Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Walking Poses

When Fernand Cormon (1845-1924) painted the family of Cain walking through the desert, he gave each of the figures a heavy plodding step. Each person has their feet in the same position.

The foot in front is flat on the ground, with the knee bent. The rear heel is lifted off the ground, with the ball of the foot squarely on the ground.

Norman Rockwell, in his great painting “The Problem We All Live With,” uses a different pose to signify walking, but again it’s the same pose for all of his characters. Rockwell has a different theory of how people walk. All four men and the girl are perfectly vertical, and they're all walking with very short steps, with their heels and toes in the air at the same time. The men’s backswinging elbow is well behind the body, and the forward arm is in a loose fist in front of the stomach.

Rockwell arrived at these poses by propping the toes and heels of his models on stacks of books. He did not take candid photos of people actually walking.

Here he uses the same theory of walking poses, with heels and toes up. The strides are even shorter. If you try actually walking so that you end up with these poses, your style of walking does not match the intended feeling of the picture. Instead, it feels like a silly robot.

N.C. Wyeth has yet another conception of how people walk. He too applies a single pose equally to his whole crowd of pirates. They all have full meter-long strides with the body leaning far forward. Try walking in a way that matches these poses. I’ll bet you’ll feel less like a pirate and more like Groucho Marx.

Are these poses “expressive?” Perhaps so, but what the poses express is an unrealistic kind of action that doesn’t match the rest of the picture. In every other respect, these paintings are fine examples of realistic storytelling. But I would submit that they would have been even more successful—both more realistic and more expressive—if they had been based on a closer observation of authentic movement, and if the individual figures had been given some variety.

Tomorrow we’ll look at some ways to achieve that.
Wikipedia on Cormon, link.
Art Renewal Center, 7 Cormon images, link.


Kurt Ankeny-Beauchamp said...

Greg Manchess talked about this extensively at the Illustration Master Class, telling us to avoid the "one legged run" pose at all costs. One of his tricks to avoid it? Take reference of the pose twice, alternating which leg is holding up the model so you can get some actual action in the legs by using the active leg from each photo.

THOMAS NACKID art + design said...

I have a sneaking suspicion that Rockwell WANTED the characters in the two paintings to look a bit like "silly robots". I think the walk pose was, like most things in a Rockwell illustration, intended to be a subtle caricature. In the first painting you have the absurdity (or rather something that should be absurd in a decent world) of four, armed federal marshals having to escort a little girl to school. The exaggerated arm movements of the marshalls contrasts with the somewhat bewildered amble of the girl who seems like she is not quite sure what exactly is going on. The second painting is a subtle tweak at conformity. The prim, lockstep of the family contrasts with slovenly pose of the father. I learned to appreciate Rockwell much more once I realized he was really a cartoonist! Albeit one using a highly finished oil painting technique. Anyway thats my $0.02.

BTW, thanks again for wonderful blog--on top of all the wonderful paintings and books. Do you ever sleep?

Brian Busch said...


Although I have no idea if he used photos for these pieces, Rockwell did use photo references. One unique thing he did with the photos was to actually paint in oils over the photos to be used as color studies. A real nice book "Norman Rockwell Illustrator" covers all this along with a thorough step by step discussion as to his iilustation process.

Michael Pieczonka said...

Fantastic analysis of the Rockwell pieces. I have seen both of them before and thought to myself that something looked a little wooden or off in them, but I couldn't pinpoint what. Now I know what it was, thanks for sharing.

Andrew said...

That was something that had always bugged me about Rockwell's stuff. Whenever somebody's moving in them, it just doesn't seem right.

I'll admit, drawing someone walking is tough though, at least for me. Even worse is drawing someone running! It's just hard to get across movement in a still drawing without making it look silly. Look forward to seeing your suggestions on how to achieve this.

Victor said...

I disagree that more realistic portrayals of walking would have necessarily made these pictures more successful.

In some cases they may have, but I think Rockwell was deliberately aiming for a somewhat theatrical, stylized image. Notice how his picture planes are perpendicular to the viewer's line of sight. I think he was going for a frieze-like composition, and the repetition of the poses creates a kind of rhythmic, 2-D pattern. I bet Rockwell was more concerned with having control over the abstract shapes of the figures rather than whether the representation was completely realistic. Think of how Ingres would throw out the rules of anatomy in the pursuit of a beautiful silhouette.

I do agree with you in the case of the Cormon and the Wyeth. The viewing angle is more naturalistic and the figures are clearly grouped in a way that was meant to seem more random. Here, accuracy would have added to the depiction.

Steve Downer said...

A good post, but I do feel that the choices of position in the Rockwell images were a compositional choice rather than an error in technique.
Rockwell was good at portraying dynamic motion in his paintings, too. An image that comes to mind is his Saturday Evening Post cover entitled "No Swimming". It depicts three boys running away from a swimming hole. I guess you do address walking poses specifically, though, so... uh, nevermind. :-D

Paolo Rivera said...

I have to disagree about the Wyeth. That there's one of my favorite paintings. I don't think I would like it as much without the exaggeration.

As for Rockwell, I know he could do a naturalistic walk if he wanted to, but those federal marshalls did always seem awkward to me.

r8r said...

These pictures remind me of paintings of horseraces pre-Eadweard Muybridge, with the legs stuck out stiffly forward and backward...

A little training in animation, and all these walking-pose 'errors' would be cleared up. Any animator knows that there are an infinite number of choices in pose for a walking figure. Those of us who work in 2D and stop-motion are only too aware of it!

Michael Dooney said...

While I agree that some more variety in posing would be nice in the Wyeth piece, I don't agree with the idea that it would have been a better picture if the figures were presented more realistically. Wyeth time and again mentioned that most of his figures were made up out of his head, so I've always thought of his stuff as kind of chunky painted cartoons. His figures work in his world like Frazetta's do in his.
I prefer his earlier stuff for this reason. His later more rendered stuff lacks the heart and soul of his earlier heroic output.

Michael Dooney said...

Since rockwell was working from photos, his models were probably posed as though they were walking and not actually walking when the pictures were taken, which usually comes across as really stiff.

Anonymous said...

r8r, you're right. I did an animation for a final project one class and had to keep redoing the few seconds where I had someone walking. In the end, I had to walk back and forth in front of my house's sliding glass doors to observe how I walk before I could get anywhere close with my keyframes. I think I did all right, despite having no prior experience with animation.

I could probably do a better job now, though. Not that I really want to redraw all 1200 frames that went into that animation... =\ Still, I know more about movement than I did before.

Stejahen said...

When I tried acting once, I found that what looks right and what feels right are vastly different things. The director wanted a 'natural' walk, I gave him what felt natural, but apparently this was not what looked natural.

Erik Bongers said...

Nice list of pros and cons on realistic rendering of walking.
The two main reasons I read here for not drawing a walk realistically is 'caricature' and 'theatrical effect'.
I agree that the pose is part of the message.

I also agree that in the pre-snapshot age the poses are less realistic than meant to be, and the only reason we see this now is because we have been 'trained' by our snapshot culture. In 'those days' people probably didn't consider those walks as funny as we do now.

Nevertheless, "street photographers" often take snapshots of people in the middle of an simple action (walking,...). The effect is sometimes so awkward that the subject of the photograph is in fact the unintentional choreography of movements that look deliberate, posed and robotic.

So, photographs of movement clearly don't give pre-fab solutions. An artist will typically 'bend' the movement to give a better evocation of the movement.
The Muybridge series are indeed the starting point of a new era but are also a perfect example that pictures of the same movement sometimes work for artists while others look posed or static.

By Scott Flanders said...

I really appreciate your insight Mr Gurney, and i'm learning a lot from your journey, thanks for sharing it with us. I'm working on a Dino painting right now and i'll be posting it on my blog in a week or so, perhaps you could let me know what you think.


By Scott Flanders said...
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