Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

July 21, 2012

Hinting at the Whole

Filed under: Drawing,How to do,Life Drawing — Rob Adams @ 1:01 pm

A bit of a technical post this time. I see many drawings, life drawings in particular, that carry too much overly defined information. In doing so the drawing says less than another that might include far less information. At first glance this seems impossible, how can having reduced information to go on tell you less? Let me show you what I mean with an example.

On the left we have Pierre-Paul Prud’hon and on the right Gian Lorenzo Bernini. I have tried to pick two drawings that have a similar means of rendering of a similar subject. You may well disagree but I feel the Bernini has more “life” to it. Why should this be so? The internal rendering is pretty similar both artists are relishing the subtle terrain of the human back. A major difference I think is to the edges. If you look at the Prud’hon though they may vary a little in softness for the most part the outer edge can be traced with complete certainty. On the Bernini however the edge is lost and found becoming certain only to signpost  a change of direction or the passing of one edge behind another. Beyond that we are left to join up the dots in our heads.

Oddly, though Prud’hon works very hard to define “roundness” with his toning,  his edges don’t seem to go round the corner. Bernini however is constantly giving hints about bits that are just out of sight. If you look at the right hand contour of the back he is telling you which parts flow around the corner by running one edge behind another. In between such points of change he is quite happy to let the line be almost lost until we find it again at the next intersection.

The other difference between the two is intent. Prud’hon is trying to impress us, Bernini on the other hand is just trying to record information for future practical use. Many relatively unsophisticated artists and more casual viewers will be taken with the Prud’hons continuous tone and laborious shading. However looking past this the drawing has a mass of inaccuracies. The feet are poorly set she doesn’t “stand” convincingly. The right back of the knee is pointing impossibly off to the right. The right elbow is poorly understood and the arm  does not run convincingly out of view. I could go on.

In comparison look at the left arm on the Bernini. Here you can really understand the structure, the foreshortening on the upper arm is masterfully portrayed and that elbow really comes out at us. Also the limb is in a state of tension and immanent action. This is true of the whole figure, Bernini’s man is about to get up and go.

Prud’hon’s lovely lady has been nowhere and is apparently going nowhere anytime soon either.  She is still, which is something human beings never are unless dead. There is much talk of the rebirth of academic drawing with “ateliers” being reestablished, but in my opinion this period was very much a retrograde step and indeed a misunderstanding off the Renaissance masters they so admired.

Next is another back, this time by Degas.

Here far less clues are available to the viewer. But note on the lefthand edge how carefully he has the line running up from her waist cuts into the breast and higher up how the line of the breast is in turn cut off by the line of the upper arm. Although so much is left to our imagination nothing important to the posture or activity is left undecided. We even know she is washing her neck, though the clues to that are very sparse. The whole of the forearm is in effect brought into existence in our minds by the flannel roughly described at her neck. It is these moments of sudden comprehension that make a drawing spring to life in the mind of a viewer.

I’ll now attempt a breakdown to give a rough idea of the sort of factors that need to be considered when drawing a figure or anything else. Also some idea of how the various layers of information you give the viewer might interact. Most importantly however some idea of what might be left out if you so choose! All the images including those above can be clicked for a larger view.



Here we have our starting point a lovely photo by Pascal Renoux. On the right I have using straight lines marked the main changes of direction around the silhouette of the figure. Where the contour is more or less straight I have left out the line. The first thing to note is that even if you didn’t have the photo on the left I bet you could still work out the posture, sex and even youth of the girl posing. Even the floor plane is hinted at by the outline of the feet. Think for a moment about what an astonishing job your brain is doing to glean such a lot of information from so few simple lines.


Here on the left I have indicated the internal lines. Even with just these a figure is inferred. Then on the right the two together, you can see how each layer adds to our knowledge of the pose.


If, as on the left, I add a simple tone then we immediately have a form in space. Just by the simple act of separating “inside” from “outside. On the right I have added another layer of information, the highlights. With these few shapes we have a lit figure in space and have the beginnings of describing volume.


One more layer on the left I have indicated the darks which further fill out the volume of the body. Lastly on the right a very schematic background which places the figure in space and defines the flow of light and mood. Note how the mid tone of the figure goes from dark relative to the background to lighter as we travel downwards. I have deliberately removed all “style” from these examples so the marks have no artistic quality.


Here I am doing the same process but adding a simple tactile drawn quality to the tonal information. Note how this conveys energy and movement just by changing the flat tone to a very basic and loosely hatched fill.


Finally once again I add an indication of place with a few very broad lines. On the right I have taken away the initial lines. It is fascinating how this simple alteration changes the mood. I have removed information you would have thought vital to the appreciation and understanding of the figure. The result is to my mind the opposite, by removing unneeded marks and allowing the viewer to imagine the emotional truth of the image has been heightened.


I have quickly added this to show how Bernini leads the line defining the arm’s edge in a dance of fading in and out and running behind or in front so as to combine with the toning to explain the form.


I hope this gives a bit of an idea as to how information and feeling might be conveyed by a drawing. I am not arguing for more or less detail. Only that the choices as to what information we deliver to our viewer are important and need to be considered. I think that the policy of slavishly noting down all that our eyes can glean from the subject can easily detract from the eventual image. They say there is no better way of hiding something than putting it amongst many other similar things. The same can be often true with drawing, too much information can obscure rather than reveal. In struggling to see the trees clearly we can easily miss the woods, alas all to often in attempting to clearly grasp the twigs and leaves we also can lose track of the trees!

1 Comment

  1. I love that you said this!! I’ve been wondering why supposedly amazing technical drawing leaves me so cold. There’s no life in it! Thank you so much for putting this into words.

    Comment by moss — August 17, 2012 @ 7:34 pm

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