Figure drawing: Integumentary Contour & Proportion (part 1)
October 31, 2013
I notice an inherent contradiction in the way sketchers work when crossing between urban or location sketching to life drawing. Both involve working from a “live model”. In location sketching one is aware of the changing light, so one works quickly; in life drawing, the pose is timed, so one also works quickly. But there the similarity seems to end. Life drawing sketches often end up thrown out with the rubbish, or recycled, painted over with gesso, ready for the next life drawing session. Location sketches are, by contrast, retained, “glorified” in fact in visual diary and travel sketchbooks – one wouldn’t think of throwing them away! I don’t know why this is so.
These days, out of a possible one to two dozen sketches from an average life drawing session, I’m retaining the best half dozen for further reference and analysis. The idea is that If I don’t change what I’m doing, I’m dooming myself to making the same mistakes over and over!
I’m tipping them (especially the very short 1min and 2min poses) into a large sketchbook and then covering them with an overlay of tracing paper. The tracing paper not only protects them from smudging but also allows me to go back and add any additional lines or marks I think will amplify the original and help teach me a bit more about perspective and how muscles relate, how mass and detail might work and ultimately how the fall of light and tonal values might work. This process is helping improve my self-confidence because I’m very often deeply depressed at the end of a life drawing session about how little I was able to capture in the allotted time!
Here’s a sketch from a life drawing session done two months ago. For a long time now, I’ve been starting with the head and working down the figure. American watercolorist Charles Reid works in the same way. In short poses, very often the lower limbs get short-shrift. I don’t know anyone who sketches from the ground up, doing the feet and lower limbs first, but I’m very impressed lately with the ‘sturdy’ character of Goya’s figures: the lower limbs are far from being neglected in his engravings. I’m sorely tempted to use life drawing sessions to sketch in the upper body lightly and concentrate mainly on the lower body.
It’s of course vital that beginners put the whole of the figure on to the page and not run out of paper by the time they get to the knees, regardless of how much viewers appreciate head and shoulders. The face and skull are the first things human look at, after all. There is a very strong trend in modern photography to only include the head and torso down to the knees. Figure drawing from photos means trawling through dozens of 3/4-poses to come up with one or two full-length shots.
Which brings us to the tricky business of proportions. For years, I’ve been observing my fellow beings in public, noting those with longer-than-average trunks compared to their legs, for instance, and generally how little (especially in these times days of endemic obesity) how much humans differ in reality from the ideal of the artist. Copying Old Master drawings and drawing people in the street are like two separate universes.
But a quick overview of proportions as analysed by artists themselves shows tremendous variation: everything from the human figure being five heads high to eight heads high. This dilemma is summarised in the following photo, clipped from a newspaper the day after a life drawing session, mainly because of the very stark contrast between this fashion model and the female model at life drawing.
So what does a life drawing student do? Drawing textbooks talk of splitting the height (or width in the case of reclining pose) on the page in two and finding that midpoint on the model. I’ve found that useful.
The next challenge is to get the relative proportions of each body part correct, once one knows (for example) that chin-to-nipple forms a single head-height, that elbows are close to the level of the navel, that the upper leg is two-heads high and that the width of the foot is the same as the height of the head.
With this in mind, one progresses to landmarks (where boney bits show, e.g. clavicle, elbows, wrists, knees, ankles). A further level of sophistication involves adjusting for perspective, since one is rarely facing exactly head-on to the model.
At the end of the day, especially with 1min, 2min, 5min and even 10min poses, one can only reasonably expect to get the contour right and work on planes and masses, hopefully with some accurate and interesting integumentary contour, i.e. where the muscles meet.
Because skin and fat conceal much of the sense of muscle, I’m learning to do what most artists do – add to what is not readily visible! It’s often said that one should draw what one sees, but that’s never the case with figure drawing: you always draw what you know is there (even if it’s not obvious), not what you actually see. For a viewer to accept that a human figure is realistic or life-like, one always has to add “cues” such as cheekbones, elbows and ankles.