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Master Copy: Guido Reni's Nessus & Deianeira

Sketch after Guido Reni's Nessus & Deianeira
9 x 12 inches, pencil on paper

block-in stage

This one I did primarily with block-in just to break it down and simplify it, and because it was hard to see the gesture of the kidnapped Deianerira as so much of her body is obscured by drapery. But I also cross-checked my block-in by visualizing the major curves and modifying the block-in where I had made errors that disrupted the overall lines of movement.

The centaur's extended leg in the lower left shows how using both approaches leads to greater accuracy. In the block-in stage the leg was elongated and stretched too far - easy to check by seeing where it falls directly under the tip of the extended elbow above. But when I corrected it I used curved method and found the correct shape according to the logic of the anatomy (which is just amazingly painted by Reni.)

I have been thinking a lot about figure drawing recently and all the approaches for teaching - not necessarily how the figure has been drawn, but how figure drawing has been taught.

The ateliers in the tradition of Gammell, Lack, and Angel all seem to use a sight-size approach and begin a student with cast drawing. I think most use the Bargue plates for beginning instruction as well. My understanding (without having studied this method) is that this trains the student to develop a highly sensitive ability to see angles, distances and values. It seems to me the goal here (again, without having direct experience) is to capture your subject exactly as it would appear if projected on the picture plane between you and the subject.

The tradition from the Golden Age of Illustration gave us constructive drawing in the vein of Bridgman and Vilppu and Reilly, (oh and Loomis), where the figure is conceived of as 3-dimensional wireframe construction of wedged rectangles and cylinders (if I may oversimplify and generalize these distinct methods). My understanding is that this is the approach used to teach animators and illustrators. The focus is on movement and the benefit is capturing gesture and pose quickly and efficiently, and teaching quickly and efficiently.
UPDATE 3/6: In the comments section of this post some excellent corrections and comments were made, be sure to read those.

Finally, as I would term it, "Expressive" figure drawing is from the tradition for teaching illustrators, but is highly influenced by expressionistic approach to fine art painting of the 20th century. The goal is to get a student to loosen up, use big arm movements, and to let go of inhibitions. I also believe this method is an ideological reaction to the art world's derision of figurative fine art in the last century, so the figure had to be approached with expressive marks to give it validity in an anti-figurative era (this is my own unsubstantiated theory). An example is here.

My teachers Ted Seth Jacobs and his students have modified their teaching from these traditions. Although Ted studied under Reilley and is connected to the 19th century academic lineage, he does not teach Bargue or sight-size. As I have documented in detail on my blog through my class notes (see "labels" in the right column), the focus is on developing an understanding of the 3 dimensional structure of organic form and the way light behaves on form. The student develops an understanding of life as organized and how each part is in harmony with the whole.

Each of these methods and their practitioners have critiques of the other methods: some lack form, some lack movement, some lack variety of markmaking, some lead to overmodeling.

I think each of these methods can benefit from the critique of the other traditions. Each approach has benefits and each has drawbacks, but ideally a student would spend at least some time studying each of the approaches.

That said... you can't go wrong by copying the Masters ;)

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Reader Comments (8)

I think this is a great post Sadie. Quite often I find people have a kind of brand loyalty for the way in which they were taught, which might possibly prevent them from seeing the useful elements of other approaches, elements they might benefit from.

Your point about trying a bit of all these approaches is an excellent one I think, especially when you're learning. One nice thing about self-teaching is that you don't have to buy into any particular approach and can take what you want from all of them without prejudice, and emphasise the ones that feel the most natural to you.

February 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPaul F

Thanks Paul - I'm not always so generous, and I'm being extra pragmatic because I know the ire this kind of commentary can ignite. I can certainly be dogmatic, but I find I learn most when I really try to understand another point of view instead of trying to promote my own.

I think the number one thing we can do as lifelong students of art is to be relentless in our pursuit of anything and everything that will help us learn.

I agree the benefits of self teaching is being able to sample lots of methods and find which ones dovetail or challenge my natural inclinations. But I've also experienced confusion doing this, and at times I wish I could devote myself to one approach and absorb it fully. If only I had several lifetimes :)

February 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSadie J. Valeri

>But I've also experienced confusion doing this

Oh yes, that's undoubtedly true. There are many disadvantages to self teaching, the most obvious being a lack of a coherent structure to follow. I know I've gone down more than a few blind alleys whilst trying to teach myself.

After a while I think you learn to assess whether a given approach is likely to be useful or not. My yardstick is that if general basic principles are stressed (form and structure, accuracy, light and how it affects value etc) then it's probably worth spending a little time on.

To clarify by example, I spent a lot of time messing about with different mediums. After a while I realised that they make no difference at all if you don't have your basics down first. It's the fundamentals that matter.

February 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPaul F

Paul I completely agree with all your points. Too bad we are on opposite sides of the pond, otherwise we could start an ideal art school together - the "teach yourself to paint and draw" with a little structure and encouragement from us :)

That said, I think we both already offer that course through our blogs!

February 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSadie J. Valeri

Hah! That would be very cool. We still have lots of years left in us yet, so you never know. Plus I've always wanted to see SF :)

At least in the meantime, as you say, we have the web. I certainly couldn't have got as far as I have without the generous sharing of other people on the web. that's precisely why I appreciate your blog so much.

February 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPaul F

Excellent post Sadie, I very much enjoyed reading your thoughts on the various drawing approaches. As a Vilppu student I'd like to add a few thoughts :)

The approach Glenn teaches is in fact extensively used to teach animators, however, that is not what it was designed for. Glenn's approach is a classical one derived from the drawings of the Renaissance and Baroque (Cambiaso and Durer were instrumental in the use of simple forms)

Most drawings from this period were executed quickly as studies for paintings, and were focused on capturing movement and form. The whole philosophy is concerned with three dimensional, "tactile" drawing, as opposed to the "optical" tradition that flourished during the 19th century and continues in the ateliers of Lack lineage. Glenn encourages us to "feel" every bump of the model, understanding the form in its totality and not relying on copying.

Moreover, these ideas are not really a product of the American illustrators, they just happened to make use of them as well. Most people forget that Bridgman himself studied with Gerome and that the concept of construction was stressed at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Vanderpoel studied at Julian's I believe, and was another advocate of construction. In his letters to his father, Eakins (Gerome student) constantly refers to his ability to "construct" the figure, he barely even mentions the word drawing.

The Reilly approach on the other hand, places greater emphasis on seeing 2d shadow shapes (although they also conceptualize the body in terms of simple forms), and stresses "designing" all shapes, which I suppose is a product of the influence of great shape designers like Leyendecker.

Getting back to the Vilppu approach, I think one aspect this tradition does suffer in is in the observation of subtle gradations of tone, and in obtaining absolute "literal" (see optical) accuracy. On the other hand, few approaches prepare students for drawing from the imagination or teach anatomy as well as this one does.

All that being said, I agree wholeheartedly in the idea of not becoming a fanatic of any one approach. We humans are scary creatures when we cling to one idea to the exclusion of others, be it religion, political affiliation or a particular drawing approach. I'm actually of the belief that the great knowledge base that was created during 500 years of progress in painting is not necessarily gone, it's merely been scattered, such that no one school can provide all the necessary tools to paint like....say....Alma we have to shop around, however, each approach is designed to solve specific problems, and each excels in this regard.

I've been studying with Glenn for two years now, and I learned a ton from him. However, I also plan on studying with a former student of Tony Ryder and Jacob Collins at the school I'm transferring to.



Ps. Show those gesture who's boss!

March 5, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterramon

Hi Ramon, thank you so much for sharing all your information!

Thanks for the clarification of Vilppu's heritage. I should have also mentioned in my original posts that I know the Golden Age illustrators were not out of a vacuum and didn't make it all up on their own for the purpose of illustration, but that they were the last wave of the 19th century atelier trained artists. They and their students were some of the few who "kept the torch" of the knowledge of the 19c.

As for the way you describe Vilppu's teaching it actually sounds lot like Ted Seth Jacob's, in terms of feeling the 3d structure. Ted was a student of Reilly, although TSJ never advocates seeing "shadow shapes" or any such 2D language.

But Ted also never explicitly speaks of "construction". I believe he would say that constructive approaches over-generalize the form, and for example in Bridgman's block approach, leads to non-organic, non-complex form.

Although maybe other schools of thought would critique Ted's by saying that his way leads to "piecemeal" work.

Great point about the knowledge being scattered, not lost, and the need to shop around. Certainly justifies my own education!

Juliette Aristides introduced me the more 2D/Lack/designing shapes approach, and I think optical looking is the best for establishing proportion, since we all make so many psychological perceptual errors about proportion. It's also as you say good for precisely controlling values.

However I think the 2d/optical/perceptual method is only enhanced by a more 3D/conceptual view such as Ted's or Vilppu's to develop convincing form.

And then, Michael Grimaldi's emphasis on Bridgman-like, "bony symmetrical landmarks plotting block forms on a plane receding to a horizon line" helps situate the figure both in space and in relationship to the viewer.

Really, one without another leads to all sorts of unintentional distortions, and it's best to vacuum up concepts hungrily!

Thanks again for your very informative post. It helps me a lot to identify all the different threads, my goal is to eventually braid them together successfully to be a true master of drawing.

March 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSadie J. Valeri

You might also want to read the comments on my recent post "fast pose gesture drawing", there's a good discussion there of different approaches:

March 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSadie J. Valeri
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