Drypoint Engraving – and What Makes Figurative Drawing So Challenging?

drypoint etching

Save for later & Share!

a drypoint engraving of a bowman, loading and pulling an arrow
Bowman 9.75 x 7 inch Drypoint Engraving with Watercolor (available framed here) See a video tutorial on how to print a drypoint engraving without a press below.

Why Figurative Drawing is Challenging

Why is it that you can paint a successful landscape or a still life – even if the color and layout are a bit fantastical? But if you draw the figure with the face or limbs askew, it’s a bit squirmy to look at.

I’m not referring to seasoned paintings of figures that were deliberately rendered with a little squash-and-stretch, like the work of Picasso, Modigliani or Moore

I’m recalling the work we strain over in figure drawing classes, and our cartoon-warped attempts at cafe-goers during an urban sketch crawl. What about well-intentioned plans to paint friends and family from favorite snapshots that turn out to look like lovingly rendered portraits of gnomes?

A next day review of figurative work at my studio door usually produces mumblings like “head’s too small”, “orangutang arms” and “lopsided eyes”. Getting anatomy wrong is painful to the thin-skinned ego.

Mastering the human face and figure demands a certain amount of accuracy if you’re hoping to garner appeal from collectors (or yourself).

a watercolor palette next to a drypoint engraving of an archer, in the process of being hand colored
Adding layers of watercolor glazes to a drypoint etching

Medieval Figure Painting – Find the Ugliest Baby

On a trip to Italy twenty years ago with dear family friends, we spent whole afternoons in museums gaping 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 proclaimed 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

2 Reasons We Crave Attractive Figures in Art

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. If your portrait painting of cousin Elsa has crooked eyes, or her nose is just a skosh to the left, your audience might flinch.
  • 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 scientists call it the Hijacking of the Amygdala
an art exhibit display panel at a festival outdoors with a group of paintings framed on display
Mister Bowman keeping company with collagraphs, watercolors and drypoint engravings at an art festival

Art History and the Human Form

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
Here is a demonstration video showing how to print a drypoint etching without a press

Train Your Artist’s 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.

Another dry point engraving tutorial, using drafting film or mylar as the printmaking plate

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 terrible reviews written about his work in newspapers. See an example below….

“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 review of Degas’ bronze of the Little Dancer

Keep your chin up, and a sketchpad open.

These human anatomy rendering skills take practice. And may I suggest an audiobook streaming into your ears – for it will help muffle the din of your own internal naysayer. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this one. #gettowork

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


P.S You can subscribe to get each post via email by signing up here. 🙂

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

Save for later & Share!

3 thoughts on “Drypoint Engraving – and What Makes Figurative Drawing So Challenging?”

    1. 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. 🙂

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *