I generally write about practical stuff these days, but I’m breaking with tradition a little here to write a short (well, about as short as they ever get for me) post about a new book on figure drawing by Ted Seth Jacobs.
I don’t have a copy of this book myself, and know only as much about it as can be read on the site devoted to it here. For that reason, this post isn’t a personal review or a recommendation, it’s more of a heads up.
That said, I wouldn’t be writing this post if I didn’t think that the book looks very interesting. The web site devoted to the book is excellent and does have a lot of information, certainly enough to be able to get a good general overview of the approach it takes, and also enough example pages to be able to see how it covers particular aspects in detail.
What appears to me to set this book apart from the more usual figure drawing fare is way it conceptualises structure as it applies to organic forms, specifically the human body. The book looks at the forms of the human body and the way they fit together from a variety of conceptual perspectives. It is certainly not your usual ‘Anatomy for Artists’ book, and I have a feeling that it will be of much more practical use than the more usual approach.
About Ted Seth Jacobs
First, a bit about Ted Seth Jacobs. Just in case you spend the majority of your days under a wet and clammy rock, or so focused at the easel that you never come up for air, Ted Seth Jacobs is one of the foremost teachers of representational drawing and painting of our times. He studied and taught at the Art Student’s League in New York and counts such artists as Jacob Collins and Anthony Ryder as his past students. My good painter friend the wonderful Sadie Valerie, lately of Women Painting Women fame, also studied with him for a short time, and has good things to say about it.
Many of his students have become influential educators in their own right and he is thus a lynchpin of the current revival of representational painting. I see him as one of the few (usually American) artists who kept representational painting alive through the fifties, sixties and onwards when abstract art became the norm, figurative art particularly died a death and most artists turned in upon their own troubled psyches and forgot the world of appearances.
The Importance of Structural Knowledge in Drawing
Emphasis on structure and form in itself isn’t anything new of course. For myself, I first started to get an inkling of its importance when I was working through Drawing the Head and Hands by Andrew Loomis.
Although I do think Drawing the Head and Hands is an excellent and very useful book, my dissatisfaction with the explanation of the planes of the head prompted me to delve a little deeper into the structure of heads, eventually sculpting a few in order to try to get a better understanding of the three dimensional form.
Something happened to my head drawings then. It’s difficult to put into words clearly, but my impression was that sculpting the forms, physically feeling them under my fingers, in some way changed the way I conceptualised form. The best description I could find for it was ‘feeling the form.’
That experience led me to the belief that, along with a sound understanding of value and an ability to accurately judge and reproduce shape in line, a physical sense of form, a mental model of it if you like, was one of the basic requirements of the kind of representational drawing and painting I wanted to do – the kind Ted Seth Jacobs does and teaches.
So I’m already convinced that a concept of structure and form is important to drawing. What I like about the approach of this book is that it seeks to understand the form of the human body through understanding the parts that connect together to make the whole. Not just their names and where they go, but how they work, how they connect together, the pathways through the body that they form, and the gestures that they create.
The web site dedicated to the book gives a few examples of pages in scanned jpeg format so you can get a fair idea of the content. The ‘Selection‘ section of the site has some interesting excerpts from the book on the head and hands, but more about the general approach that the book takes can be gleaned from reading the ‘Introduction‘ section, which has more scanned pages and more text.
When I first came across the site I had a few questions about the book, specifically about what makes it different from other artist’s anatomy books. The quotes below from the introduction section of the web site answered most of them for me, so I’ve reproduced them here:
What is the Purpose of This Book?
“This dictionary has two principal functions. The first is to present a clear conception of how the body is formed and organised. Its other use is as a visual reference, a true dictionary of form, to provide an understanding of every exterior part of the body, and designed to be used in conjunction with work from the live model.”
OK, that sounds pretty good. Kind of like having someone knowledgeable about anatomy close by that you ask questions of whilst you’re drawing.
“With the advent of non- figurative, so called ‘Modern’ styles, with their preponderant popularity with young students, and in galleries and museums, particularly from the nineteen fifties on, teachers knowledgeable about structure died off and were seldom replaced. A chain of transmitted knowledge was virtually severed. My purpose is to weld the chain back together, and hopefully, add my own new link.”
“This Dictionary is a much more comprehensive structural analysis than has ever appeared before. It will eventually change figurative art.”
Strong stuff! It doesn’t look like hyperbole though from what I can see.
What is Different About the Way This Book Approaches Structure?
“Structure is the way in which living organic forms are organised.”
“Structure is not merely form it is the organisation of forms.”
So this is not simply about form, but how the various forms of the body fit together, how they function as part of the whole.
“Every structure of the body is always participating in some kind of activity, called it’s ‘gesture’ or ‘action.’…By gesture, structures may be stretched, compressed, twisted, made more angular, bunched up and so on.”
So this is much more than basic anatomy. It’s about how the body functions as well as how it’s constructed.
Why This Approach?
“You may imagine that you can reproduce what you see by looking carefully, without understanding and principles, but that approach, historically, has never worked. It is essential to look with an educated eye”
That I would certainly agree with. I’ve found that building understanding is at least as important as seeing. In fact, I think that part of learning to see is building our understanding of what we see. The two, seeing and understanding, are inextricably linked. Light impressions on the retina mean nothing until they’re processed into meaningful representations by the brain.
The Structure of the book
The book is split into sections, each of which could be characterised as representing a different approach to conceptualising form, a different perspective on the construction of the human body, if you like. I can’t cover it all here, but here are a couple of examples from the web site:
Planes and Forms
Although my experiences with form and with sculpting a ‘planes of the head’ model were very useful to me then I think, The dictionary of Human Form comes from a different, more organic perspective. In particular, the emphasis on organic structure is stressed opposition to the reduction of the forms of the human body to geometric forms, since these are by definition inorganic and foreign to the nature of the human body.
The book does say, however, that a conception of ‘planarity’ is useful, since all forms, although curved and never straight, can be thought of as having a top, bottom and sides.
In particular, the book emphasis the use of blocks, planes and perspective effects in order to gain a clear conception of how forms are tilted in space, towards, or away from the picture plane, whether vertically or horizontally. The image on the left is taken from the web site on the book and shows how this is conceptualised. As far as I’m aware, this way of conceptualising the forms of the human body has been used for centuries.
This is a very interesting concept I think, and one that I believe is unique to Mr. Jacobs. Although Bridgeman talks about ‘wedging’ of forms, being the way they fit together, this concept is about connections across multiple smaller forms and the way are strung around the human frame. Here’s a nice quote from the book on what pathways are:
“Structures arranged on pathways can be compared to beads on a curving string, where the beads may be of irregular shapes, and sitting on the string at different angles.”
This is a particularly valuable addition I think, and is one of the things that raises this book above books that deal exclusively with anatomy, like the Beverly Hale books.
The following quote gives some idea of how gesture as it relates to drawing is approached:
“The position of a body producing gestural intent has a dynamic, tilted ‘thrust’ running through it. In a drawing, this produces the effect of a long axis, that looks as if thrown, or projected on the page at a specific angle.”
Drawing is abstraction, not purely the copying of appearances. Drawing is thinking. How we think about what we draw and paint as we work reveals itself in subtle ways, which is why no two drawings by different artists of the same subject will ever be quite the same. This might be called expression, and the differences may be so subtle as to be barely felt, and next to impossible to detect with the eye. But they are there nonetheless and they have an affect.
It’s my belief that an understanding of the structure of form will always show through in a drawing, will give it strength and physicality, and the opposite is also the case. If this book helps to instil a better understanding of structure then I think that can only be a good thing. If reading and working with this book helps artists to the understanding of the importance of form and structure, it will be a very useful addition to an artists library.
For myself, although I don’t do any figure drawing at the moment, I do intend to get a copy as soon as I have enough spare cash to do so. One thing I do know is that it’s far better to buy a small number of excellent books on drawing and painting than it is to spend the same amount of money on a large collection of mediocre books, which is what I suspect most of us do. I certainly have in the past. So whilst it isn’t cheap, the cost of the book isn’t an issue for me.
OK, that wasn’t a short post after all. But it is a big book.
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