Reading the Body

Instead of blogging I’ve been reading! And working late on drawing projects. I’m so happy to be reading again, although it’s not during the early morning on Tuesdays and Thursdays as I had planned — funny how given more time in the morning you find new pressing ways to fill it! I’ll take the late night reading nonetheless. I’ve been reading both for fun and for art learning and more and more all I want to read about is art. This is the momentum I’ve been waiting for — that sweet spot where I know enough about what I’m reading to both benefit from it and downright enjoy it.

Right now I’m devouring books on drawing technique. This is extra beneficial because although the atelier has a syllabus with a reading list of sorts and requires many hours of drawing every day, like in all forms of education and facets of life, it’s really up to you to dig in deep and seek out the resources you need to put it all together. The teachers come around and critique you or demonstrate a technique you seem to be struggling with, but real understanding requires taking ownership and filling knowledge gaps on your own. Right now I have three weighty volumes of human anatomy for artists going.

Every morning we draw from a nude model in the life room. There are many reasons that the human figure is akin to the barre in a ballet class. The human figure has both proportional rules and volume. That means that no matter who you’re drawing, common design proportions will remain true. According to 19th century academic standards, the human body is usually 7 and a half head lengths tall. The Ancient Egyptians standardized nine head lengths, which is one reason those ancient glyphs look other-worldly. The Greek’s heroic proportions also mandated 9. Both ancient societies wanted to emphasize the power of their respective civilizations and the important people drawn, painted and sculpted. By the 19th century we worked toward realism and accuracy.

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The tradition I study still embraces this. The head is roughly the length of: the hand from the middle finger to the top of the wrist, the top of the shoulder to the bottom of the shoulder blade, the length between the armpit and elbow and many many other strange and beautiful coincidences. Take a look at this diagram by Dr. Richer:

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Drawing the human figure demands a basic set of skills that all artists must learn to master no matter what style of art they go on to create. Pablo Picasso for example was classically trained. He learned in an atelier drawing in a life room and measuring heads lengths with a stick the same way I do. He needed to learn the rules before he could break them. On the left we have drawing Picasso made as a student and on the right we have one from mid-career.

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See what I mean? The guy had serious skills and vision. So committing to skills means committing to learning the human anatomy inside and out, understanding how muscles change shape when performing a certain action and being able to translate a three-dimensional form (often slightly moving because even the best models can’t stay frozen) onto a flat, two-dimensional surface as a drawing on a sheet of paper.

My two favorite books right now are Bridgman’s  The Complete Guide to Drawing from Lifeand Dr. Paul Richer’s Artistic Anatomy. Bridgman is a great place to start. I’ve been getting a lot out of just copying the drawings out of the book and the writing is engaging and practical. He’s a beautiful draftsman and has a great eye for prioritizing essential information (the correct placement of the head in relation to the hips is more important than the proportions of the toes) and discarding what’s not needed. His drawings are buoyant and full of life whether he’s doing a gestural block man or a scrawly twisting figure and magically they are anatomically sound. If you want an exhaustive text on anatomy written for artists — not exactly beach reading, it’s more like a reference book although bless you if you want to read it through — look no further than Richer. He was a scientist, artist and professor at Ecole des Beaux Arts and wrote this seminal work in 1889. With all our technological and medical breakthroughs in the intervening years we still haven’t written a better one.

It really is fascinating how understanding the way bones, muscles and ligaments fit together creates a better drawing. Last Friday we ended our two-week pose which was all knees from my vantage. The model knelt with her feet to one side and leaned to the opposite side resting on an arm. My easel was centered to her and slightly lower than she was. So if you can imagine me looking slightly up at her, the knees were the largest features and took up half the drawing. Normally that kind of foreshortening is my achilles heel but this time there was something else plaguing my drawing, the knees were all wrong. Juliette noticed this common error in all of our drawings and asked the first years to spend the afternoon drawing knee joints from anatomy books in all different positions. We even unlocked the glass case that keeps the skeleton of a horse and rolled the horse into the hallway so we could draw it from all angles. The next day I started a new drawing of the same pose and strangely everything came together. I didn’t draw bones or ligaments per se, but I now know the shape and angle of the patella (knee cap) when bent and how the anterior tubercle of the tibia protrudes sharply just underneath the patella in this position. I was able to orient the knees in my drawing through this knowledge and give the model a pair of gorgeous though gigantic anatomically correct knees.

(Featured Image: Pablo Picasso’s “Head of a Horse, Sketch for Guernica,” from 1937)

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