At the end of the last post on the planes of the head, I’d mentioned that I’d done a series of copies of Sargent portrait drawings, emphasising the planes and the form. Having worked for a little while with Loomis’ planes, and sculpted a head that emphasised the planes, I was looking for something with a little variation.
A few months of drawing bald geometric heads was quite enough.
The drawings I’m posting today were done about a year ago I think. There’s not a huge amount of them, but they were a bridge from the Loomis planes back to copies of old (and not so old) master drawings. But these drawings are certainly not copies in the usual sense. There’s been no attempt to replicate the marks or feel of the originals, or even much attempt at accuracy in the first ones. They’re perhaps more correctly described as conceptualised drawings. All I was interested in was the form, abstracted, in a sense, from the originals. By trying to visualise the form of these heads in terms of planes, I hoped to see if the structure of planes I’d derived from a combination of Loomis and theAsaro head could be applied in practice. In a way, these drawings represent a translation of the planes from the imagined, or ideal heads of Loomis to specific, real world heads.
This was the first sheet of three heads, all taken from Sargent drawings. The book these drawings came from is Sargent Portrait Drawings published by the Dover Art Library. I’ve had mixed results with Dover books, but this one is excellent I think. Cheap too.
These drawings are obviously very similar in conception to the Loomis-based drawings in the last post. There’s no tone, no light and shadow, just line. Surprisingly (at least to me at the time I did these little drawings) it’s still possible to create a feeling of form using line only – especially if the inner forms are rendered in a kind of geometry of interlocking shapes, as these are. It’s even possible to translate something of the character of the original portrait.
This brings up an interesting point about drawing and painting which has struck me many times.It has to do with how far you deviate from what you see. On the one hand, you might have work by an artist like Botticelli, say, who stylises the forms in his drawings to a great degree.
In this drawing by Botticelli, he’s used the calligraphy of the marks and the shape of the forms they describe to express a concept, an idea, rather than a visual truth.
The folds of the cloth draped around the main figure have a diaphanous, floating feeling. But that effect hasn’t been achieved by reproducing the optical effect of floating cloth. It’s been suggested by the way the folds have been treated. Her hair too, is more calligraphy than visual truth echoing the swirls of the folds of the cloth. All those swirly lines combine to reinforce the light, floating quality of the drawing. Of course, the whole thing is heavily mannered. Look at the length of her arm! Not much visual truth there.
In direct contrast to this isa kind of work which stresses the optical effect, the image that hits the eye. This kind of work is often termed ‘naturalism’ perhaps the most obvious early example being Velazquez. Certainly the sight-size technique lends itself to this kind of approach, this way of seeing and translating the subject to the canvas. Perhaps the naturalistic, or optical approach really reached it’s zenith in the 19th century naturalists. They might also be called realists, in the true sense of the term. Those painters are at the top of my mind at the moment because I’ve just read a fascinating and in-depth post about the naturalist painters today on Matthew Innes’ excellent blog. Recommended reading.
What I’m trying to get across with this lengthy digression is that drawing can communicate an idea of something without being an exact reproduction of the way it looks. In my shabby little head drawings, I’m trying to convey an impression of the form of these heads by delineating the planes. In Botticelli’s very beautiful drawing, he’s conveying the idea – if you ask me – of grace and beauty. But neither of them look much like what we see.
Whilst working on these heads, I was trying to keep upmost in my mind the shape and direction of each plane as I drew it, and how it fitted into the planes adjoining it. They’re very simplified drawings in terms of the shapes. Sargent’s portrait drawings are a great model to use for an exercise like this, since he also simplifies his form down to the essentials. Part of this may come from his sight-size training, which stresses large forms over detail. Although apparently he sat down to do these drawings with the paper on his lap, no doubt his brain had been wired by much sight size painting to work in a similar manner whatever his approach.
To clarify things a little, here’s an example from the sheet above along side the original drawing by Sargent:
Here’s another one. I think you can see how Sargent has simplified his drawing into the main planes, very clearly and explicitly stated. I’ve tried to simplify them down even further into line representations of the planes.
Here’s a couple more, also from Sargent drawings:
It seems to me that this way of approaching a drawing is a way of thinking as much as -if not more than – a way of seeing. The goal is to gain an understanding of the structure of the form rather than duplicate it’s appearance.
Whilst doing these drawings, I would try to remember the experience of sculpting a head, to imagine myself not drawing, but creating these forms in three dimensions.
So how would this help when drawing a real head? Well, I would need to do more real life head drawing with this approach in mind to reach any hard and fast conclusions, but this is how I believe it could help:
Simplification of form: I believe that in all drawing and painting, simplification of the myriad of details that catch our wandering eye into the main, general forms helps produce a more coherent image. Our usual way of seeing can be our own worst enemy since we tend to dwell on detail. Our eyes are drawn to hard edges and abrupt changes in value and we miss the big picture. Drawing and painting representationally is more about the judging of relationships than anything else: relationships of shape, proportion, value (relative lightness and darkness) and colour. By establishing the large general statements first, we can more easily judge the relationships of smaller areas to the whole and to each other, and so avoid (or at least reduce) a lot of common errors of shape and value which will work against the believability of the image.
Simplifying also leads to stronger statements. When we draw or paint a subject, I believe that we’re translating the subject into our medium, not copying it. An effective translation of a head into a drawing may be a very different thing than copying what we see. If the general,large forms are strongly and convincingly stated, a much smaller amount of the detail than we actually see can be enough to complete the piece. I think the Sargent portrait drawings are a perfect example of this in action.
Understanding value relationships: Value relationships are hard to get right. When we focus on a particular area of the subject we’re drawing or painting, our eyes naturally adjust in order to maximise the differences between the values in that area. It’s an inherited survival mechanism, very useful when you’re trying to avoid a tiger in long grass, not so useful when you’re trying to draw one.
The value of a plane is dependent first on its local value, then on its proximity and angle to the primary light source and to any secondary light sources, like reflected light. If we have a clear model in our minds of the structure of what we’re drawing, we ought to be able use that to help reduce errors in value relationships. By asking ourselves what angle this particular plane is in relation to the light, and in relation to other planes, we ought to be able to compensate to some extent for the adjustments our eyes make. Drawing is thinking as well as seeing.
There’s probably many other advantages to thinking about form in three dimensions that I haven’t considered yet, but those two are pretty important I think. I’m glad that writing this post has brought me back to these drawings, and made me reconsider why I was doing them and what I was learning from them. I might have forgotten about them otherwise. The one thing I haven’t done very much of is to translate this practice into the real word, and used it to draw some actual heads. Having looked at these drawings again, and come to the conclusion that they were useful and instructive, I’ve just decided to do a run of drawings of my own head from this perspective. I’ll report back on what I learn once I’ve done a few.
As far as my head drawing practice goes, after this point I continued with some drawings based on Sargent’s portraits, but started gradually to omit the ‘wire frame’ lines and to introduce some tone. I’ll post some of these next time, along with the further old master copies that they led me to, if there’s room. Here’s the first one of that series:
For now, I want to finish with a couple of examples of this approach used slightly differently. Frank Reilly, American illustrator and educator, used an approach perhaps not too disimilar from this one to break down a head into it’s constituent forms. Reilly was, like Loomis, a student of Frank Vincent Dumond’s. Although his approach may appear to be very different visually, I believe it’s very similar in conception:
I’ve borrowed this image from Doug Higgin’s excellent site aboutFrank Reilly’s teachings which I highly recommend browsing through. There’s some fascinating stuff there. Doug has self-published this information – and more besides – in a book called The Frank Reilly School of Art. He was nice enough to send me a copy. I will be reviewing it at some point, but haven’t found the time yet. However, it’s inexpensive and I think it’s an excellent little book for those who want to find out more about the teachings of this most influential artist.
I came acrossanother great head drawing demonstration using this approach to understanding the planes of the head and their relationship to values recently onNathan Fowkes excellent blog. He’s evidently using an approach closely related to Reilly’s. I wonder if he was taught by a Reilly student himself. It’s nice to see the approach used in a real world head drawing, and a beautiful one at that.
Related further reading:
An interesting post on planes and visualising different lighting conditionshere.
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