The Chain of Energy

This is the tenth in a series.

In the preceding columns I have introduced you to ways of seeing the particular structural logic of different kinds of subjects — the ellipses within round objects, the strength and/or flexibility built into manufactured objects like shoes or chairs, perspective as a key in seeing space relationships in complex scenes, growing patterns in subjects like flowers and trees, and the cubistic understructure of the human head. Now we are ready to move on to considering how to see and draw the whole human figure. It is the most subtle, challenging and rewarding subject for us as artists.

In order to observe the nuances of movement in musculature, we will study the nude body. It will give you the foundation for better understanding the clothed figure.

(Note: Because the approach I am introducing you to entails a big change of thinking — a reach for the life force rather than just the surface shadows in drawing the figure — I will present the subject in two columns. In this, the first column, I will explain and demonstrate what one could call the goal of drawing the figure, and in the next I will give you strategies for approaching the goal from different directions. This may seem counter-intuitive, since I am giving you the “steps” last, but because the central idea of this approach is so necessary to all practice of it, the leading-up exercises would mean nothing if you didn’t know where you were headed.)

The body, as we know, is a miraculous system of bones, muscles, blood and nerves, and it is possible to study it in purely anatomical terms. We can follow Da Vinci’s example and learn as much about the body as any medical student, and it might serve us well as artists, but most of us don’t have the inclination for this scientific kind of study nor the stomach for dissection.

We should, of course, have a general grasp of the major bones in the skeleton and the big muscle groups as a basis for drawing the figure. But knowledge of anatomy can take us artists only so far, because studying anatomical illustrations gives us a static view of the body that is difficult to impose on the actual gesture of any model we see before us.

Fortunately, the body, moving as it does in life, tells us a story that we can learn to read. Because the body is a cooperative totality — every part is engaged, to one degree or another, with any movement that is initiated — we can read this rhythmic dialogue that courses through from the feet to the head and out to the fingertips. It is a chain of energy. We learn to read it by looking at the figure in a more total and empathic way.

Instead of concentrating on details and accumulating our drawing bit by bit, measuring each part as though it were an equal component to every other part, we see in each particular pose that the energy is being used and controlled in a way that is specific to that pose. We can find points of pressure or relationships that make the model’s movement come alive for us; each of those points or relationships can become a “big idea” that helps us find a place to start and a theme to pursue as we continue to draw.

Once you tune into this story that the body tells, it will seem like one of those Aha! moments where you say to yourself, “Why didn’t I see this before?” Yet getting to that moment is often difficult. Most people have to discard an approach to the figure where they make a “picture” of the model that depends mostly on setting up edges and shading in the interior forms.

The change in thinking that achieves liveliness in drawing involves recognizing that the forces that animate the body are widespread. We have to be prepared to see the pressure in a hip, for instance, being echoed and continued in the pressure on the opposite side of the rib cage and on to the pressure in the opposite side of the neck. It is a much more spatial way of seeing the body than the “containment” method that many artists use. Instead of locking down the forms of the body, the approach I am introducing celebrates how much the forms are moving back and forth in space, and implying, in the moment after our drawing is finished, that the model will move again.

I include here some drawings I have done using color in a non-naturalistic way to intuitively register my response to the changes of pressure and direction of forms in the poses I am observing. I hope they will help you to see the possibilities of concentrating on the energy of the figure as the objective of drawing.

In the next column, I will give you exercises that will help you achieve more vitality in your drawings of the figure.
James McMullan, New York Times