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.
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.)
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.
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
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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