Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Action Poses and Photography

For much of the nineteenth century, the mental image of the galloping horse was this pose, typified by this Currier and Ives print from 1890.

As blog reader R8R mentioned this in yesterday’s comments, Eadweard Muybridge began systematically photographing running horses as early as 1877.

This began as a way to settle a bet about whether a horse really had all four feet off the ground at a single time. The photos proved that it does, but not quite in the way artists had imagined. At the moment when all four feet are off the ground, they’re gathered under the horse’s belly, not kicked out front and back.

According to the photographic evidence, the Currier and Ives picture was inaccurate, even though it was done after Muybridge’s photos were available.

Muybridge’s evidence must have been hard for artists to digest at first. Modern painters like Marcel Duchamp, to their credit, were grappling with how to capture the dynamics of action in a single painting. There’s no easy or right way to do it, despite my promise at the end of yesterday’s post.

Yesterday we looked at three paintings of people walking. All of these paintings were based on poses that a model could hold in a static position. Although Wyeth and Rockwell certainly had access to fast-action photos of people in motion I suspect that candid action photographs didn’t “look right” to them.

A lot of you commented in praise of yesterday’s paintings, and I agree. Cormon’s image has gravitas; Rockwell’s has a stateliness, and Wyeth’s a desperate urgency. But I think they’re successful despite their posing of action. Not only are the poses all the same in each picture, they're not consistent with the realism of the rest of the treatment, and I think a painting that shows an action has to be convincing not only as a singular, static image, but also as a moment in a larger conception of movement and time.

Since Muybridge, the notion of what “looks right” has changed somewhat. Most of us wouldn’t accept the standard Currier and Ives pose for running horses anymore. We accept photographic action effects, like the blurring of a moving foot, for example.

Most illustrations by the mid twentieth century that show action poses—like this advertising illustration by Austin Briggs—tended to rely on candid action photography for paintings of action scenes. As a work of art, this one is a bit silly, but clearly he did his homework and really posed models in the action.

Tom Lovell also clearly studied action photography for this painting of Alexander for National Geographic. To my eye, this painting is successful in terms of movement because it conveys both the timeless epic and the snapshot incident.

Thanks to Leif Peng for the Austin Briggs image, link.
Muybridge on Wikipedia: Main article, and assorted animated gifs.


Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Honestly, I don't like the "snapshot" incident. It makes things look like a photograph... just a moment of something in movement, instead of something that really seems to move and have that energy. As an animator, I agree that most of the examples in the previous pose lacked something, because they weren't taken from real movement, but I do think that very specific care should be taken in choosing exactly which part of the movement to show. How much energy is in the pose, which really gives the *feel* of movement rather than just the evidence of movement.

JohnB said...

Photography has been a useful tool to the artist in understanding movement, but the challenge remains in being able to choose the right moment in a particular motion sequence that conveys the essence and kinetic energy of that motion.

James Gurney said...

Yes, good point, both of you. Not all moments of the action or frames of the film convey the entire movement in a single still picture.

If there are adjacent figures doing the same action, like people walking or horses galloping, well chosen and different poses can suggest the full scope of the action cycle.

Gayle said...

At least in the Wyeth painting, there was a certain character in how the pirates walked. Had he used proper photo ref of someone walking, something would be lost in their action. By having them walk in the same, plodding steps, the men become a single unit... a force moving across the beach.
Similarly, the consistent walking pattern of the faceless guards gives the same effect in the Rockwell painting.
I always use a ton of photo ref when I'm working on my illustrations. However, after studying them, I frequently deviate from certain details in order to achieve the character and the effect that I wish to convey, even if its not exactly true to life. Just look at Ingres. I don't think his women would be able to stand up on their own if they really existed.

kev ferrara said...

In my opinion:

Photographs capture the surface of things at a frozen moment of time. But the surfaces of things aren't important and there's no such thing as a moment of time. "Now" is a piece of rhetoric. Flow is the reality.

Each Muybridge still is statically true, but dynamically false. The Wyeth is statically false, but dynamically true. And I'll take dynamically true in an adventure illustration every time.

Similarly the Rockwell of the man hiding in his chair from his church-going family is comically true, even though his use of photos and awkward poses causes the action to be dynamically false. But the comedy is what matters.

Pyle and Dunn often said that it is sometimes necessary to exaggerate or diminish or leave out facts or paint something incorrectly in order that the overall statement be true. Just like with people, the heart of the picture is what truly matters.

James Gurney said...

Kev, good point. The frame of the movie usually doesn't convey the whole action. That's especially true of a weird extreme action like a major league baseball pitcher. I can't believe how strange the still photos look. To paint the action, you'd have to take some liberties.

Also, great point about the Pyle/Dunn principles of dynamic truth. I wonder how Wyeth's instinct for dynamics would have been influenced by modern high speed photography and action films. I remember reading an anecdote that he once watched a slow-motion sequence from a football game, and was completely mesmerized by it, jumping out of his chair and hooting.

Andrew said...

I gotta say, I love that Currier and Ives print, but not for any dynamic reason, I just think the idea of race horses flying around like little hovering speedsters is funny to me.

Something that I didn't think of before until I noticed that still from Muybridge's walk cycle is that a big problem I have with the Rockwell photos is that the characters are balanced. I've always felt that a walk or a run is really someone perpetually falling and catching themselves, and the body ought to be swaying to that rhythm. Because of that, the pose is never really upright, except maybe in a moment of brief, brief time.

I can look at Wyeth's painting and despite the fact that all the posing is the same, it's not as noticeable to me at first that it could be considered wrong, since there's a definite weight and movement to each pirate, while Rockwell's people are delicately balanced on their heels and their balance is the same as someone at rest.

mordicai said...

My wife loves loves loves "Horse in Motion."

jeff said...

I think Thomas Eakins's painting "A May Morning in the Park" used some of Muybridge's photos as studies.

Muybridge's work is fantastic for studying motion. I know some have tried this but is know how to use Flash you can animate his photos are they are 24 frames per second.

If I'm not mistaken Muybridge is the first one to figure this out, thus paving the way for animation.

Eakins was also a photographer and used it in his work a fair amount.

Daroo said...

I have to agree with kev and most of the other comments here (as well as those of yesterday). As a (mostly) former animator I am very intrigued with the art of motion and would endlessly analyze everything from Muybridge's work to Buster Keaton movies to dance videos to NBA games -- As well as shooting my own reference video. The real trick to using reference in animation is to edit the motion to serve the story you're trying to tell. If you are just reproducing reality the finished work often has a strange, hybridized, otherworldly feel (as evidenced by rotoscope and a lot of mocap) that is not quite real, but has too much extraneous information to tell the story in a clear way.
To my way of thinking, the goal of the still artist, who only has one frame to convey all the energy that the animator can at 24 frames per second is to caricature that reality and have all the elements pointing to what he wants to say -- edit the motion into a strong statement -- sum up the idea of movement in a single dynamic pose. I like the Austin Briggs ( he was successful in his career because he was able to constantly adapt and change his style of illustration) -- but trying to emulate a snapshot as an illustrator sure seems like a good way to tell the art director to bypass the middle man and just use the photo snap shot.

As a culture we are completely familiar with photographic imagery but we are also familiar with comicbooks and Frazetta paintings (as well as Rockwell, Wyeth and Pyle) These artists edited out the visual chaff so that everything that was left, pointed to the statement they were trying to make and let them tell their story in a clear, strong voice.

In the wyeth painting, here is an avalanche of brutish men, thundering across the beach in pursuit of their ill gotten booty -- they will not be stopped! Everything points to their power: the slashing diagonals of their sabers, rifles and shovels-- their jutting chins and single minded purpose as they walk in lock step (even the big, bold, buttery brush strokes add to N.C.'s idea of movement -- as if the artist only had time to get a few essential strokes down before getting out of their way!)

By comparison the Lovell tells a much more restrained and timid version of a similar story. To be fair, Lovell, whom I'm also a fan of, had a totally different set of priorities - his client was Natl Geo who wants to get the historical details correct and give an accurate sense of time and place. But the movement here, while accurate, doesn't give me a strong "feeling" of movement (though the splash helps) this is mainly due to staging choices (the action is coming at us along the z-axis in a long shot) and the movement of the waves is given the same amount of detail and attention as the main figure. Nothing is being pushed or caricatured or edited as the painting tries to emulate a photo snap shot (which is probably what NatlGeo would prefer if they could figure out how to send their photographers back in time.)

HKP said...

For a slightly different take you might find interesting Michael Fried's "Absorbtion and Theatricality". As I recall he suggests that (in 18th century French painting) the contrived poses depicting a moment of equilibrium served to encourage the viewer to explore the painting at leisure. I can see this principle at work in the Rockwell and Wyeth examples - and I have to say they absorbed me for a lot longer than the Lovell!

HKP said...

And I forgot to mention - great blog! I really enjoy your paintings.

James Gurney said...

Daroo and all: Thanks for a really thoughtful analysis of all this. It's not as simple as I thought it was when I worked up the post--you've deepened my appreciation.

Jim Feldman, interesting thought about equilibrium, and it raises the point that it may be better to stage a scene at a moment before or after the action altogether.

Everyone should follow the link to Jim Feldman's amazing blog, with his exquisite paintings of Hong Kong, as well as the links to all the other amazing artists who have commented.

Unknown said...

I was at the grocery the other day and came across the coin-operated horse for children to ride. I had seen those machines countless times, and can remember the time when I became too heavy to ride the ancient one at the five and dime. My eyes bugged for a second as I realized that the horse was in the "Currier" pose that I had just read about on the blog. I did a quick image search later for the horses and almost all of them look the same. I can't help but imagine them flopping down hard on their stomachs with their legs splayed outward. Poor things!