Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A brief guide to constructive figure drawing - part 3 - big and simple

Big and Simple

I'm talking about shadows - or more properly the shapes of shadows. Beginners often fill their figures (and other stuff) with lots of little disconnected patches of shadow, all pretty much the same value (relative darkness level). They do this because that's what they see on the model or in the reference. Skilled artists see it differently, or if they do see little confusing patches of shadow then they fix it. Note - let me state right here that when I say things like this, I group myself among students - somewhat intermediate level, and not at all a highly skilled artist! Though hopefully well on my way.

In the drawing above you can easily see how Tintoretto massed his shadows into mostly one big shape, like a lake with little inlets and bays ranged around the edges of it. And a couple of smaller ponds inland that are still big simple shapes in their own right. And the tones of those shadows are simple - he used only 2 values in shadow and 2 or 3 on the light planes. This is called Massing - you learn to see the mass shadows and the mass light on the figure.

The difference between skilled artists and beginners is training. Artists are trained to see in terms of form and to use the elements of drawing to maximize the sense of form. This training consists of various strategies that emphasize form and the depiction of it.

Drawing is a process - it's not simply recording exactly what you actually see. The job of the artist is to make things clear and easily understandable, and often due to poor lighting conditions or a bad viewing angle or confusing shadows cast by objects surrounding the model or any number of other problems, what you actually see can be very confusing and not at all pleasing to the eye. This doesn't create a problem for the trained artist. Or I should say he has strategies to help overcome these problems and many more. He can remove confusing shadows or even invent a completely different light source coming from a totally different angle, to clarify the figure. This is because he has learned to understand light, how it works, and how to imitate its various effects on forms, and he also understands the principles of art, which include clarity and simplicity.

He has learned to keep shadows big and simple, because that defines form very clearly and understandably. He has learned to be consistent with which side of the form the shadows are on, even though in reality lighting situations often fail to conform to these rules. He has learned to use contrast, even if it isn't there in reality.

I want to talk some more about the Tintoretto drawings.

He was an absolute master. I love the drawings of the old masters, even though often their paintings leave me cold. This kind of drawing, done on a toned ground (colored paper) using 4 or 5 values is an ideal way to practice all of these principles, because it helps you to keep things simple. One value for halftones (usually that's the paper itself), one for dark shadows, one for lighter shadows, and highlights added with chalk. These values conform perfectly to the values demonstrated in the core shadow exercises presented previously. Using white paper, which is mostly a modern thing, forces you to either tone most of the image manually or you end up with way too much highlight tone everywhere and your drawing ends up too high keyed. Using chalk or a lighter tone to add highlights assures that you don't overdo them, they should be pretty minimal in most situations. Working on tinted paper like this also helps to understand lighting in color, because the dominant lighting color of the environment will be reflected onto any forms in that environment. If the room is painted yellow, or if the sky is blue, then that color will be cast onto everything. But I really want to keep this about drawing rather than painting.

One of the strategies of the great masters is to unify your shadow shapes - keep them big and simple, and run them together like pools of water. In fact shadows are pools - as the light moves or the model moves they flow around it - into the hollows and crevices and gradually change their shape, and they do seem to want to run together whenever possible.

Notice Tintoretto joined almost all the shadows into one big one that remains entirely on one side of the form and defines only those planes facing away from the light. The majority of the drawing is midtone (the blue paper itself), with just little touches of highlight where they effectively push the form out toward the viewer. In the next post I'll discuss planes in more detail - they're a fascinating concept and a great strategy to help organize your drawings. And that's when these posts will really start to come together into a unified system.

Another strategy artists use is to outline the shadows. Map them out. Often they'll start by lightly penciling in the outlines before adding any tone. This allows them to think of the shadows as shapes and to think about the borders of them. If you just start shading without first defining the outlines you can get lost and end up going all over the place, rather than creating a simple and clear map of shadows that defines the form.

Another strategy - divide your values into two distinctly different ranges - one for light and one for shadows. Tintoretto used the paper itself plus chalk for light, and 2 values of charcoal for shadow. The lightest value in the shadows should be visibly darker than the darkest value in the light. This helps to avoid confusion and create a visually pleasing map that's easy for the viewer to understand. And as you know if you've ever tried to follow someone's directions to a place you've never been before - a clear and easily understood map is far better than a confusing one!

All of these strategies are simply ways of thinking about light and shadows - in other words they're ideas. It's what Robert Beverly Hale was talking about when he said drawings are ideas with lines around them.

Ok, that's it for this followup post - next up, we visit the planes!

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