Living Art- II. Teaching Pattern- Reconstructing the Human Figure…

Reconstructing the Human Figure as a Unity, and Sensitivity to Implicit Movement

Most of these exercises apply to both painting and drawing. I usually begin with drawing because one can’t learn everything at once. Yet I found that if one waits more than three classes to introduce painting some students implicitly identify the practice of visual art with drawing. They resist color.

The first step towards art is to move from fragmented details to the interplay of patterns.

2.The Single Figure

2.1 Working as a Unity

We begin with one model.

Almost all beginners start by seeing pieces in mutual isolation. Not even parts. Parts imply a whole. Piece by piece progression down the figure.

The movement from isolated pieces to the organically integrated body is the first transition from “everyday vision” to “artist vision’.

It is very difficult. I stubbornly persist. Unless that door is opened little else can happen.

I say, “The body is not a Frankenstein’s monster piece sewn to piece. It is an integrated mutually interdependent unity.”

I dance to demonstrate organic integration. I say, “When part of the body moves, the rest moves with it”.

I say, “intuitive synthesis is crucial to art, yet almost everything that we take seriously in this society is analytic.”

I try to summon other areas of imaginative interflow. “Think of dancing. Think of listening to music. Think of friendship. Art is an intimate conversation between you and the human species. In intimate conversation you live in interconnection: you speak and listen initiate and respond.”

I warn that at first movement from working piece by piece to working as a unity may bre experienced as losing control .I use the metaphor of moving through water. “When people begin in water, they almost always start by walking. At first, the walkers may outdistance those learning to swim. They certainly feel more comfortable. Soon those who are trying to swim move much more quickly than the walkers. The walkers remain limited to the shallows. The swimmers move into the depths.”

One cannot actually work everywhere at once, Thus working as a unity requires sensitive movement from one point to the other. I say “move back and forth between the internal divisions of the body and the silhouette …. Work on the arm, then on the leg, then back to the arm. Keep every thing in motion together. Trace and express organic interconnections” . . .Sensitivity to negative space is extremely helpful. Negative space is space carved out of the air by the model’s position. It is often geometric and easy to grab on to. It “underlines” relatedness.

Every time one does a part, one attempts to comprehend and depict it in its relatedness (e.g. Where is the arm in relation to the leg?)

One must work hard to distinguish this necessary precondition for art from art itself. Art is always expressive. Always personal. I say, “Everything visual is also emotional. Integration will return again and again on a higher level. We will talk about coloristic and emotional unity . . . What we see now as physical proportion, we will later understand symbolically as expressive metaphor. This model for example is tall and thin. For El Greco this factual elongation articulated spiritual striving.”

2.2 Dynamic Integration

We move quickly from recognition of organic harmony (each imbalance initiating a new balanced position) to awareness of the visual figure as a constellation of forces.

The drawn or painted image is necessarily static. Yet it is a stasis of implicit motion.

Motion in one direction, however powerful, is always compositionally banal: a person standing on tip toe body vertical and stretching upward, a voice rising higher and higher, a plot in which a protagonist moves unchallenged from victory to victory. Tension is required.

The interplay of tension and resolution was beautifully resolved in the basic standing male figure of Egyptian sculpture.

The triangle of the legs visually communicates horizontal motion. It also suggests a first step, the most powerful image-symbol of forward motion.

“The first step” is countered by the powerful vertical of stiff tapering torso and down thrusting arms, as though a nail was hammered down into the earth through rock.

We always begin with this pose. Thus from the beginning we are in dialogue with the history of art…. Later the body swivels at the waist, turns and moves freely (as in Greece): we seek implicit movement, lost and regained balance, tension and resolution, in complex poses

2.3 The Face

The face is extremely difficult to draw or paint as a unity. It resists connection to the body. It tends to fragment into its features.

One problem is language. Face language is extremely analytic. It separates.

It doesn’t seem as strange to say, “First I painted his face and then his body” as to say, “First I painted his arm and then his body.”

If one asks, “What comprises a face?” the answer is almost always “eyes, nose and mouth.”

The face is structured through its planes… A crucial pattern, with personal and archetypical resonance, is temples, cheekbones, setting of the eyes, hollow beneath lips and shape of chin. One develops each feature through the pattern of “the whole.”

Blood and neural impulses flow, as water through a river, through the neck. The body including the face should be painted as it exists, in dynamic organic interconnection.

2.4 The Figure in its Setting

I began art teaching by substituting in a class where many students felt that they succeeded once they “did the figure.” They didn’t care where they put it. _ I would say, “What about the rest of the canvas?” Several answered, “That’s O.K. I’ll put in curtains.” Next to a carefully worked through figure appeared rudimentary sub-cartoon muddy colored “curtains.”

I promised myself that my students would learn to place the figure where it expressively organizes the space it inhabits.

The project is to make a painting not to “reproduce a figure.”

Many students go through a period in which figures are well placed but dynamically relevant parts of the setting are excluded. For example, they would paint a seated figure and omit the chair. Figures float in air.

If I comment they usually try to slip a chair underneath. Yet once something is left out it is extremely difficult to add it later.… Some decide it would be easier to seat the figure on a rock. (The rocks come from the same prop room as the curtains.)

Everything, not only the figure, should be developed together in an expressive coherent composition.

3.Multiple Figures

It is natural, for beginners almost unavoidable, to believe that drawing many figures is qualitatively more difficult than drawing one figure; complications are multiplied: not ten hands and ten fingers, which is difficult enough, but multiples of ten.

You, on the other hand, are no longer outsiders. Thus, with at most a brief reminder, you know that this apparent qualitative leap in difficulty is illusory. In art details are not engaged one by one. They are included in patterns. Composition emerges as an interplay of patterns.

In the beginning models are encouraged to pose close together in flowing mutually unifying lines of implicit movement. Then we develop poses focused on unity in difference.

Awareness of two or more figures as a unity should recognize the uniqueness of each figure. One-sided subordination of part to whole is banal…. The unity of multifigural compositions is “dialogical”: it accepts and works through interplay of differences.

The above is an Excerpt from Living Art by Avron Soyer, Click Here to read the next installment- Two Figurative Approaches


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Writings and Interviews by Avron Soyer

Reflections on life, paintings, theory, conversation.

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