Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A brief guide to constructive figure drawing - part 4 - the boxed figure

Albrecht Durer's conception of the boxed figure

The Boxed Figure

No, not a collector's action figure still in the original box - though in a sense action figures are close. I'm referring to the figure drawn as a series of boxes and cylinders (or what I like to call tubes and cubes). And again, like the basic form exercises I started this with, we've all seen it a million times. And you probably well understand the main purpose of it - to help solve problems of perspective and foreshortening in figure drawing, so you can draw an arm pointing toward you rather than just held straight down at the figure's side like a soldier standing at attention. Beginners tend to shy away from active poses and foreshortening and instead draw the figure like a flat paper doll, with every part of the body parallel to the picture plane. It's a lot easier.

Ok, I'll skip over how valuable boxing the figure can be for foreshortening and action poses - I think that's already well understood. Instead I want to discuss some of the more subtle and less well-known reasons for doing it.

Here's a page from Hogarth's Dynamic Figure Drawing. You can clearly see how he's conceived of the rib cage and pelvis as block shapes, though not just simple rectangular ones. But notice something else - the way the shadows remain contained in the planes of the boxes. The usefulness of 'boxing up the figure' goes well beyond its most obvious virtues. It's another strategy to help you place shadows, to help keep them under control for maximum simplicity and clarity. There are light planes and dark planes. And the fact that there's already a definite line showing where those planes meet is immensely helpful for placing shadows.

Because the human body does consist of planes - many of its parts do anyway (all of them if you want to slightly labor the point). They're not perfectly flat planes that meet at sharp, straight corners like a cereal box - they're gently curved - more so in some places than others, and the corners are rounded. Like a slightly used bar of soap, or like a wooden block that's been taken to the belt sander. Or like the body panels of cars. And drawing the edges where the planes meet as straight lines (at least at first) really helps you organize the forms, and keeps things in line.

Like a wood carver, an artist begins with simple blocks. To carve a puppet head for instance, Pappa Gepetto might select a piece of 4x4 and carve wood away to get a rough blocky pseudo-head shape, which is very close to the actual finished shape of the head, but is defined entirely at this point by planes, which he will then sand down to make smooth curves where appropriate. But seeing those planes as flat surfaces first can help you keep things properly shaped.

Here you see Hogarth's version of a head as a block shape, somewhat carved down and smoothed on the metaphorical belt sander to round off the corners nicely. And again, see how easy it is to figure out where the big shadows go.

Just a quick note - the reason I favor Hogarth's drawings in this guide is because he always uses strong lighting and shadow to really push the sense of form. To me that makes his work feel much more 3 dimensional than most of the others. I honestly believe this fact helped me to understand how to render form using light and shade to an extent that I suspect I wouldn't have gotten from Loomis for example. But that really comes down to personal preference, though I suspect some artists will be drawn more to Hogarth and some to Loomis.

One of the great strategies artists use to simplify drawing is to shade the big forms first. The big forms of the body are the rib cage, the pelvis, the head and neck, the cylinders of the arms and the legs, and the blocks of the hands (drawn as mitten shapes at first) and feet (wedge blocks). Start to figure out your shadows early, in this blocking stage, and it's pretty easy to get a sense of strong solid form. And this way you don't get confused by lots of little shadows all over, which happens if you think about little details before the big forms.

Luca Cambiaso really took the idea of boxing up the figure to heart!

See, here's the beauty of this, and what really ties it all together into a unified system - you're reducing the body to a few basic forms, and you already know how to shade basic forms, right? We covered that in the first post. BAM!! Full circle. Draw the figure as basic forms, shade them according to the core shadow system (or another one - that's only one approach of many described in great detail in Dynamic Light and Shade) and your figures now have an amazing solidity and sense of realness to them.

In the last post I mentioned that shadows are pools of darkness, and when the figure moves or the light source moves they flow around it and into the valleys and hollows. Knowing where the major plane breaks of the body are really helps you to understand exactly where to place these shadows. Hogarth and Hale both go into great detail about these plane breaks, and their importance to artists. I'm only presenting a quick overview here, in hopes that it will spur some of you to get the books and start to fill your head will these amazing ideas, which will transform your art. One more fascinating little detail I'd like to throw in here - as the figure moves in relation to the light, those shadows have a tendency to move rapidly across the planes until they come up against the plane breaks (the rounded corners), where they slow way down and creep around leisurely, and then when they hit the next plane they again leap across it rapidly. So usually the edges of shadows fall along the plane breaks. This is good stuff - be sure to remember it!

These books (aside from How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way) are advanced instruction manuals for the serious art student, and as such they can be pretty dense and take some real slogging to get through. What worked for me was to do an initial read-through of each of them, in which many of the ideas went way over my head. But now I had seen the words and the concepts, was somewhat introduced to them anyway, and a few months later I went back and started going through again, taking it slower this time, going a chapter at a time, and this time I found it making a lot more sense. A lot of the ideas that were brand new and completely alien to me the first time were somewhat familiar now because I had read them before. I've re-read all of them several times now and done many drawings to practice the concepts (not nearly as many as I should - more in the arena of dozens rather than hundreds, but still it has greatly improved my work).

Ok, enough of my rambling. Hopefully now I've wetted your appetite and you're ready to get some good books on figure drawing and anatomy (or go back and re-read the ones you already have and try to absorb more info). 

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