats.) He goes on: “Why is she so ugly? Why is her forehead, half covered by her hair, marked already, like her lips, with a profoundly vicious character?”

~Paul Mantz on Degas’ bronze of the Little Dancer

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you in the next post!


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Art Quote

In my room, the world is beyond my understanding;
But when I walk, I see that it consists of three or four
hills and a cloud.

~ Wallace Stevens

Check out this groovy new online course!

A Drypoint Engraving from a Plexiglass plate, and Why Accuracy in rendering the human face and figure is so important
Article Name
A Drypoint Engraving from a Plexiglass plate, and Why Accuracy in rendering the human face and figure is so important
A drypoint engraving of an archer with bow and arrow, and two video tutorials showing how to make a drypoint from a sheet of acrylic, plexiglass or mylar drafting film. And an essay on the challenges to render accurate human anatomy, and why it's so important in the appeal of artwork.
Publisher Name
Belinda Del Pesco
Publisher Logo

3 Responses to Drypoint Engraving – Bowman – and why painting and drawing the figure is challenging

  1. maryliztippinmoody June 12, 2018 at 3:43 pm #

    Thank you again so much for the wonderful demos, Brenda – your work is so inspiritational!

    • Belinda DelPesco June 13, 2018 at 1:51 pm #

      Thanks for the feedback, Mary Liz – If you ever give one of the demos a try, and you have questions, don’t be shy! Come here, or leave questions in the comments of the videos. 🙂


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