Thursday, December 9, 2010

Jacob’s Questions

I’m not usually able to answer art-related questions that are emailed to me offline—there just isn’t time. But once in a while, I can tell someone has really been grappling with a challenge. He or she has read the books and blog material, and they still have some interesting questions that others might relate to.

So here are the questions of Jacob Cook, a high school student, along with my answers. And I’ll bet you get more answers and resources in the comments.

1. I know from your books and your blog that you make use of photographic reference in your large-scale paintings that involve humans - for example, this type of painting: "Warrior Woman." But of course, that's not the whole story - to make a painting like that requires that you place the figures in an invented space, and do it convincingly. How do you approach that task? How do you give your figures a sense of weight and dimensionality within a scene?

The key to making multi-figure scenes is to practice drawing compositions from imagination and observation, so that when you need to create a large-scale painting, you can take it pretty far entirely out of your head. After you’ve done that, you can call in the models and use photography if you want. (“Warrior Woman” was done from life studies but no photography.) Either way, let your imaginative idea guide the process.

Getting weight in figures comes from thinking about the force of gravity when you do your figure drawing. Take the pose yourself, and you’ll know things you miss when just looking at it. Dimensionality comes from a solid understanding of perspective, form modeling, and optics.

2. How much anatomical knowledge do you possess? Do you have what could be called a working knowledge of the body, or have you learned about the body at a deeper level, like the names of the bones and muscles? I ask because I'm getting to be very interested in the technical details of the human body. I've been filling sketchbooks with studies of the skeleto-muscular system, and I even bought a life-sized model skeleton to study from. I'm wondering how much of that sort of thing you've done.

I’m not really an expert on anatomy compared to some of my friends. But when I was a student I went through the standard figure texts: especially Bridgman, Peck, Vanderpoel, and Loomis. I copied a lot of the plates and learning the names of the major bones and muscles. Doing copies is a good path to understanding. The next level is to sculpt a figure from the skeleton outward, muscle by muscle. Some of the academies, such as Grand Central Academy, offer such training, and that way the knowledge really gets into your hands.

I was like you as an art student. I bought a miniature plastic skeleton, a real human skull, and a bunch of plaster casts. I also recommend purchasing a couple good ecorché figures and placing them near you in your studio when you’re puzzled over something.

3. If you're making a quick sketch of a human figure, which elements do you make sure to draw first? Which parts of the figure are essential in conveying the action of the pose? Is it the head and spine? The ribcage and pelvis? Some combination, or something I haven't thought of? Is this even the right question to be asking?

Yes, it’s definitely the right question, but I don’t think there’s a hard and fast answer to any these questions, and I don’t follow any single system, because sometimes I try to think like an animator, sometimes like a painter, and sometimes like a caricaturist. Different schools of the figure will give you different approaches, and I think you should learn them all.

Some schools concentrate on the movements of the spine and skeletal frame, others look for rhythmic gesture lines running through the whole pose, others look for contours which sweep inside the form and pick up other contours. A painter who thinks primarily tonally will look for movement and linking of tonal shapes first and foremost. If there’s a general principle, it’s to start with the big and the simple, and progress toward the smaller details.

4. In the People chapter of Imaginative Realism, you show examples of preliminary life drawings next to the finished product. But they're never exactly the same; some limb is in a different place, or the head is turned a different way. What does it take to do that with confidence? Knowledge of anatomy? Prior experience drawing such poses?

The figure studies in that chapter are works in progress--that’s why they’re not overly finished. They’re like a rough draft. You can’t get married to any idea at that stage. Often when it comes to placing a figure into the final composition, there will be a problem with how the figure overlaps with another element in the scene. Sometimes you might simplify the drapery or you might exaggerate the pose a bit more. Everything gets changed and revised all the way to the finish. Drawing the figure as a means to an end rather than an end in itself is incredibly liberating. It gives a drive and a purpose to figure drawing that guides all of your choices.

Great questions, Jacob. They show a lot of thought on your part, and I wish you well.

Previously: Ecorche,
Anatomy of the Ear
On Amazon: Vanderpoel, Loomis, Peck, Bridgman


Scorchfield said...

I see in the left, on the head of soldiers, helmets of the Roman Empire, and I see on the right, in backgroud "The star and crescent", otoman symbol.
The "warrior-woman" is like a druid priest, with o non-roman sword, it is "Arthur"-sword...
And arena... it is other story!

I like this provocation! :)

Tom Hart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jeffkunze said...

I feel like I can ad some to question number 3.
The books of Walt Stanchfield, Drawn to Life volumes 1 and 2 have been very helpful to me. I received them the summer before last and I read through them and followed the drawing advice as much as possible. I went out and drew from life in public parks, my in-laws barn and most recently my 2 year old twins.

Walt has a method of drawing with as few lines as possible and having the action very easy to understand. He also stresses drawing the same gesture or pose several times to see if there is a way to exaggerate and show the action even more. This was very helpful to me.

I hope this was helpful.

Micah said...

This is what makes you awesome Jim!I think you have had a hand in showing other successful artists the fact that being open and willing to share your knowledge with your fellow kindred spirits ulifts us all! Thank You.

P.S. Jacob, those were some very applicable questions. I think you've shown everyone who reads Mr. Gurneys blog your devotion to such a wonderful talent that you have been blessed with.

K_tigress said...

Interesting info.
Also interesting is that great cat. Is that a liger?

Libby Fife said...

What generous answers! We are lucky to live in a time where information like that is so readily available to a large number of people. Thanks to you for your responses, Jacob for those questions (what a probing intellect already!), and The Internet!

CCG Coordinator said...

James thanks for this post! Jacob thanks for the sincere and well thought out questions!

Here's something that I relearned recently while attending a conference with a lot of very talented artists: "there is no one right way to do art!".

Mr. Gurney has explained (and I will attempt to parapharase here) his preferred method of starting a drawing is to define the exterior perimeters (enclose the subject in geometric shapes) while many other artists would do a contour drawing or some would work from a cloud of tone and start pulling out the shapes and details.

Jacob, the point is that you need to try as many working methods as you can - some will click with your personal skills and makeup, others will not. Experiment but also evaluate! Your preferred approach may even change with time - some methods may become old and others new and exciting.

Enjoy the journey!

-Jonathan Gilpin, Lexington KY

David Glenn said...

Good questions. I thought the picture of the Warrior Woman was pretty cool.

Tom Hart said...

I'll add my own twist to what CCG Coordinator says:

It's very possible for some of us to be so immersed in all the available information (which in itself is a GOOD thing), that we can be overwhelmed and/or intimidated to inaction. It's incredibly important to be a sponge - to observe, read and explore the artists who have gone before us. But the most important thing is to remember to dive in and work!

Donna said...

Excellent questions and answers. Thank yous going out to each.

Jess said...

I need more people like Tom Hart to remind me to stop worrying and start drawing! It's good advice. I feel like it's too easy - especially for beginners - to read all the advice there is but not actually apply it, because after seeing the generally splendid work that comes with such advice you are paralyzed with the fear that your work will never be able to match up to that standard. Every mark you put down on canvas makes you feel like a failure. At these times it's important to remind yourself that every mistake you make is going to help you improve on your next work.

My favorite art-related quote now is the oft-paraphrased "everyone has a hundred thousand bad drawings in them, so start drawing now and get them done with".

James Gurney said...

Jess, what you say is so universal to everyone who wants to do art after spending time being a fan of art. The critical facility gets sharpened to a high degree, but the practical, intuitive, hand-skill side of us takes a while to catch up. I think it helps to lock the internal critic in another room for a while to let yourself play and take a few chances.