Monday, January 2, 2012

Artists' Lay Figures, Part 4 and Final

Jean-Léon Gérôme painted “The Grey Eminence” in 1873. It shows a powerful Capuchin friar descending a flight of stairs. He has his nose in a book while worldly nobles ascend the stairs, bowing in homage.

R. Ives Gammell wrote of this work: “No painter today would know the procedures necessary to make such a picture even if he possessed the technical skill to carry them through.” (Twilight of Painting)

Mr. Gammell is right. A great deal of the knowledge needed to create such a work has been forgotten. The perspective alone is a daunting prospect. And consider the value-control needed to set up for those slashes of window light. Securing all those models and all those costumes would have been a formidable undertaking, a lot like the job of producing and directing a scene in a modern live action movie.

Once Gérôme had the models and reference, how did he use them? Although he was known to use photography as reference, I don’t think he would have used photos for a richly colored indoor subject such as "The Grey Eminence." He generally preferred to work from observation, as did his contemporaries, such as Ernest Meissonier. 

But it’s impossible to get models to hold such long bowing poses and keep the drapery consistent. How did he do it?

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect Gérôme would have used the lay figure here. 

In his Manual of Oil Painting of 1847, based on French sources, John Timbs describes how lay figures were properly used. The artist, Timbs declares, should first pose a living human model in costume.

From that living pose, a rapid sketch in pencil or crayon should be made, capturing the most desirable folds. These ideal folds are almost always the result of accident, and captured in the fleeting moment. 

Later, the costume on the lay figure can be arranged to match the model. The artist strives to reproduce the original arrangement, so that it can be copied at leisure.  If the artist uses a miniature lay figure, Timbs says, a small wooden stick or knitting needle helps to arrange the tiny folds. 

But the lay-figure should be brought in only after the artist has made the guiding sketch from the human model. Using the lay figure as the initial reference was regarded as a bad practice. (Timbs, page 46.)

Philip Alexius de László, a student of John Sargent, concurs. "Once the head and hands are finished, I could, if I wished, complete the draperies and accessories with the help of a model or lay figure, without losing the qualities of the picture, because I have already painted all the main facts of the draperies on the sitter."

When William Bouguereau had himself photographed working in his studio, he had live models posing in the background. Whether he really used only live models, especially children, for the many hours it took to do the painting, or whether he worked from a lay figure, or from photography, is an open question.

Daniel Parkhurst, a student of Bouguereau, said this about the use of lay figures: 

The use of a lay figure will help you somewhat if you can get one which is true in proportion. It will not help you much in the finer modeling, but it will at least insure your structural lines being in the right place, and that is as much as you can hope for without the special study of the nude."

 "A lay figure is expensive," he continues, "costing about three hundred dollars in this country. You will hardly be apt to aspire to a full-sized one, as only professional painters can afford to pay so much for accessories. But small wooden ones are within the means of most people, and will be found useful for the purpose I have mentioned, and one should be obtained.”

"My Favorite Model" by John F. Weir (Thanks, Greg)
Once photography became well established as a reference tool in the late 19th century, the use of costumed lay figures became less crucial. Artists could now paint from photos of the costumed model. Lay figures gradually fell out of usage, and most practitioners didn’t talk about them anyway, for they were often disparaged. Benjamin Constant’s portrait of Queen Victoria was accused of looking like a "lay figure...arranged in shapeless, incoherent draperies." (The Nation, Vol. 72)

So as they became less useful, lay figures were discarded, and today the old ones are rather hard to find, either as working props or antique studio bric-a-brac. But I think there should be one in every art school, so that students can study costume patiently from observation.

Well, that’s it for this four part series. If you find more images or links, please pass them along in the comments.
Read the full GurneyJourney series on lay figures:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3 


lauren said...

hi mr gurney,
i just would like to say thank you for being one of the most inspiring artists out there for me. your art is beautiful and your daily updates are always interesting.
i also enjoyed your video post a few days ago of the man drawing a horse and comparing it to human anatomy. my question for you is, what would you consider the best way to learn human anatomy? i'm considering books by bridgman and andrew loomis, video series ("the structure of man" by riven phoenix) on how to draw anatomy, or just looking up and copying pictures of anatomy online. thanks for your thoughts and for keeping up this awesome blog!

youngstudios said...

thanks for the series James, Very insightful.

my friend Dennis Nolan (art teacher at U. Hartford) has some designs for just that: easy to build lay figures for art students using materials you can get cheap. I'll ask him if he's ready to share those ideas.

just wondering if the plans were ready to be shared. i would really like to try an alternative to those wooden manikins they sell in art stores (they don't really do the job at all.)

thanks again for the posts :)

James Gurney said...

Lauren, glad you're enjoying the posts. Yes, a good way to learn figure drawing is to copy plates from Bridgman, Loomis, Peck, and Vanderpoel and alternate that with figure drawing from life and imagination. I'm not familiar with the video series you mention. But with any video series, you should have your sketchpad out, rather than just watching for entertainment.

Young, I spoke with Dennis. He wants to return to his ideas on the build-it-yourself lay figure project. His designs weren't completely finished, and they're stored away in a box somewhere at the moment. Next step is to actually build one, he said. So he promised to share it when he gets the time -- but he's a busy teacher, so I don't know when that will be.

Stephen Southerland said...

Great post. 'The Grey Eminence' has always been a standout painting at the MFA ever since I first saw it. When I started to become a serious student of painting I was left scratching my head about the methods used to construct such an image. The information feeds the part of me that is fascinated with the nuts and bolts of picture making. Keep up the good work!

Claire Vrabel said...

Thank you for this series of posts-You often bring up subjects that aren't talked about in school and I find they answer questions that I didn't have formed yet (just an inkling of). I agree they should have them in all art schools.
It can be daunting for those who are just starting to work with a model and not have the opportunity to really study the folds on a human form. I've only had clothes on models (it can be frustrating for many beginners to have folds move during breaks) or bunched up fabric to study in class... or photos.
Nothing beats long studies from life. :)

Nick Jainschigg said...

Wonderful series, as usual ;-) I just wanted to mention that Gerome, like many contemporary movie makers (but not many contemporary artists)looked on his work as a collaborative medium, with him as the director and final arbiter. He hired "perspectivists" to devise the perfect line-art for his architectural settings, even though he was certainly able to do the work himself...but why bother? Nowadays, many artists would work out a 3D model in a program like Blender or Cinema4D when presented with a problem like a curved stairway.

As you said about the lay figure, I think the best thing we can take from artists like Gerome isn't necessarily the precise methods they used, but their singular focus on getting their imagined scenes represented accurately on canvas.

Christian Schlierkamp said...

Thanks a lot for that post series! I found them really helpfull.
Here is a painting from austrian painter Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, where I right away thought he must have used lay figures for the costumes and did the hands and portraits from life:
(that's just a personal guess, I didn't find evidence that it is true...yet)
Considering small-scale lay figures for today's illustrators:
I wonder wether it would make sense to use those Art S. Buck anatomy modells
or likewise truetype action toy figures:
They are all 1/6 scale (about 12 inch).
There's even very dedicated blacksmiths that produce teriffic 1/6 replicas of medieval armour (Here is an example from Nigel Carren, who is also producing reproduction armours for the film industry on a very high level)

sfox said...

Well, you've solved one of the (very) minor mysteries of my art life. I have a the good fortune to own a large number of old Studio magazines, many of which featured a regular column by a writer whose nom de guerre was "The Lay Figure". I had no idea what that meant and had forgotten about it till I saw your posts. I certainly could have googled it, but haven't look at the magazines for awhile, which I think I will rectify very soon since I am curious to see how the name relates to the topics, if at all.

Pyracantha said...

I grew up in the Boston area and that Gerome painting was my favorite in the entire Museum. I used to stare at it obsessively and it was a factor in my becoming an artist. I so wanted to paint like that! The colors were so brilliant. But just recently I returned to the MFA and found the Gerome painting in poor condition, its varnish had darkened so much I could barely make out the design. I was saddened by this and don't know whether it can be remedied.

Gordon Napier said...

The one with the figures on the stairs reminds me of the masked ball scene in the Phantom of the Opera theatre production. There most of the masqueraders are mannequins, augmenting the real performers and saving money on extras. It's quite comparable to your topic actually.

Sakievich said...

I know that Jeffrey Hein uses mannequins to do his paintings. When I studied with him, he would have these elaborate setups in his studio with ropes holding them in place depending on how they were posed. He used a variety that had bendable limbs and a soft exterior, so that they were more pliable to the exact right poses. I think being able to reference the folds from life and to adjust them to a more descriptive position really helps to add to the veracity of his work. I seem to recall that they cost him about 700 each and that there was a group of about 7 that he had. They tended to look strange when they weren't in use, naked and in a pile..

James Gurney said...

sfox, Yes, that old Studio magazine column called "The Lay Figure," keeps coming up on searches. I think the idea was a humorous one, criticism of the then-current art scene, written by the "dummy."

Sakievich, I think that's a smart way to go--to think of the lay figure more like a marionette than a self-supporting figure. That way the skeleton isn't as crucial.

Gordon, I had forgotten that, you're right. I'm sure the Gerome has inspired a lot of people over the years.

Pyra, I haven't seen the original in quite a few years, but when I looked at the high res file that I used in my book, I couldn't believe the cracking on the column at left. Gerome's craftsmanship was usually impeccable, so I wonder what happened to the varnish.

Christian, thanks for those links. That Waldmuller is definitely a lay figure job.

Hi, Nick! Yes, Gerome and his fellow academics not only were more like movie directors in being collaborative, they also saw the final execution as not the most important or generative part of the process. Which is why someone like Bouguereau did multiple originals.

Claire, thanks, I imagine it would be a great experience to do a slow painted study from a costumed lay figure. I've never done that, but hope students will in the future.

Stephen, thanks, and keep up the great work everyone.

Unknown said...

Thanks for adding the Weir painting I sent you to the post. It is the only painting of its kind I have ever seen. I think that although full sized lay figures are rarely used today, most of us still have the smaller wooden mannequins and skeletons laying around our studios. I do and it gets used from time to time as well- thanks for an interesting set of posts

Buzz Mooney said...

Mr. Gurney: I stumbled upon your article while looking self-portarits by 18th-century artists. I am a re-enactor and Historical Interpreter in the Washington, D.C. Area, and I've been researching period artists' supplies and materials so that I can reproduce them for educational purposes. All of the photographs you posted are fascinating and useful to me, but the one that particularly caught my eye is the 11-1/2" miniature figure, with the wooden bos and clothing. This actually appeals tonmy other odd hobby, customizing 1/6 scale articulated " action figures". That lay figure strongly renids me of the GI Joe figures of my childhood, which serve as the basis of my hobby, and which are about the same size. I may have to try to make a reproduction, for use at Living History events! Thank you for this fascinating arrticle!