Feeling the Form - Loomis and the Planes of the Head
This post is picking up a thread that I dropped in April 2007, the Loomis head drawings. Most of the drawings in this post come from the year of no posts, but I'll update the site with what this practice has lead me to now in the next post, and so bring at least this thread back up to the present.
One of my original ideas when I came back to painting was that I wanted to get back to portrait painting. I find portraits fascinating, and am often to be found skulking around the National Portrait Gallery. But all the portraits I've done in the past have been of the cheesy copied photo variety. When I was a street artist in my twenties, every now and again people used to ask me to copy poor quality snaps of their nearest and dearest, which I used to do quite happily for them. I couldn't say the work was particularly inspiring and the results were invariably awful, they were crimes against art for which I should have been excommunicated, but along with the change people threw into my hat they paid the bills.
Although I tend to do mostly still life these days, I'm still interested in other types of painting and particularly portraits. I haven't posted on this subject for some time, but a fair amount of my general practice time is still taken up with drawing heads in one form or another. At some point I hope to start devoting more time to it, but in the meantime I've been keeping it ticking along.
A quick recap: A while ago I started working through Drawing the Head and Hands by Andrew Loomis. Loomis was an illustrator who wrote some very useful art instruction books, most of which are out of copyright and can be downloaded here. Drawing the Head and Hands is a guide to drawing (funnily enough) the head and hands, but from imagination, and teaches a basic approach to building up the form of the head which I've covered previously here. Now, Loomis being an illustrator, I should imagine that it would be very useful to him to be able to draw a head from any angle, and the aim of the book is to teach you to do just that. Loomis' books are primarily aimed at budding illustrators and come from a time when there was perhaps more demand for that kind of work and Photoshop was still just an illustrator's nightmare.
Working from imagination is a useful skill no doubt. Although my own work has been, and will continue to be, a result of direct observation, it would surely be a sorry painter who had no imaginative facility at all. That said, it's my belief that learning only from a source like Drawing the Head and Hands without any recourse to direct observation would be inadvisable at best. The Loomis method of building a head from a basic ball is effective as far as it goes I think, but I'm pretty sure Loomis himself had done a huge amount of drawing from both life and photo reference, so expecting to be able to draw a head as well as Loomis does working only with this book would be a little optimistic I think.
What brought this into sharp focus for me was getting to the section of the book where Loomis starts to deal with the planes of the head. He simplifies the form of a head down into the main planes and proceeds to draw them from a variety of perspectives, and to draw them very well. Personally, I started to really struggle with the book at this point. It's pretty easy if all you want to do is copy Loomis' drawings, but that's not the point of the book. You're supposed to be able to imagine, and then draw convincingly, these planes from any angle. I found that to be next to impossible, to the extent that I began to wonder if I was missing the 'imagination' gene.
Here's a page from the Loomis book that shows how he develops the head up from the basic planes into something more complex:
At first I thought that looked like a very good way to proceed, very sound. The Bargue approach stresses working from the general to the specific, getting the large shapes right first and then refining down. I know that principle works in practice, and at first sight Loomis seems to be following it here.
However, I think that these planes are too vague to be really useful except in very general, conceptual terms. The problem, to me, is that they don't fit together. Too many of the interlocking edges of the planes are undefined, even in the first drawing. What happens where the eye line meets the side of the socket going down to the cheek in the first drawing? How does the mouth fit into the planes coming down from the cheek bone to the chin in the second one? Perhaps I tried to implement them too literally, and Loomis meant them only as a general guide. But after the clarity and directness of the 'ball' approach, I found these planes to be confusing and poorly defined.
Here's a plate from the book showing how Loomis uses these planes when drawing heads from different angles:
Now, call me a sceptic, but it appears to me that what Loomis is doing here is drawing heads in perspective, which as a professional illustrator with years of experience he was quite capable of doing, and then superimposing the merest suggestion of his planes over the drawings.
I have a lot of respect for Loomis and I think there's a lot of good information in his books, but I don't always agree with him. In the course of my value studies, I had to disagree with Loomis on one point of his 'form principle' at least. That wasn't idle speculation, it was a direct result of the practical exercises I was doing then. Likewise here, I haven't tried a couple of drawings using his 'planes' method, struggled, and given up. I've done a great many of those little heads now, and after a while it became unavoidably obvious that his method wasn't working for me. It just wasn't coming.
Time to get some of my own drawings out. Here's a bunch of drawings based on Loomis' planes:
I'm trying to define the planes more clearly in my drawings than Loomis does in his, because I wanted to know how they fitted together. I was trying to resolve the vague areas in Loomis' planes in order to be able to imagine them in perspective more clearly.
The method either works or it doesn't. My problem with Loomis' examples is that he hasn't given you enough information to fully realise the planes. I struggled on like this for a while, until, out of sheer frustration, I decided to make a head to finally figure out how those planes fitted together.
Firstly, I made a few small maquettes with Plasticine, a few inches high. They were fun to do, and instructive, but I felt the need to do something life-size in order to properly resolve the planes, so the final head was made from clay. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Arno:
He's not exactly the epitome of classical beauty, nor is he much of a conversationalist, but despite his reticence he taught me a lot.
I'm not a sculptor by any stretch of the imagination and I don't think his construction was very sound. For an armature, I screwed a length of wood, 2 X 1 inches in section I think, to the board with a couple of metal brackets. I built up the ball of his head with screwed up sheets of newspaper covered with tape, and taped them around the top of the wood. But once I started building up the clay around the head, the weight of it started dragging the head down the wood which then started poking out of the top, resulting in that odd lump on the top of his head. But at least I got to finally resolve how some of those planes might be made to fit together.
But I still had to look a little further than Loomis to do it. Arno is an amalgam of the Loomis planes and a 'planes of the head' sculpture by John Asaro. Asaro was, as far as I can gather, a student of Reilly's, who was in turn a student of Frank Vincent DuMond at the Art Student's League in New York. Coincidentally, so was Loomis.
Here's a photo of the Asaro head. It looks like you can still get copies of this head from Planes of the Head, but I can't recommend them since I haven't bought one, and personally, I never, never, never buy anything from a web site that doesn't publish a phone number. Unfortunately I know very little about DuMond at present, but that's a situation I plan to rectify if I can. I wonder if this 'planes' idea comes from DuMond originally, or if it's much older. Regardless, it seems to me that Asaro has done a clearer job of resolving and describing those planes than Loomis has, with the result that my clumsy effort looks substantially more like Asaro's version than the Loomis drawings.
So what did I learn from Arno, and from his smaller Plasticine prototypes? Well, I did figure out a way to finally resolve the Loomis planes. But the real lesson was more far reaching and was also unexpected. After Arno, something started to happen to my drawings. When I was drawing a head, I had a new, much clearer conception of the three dimensionality of the form I was describing with two dimensional lines. I wasn't drawing lines any more, I was drawing lines which described planes. It's hard to put into words, the nearest I can come is that I started to feel the form as I drew, thus the title of this post. The most valuable lesson I learned was that sculpting something in three dimensions builds a three dimensional model of it in your mind, which translates directly, almost effortlessly, into drawings with a greater feeling of form. I can't recommend it highly enough and plan to do much more of it.
I have done some drawings and painted sketches directly from Arno, but unfortunately he's fallen apart now due to his shoddy construction and the fact that I didn't fire him in a kiln. It's a pity, because he was a good model.
There was one other method I tried at about the same time which also proved to be quite helpful. I got hold of a mannequin bust from ebay and drew the main divisions of the planes on it. Here it is. The photo isn't good, but hopefully you can see the pencil lines describing the divisions of some of the planes. I've also marked the centre line, and the three main vertical divisions of equal size which Loomis recommends.
This head isn't much better proportioned than Arno's, and parts of it are decidedly odd, but it is very light which makes it easy to work with. I can lay it on the floor or put it up on a shelf and draw it from almost any angle. Interestingly, it follows Loomis' three main vertical divisions of the head, from the hairline to the brow line to the bottom of the nose to the chin quite closely.
What this head represents to me is a kind of half way house between an imagined head and working from observation. It adds an element that's missing from the Loomis method - drawing from a real head. It would undoubtedly be better to sit some poor unsuspecting soul down and draw the planes on their head with a magic marker, but in lieu of that the mannequin does pretty well.
Here's a couple of pages of head drawings done after Arno was made, and partly from the mannequin head:
I think there's a big improvement in these heads over the previous ones. The forms have more depth and three dimensionality to my eyes, and the planes are fitting together much more convincingly. They also felt a lot better under the pencil.
I don't want to give the impression that the Loomis book isn't worth working with. Firstly, I think it's excellent, it's just not enough on it's own. Secondly, I still haven't got very far with it since I went off on such a tangent at the 'planes' stage. There's much more to come that I haven't looked at yet, including the muscles of the face which I believe is the next chapter.
It may well be that when I get to that stage, I'll find myself wanting to flesh out the exercises in the book with some more in depth study of the anatomy of the head. Certainly I'd like to get hold of a good skull and spend some time drawing that.
But at the moment I'm still following the tangent I started going off on here, which has eventually led me back to old master copies by a rather circuitous route. Here's the beginning of it:
The first four drawings here, reading from the top of the page down, are pretty much in the same vein as the previous sheet. I think the first two were drawn using the mannequin head as a model and the second two were imagined.
The last one at the bottom right was something of an experiment. I thought it might be interesting to take an old master drawing and see if I could superimpose the planes on it, feel the form of the head rather than copying the drawing. This head is by Bernini, and I found the exercise interesting enough to try out a few more.
After this one, I did a series of copies of Sargent drawings in the same way, which proved very instructive. Sargent turned out to be the perfect master to try this on since he simplifies his forms quite strongly into planes and has a strong sense of form. I'll save those exploratory drawings for the next post though, which will lead me through a series of old master copies coming eventually back round to Bargue, and a new appreciation of the mastery of his drawings and of some aspects of the Bargue drawing course.
It seems that all these disparate threads start to join with each other eventually. Frank Vincent DuMond, who taught Loomis, had some training at the Academy Julien in Paris under Boulanger and Lefebvre, who taught at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. It seems oddly apt that I should start out with the Loomis head and hands book and end up, via Asaro, DuMond and Sargent, back with Bargue and the French academic tradition. All roads lead to Rome, as they say. Well, Paris in this case.