Australian Fine Artist

Draw and Paint from Life Model
All Day Workshop with David Chen

I have avoided drawing and painting the human figure for much of my life, for a while it was because I wasn’t painting at all, but even when I was, the human figure held no interest for me. Humans, so far, I felt had not been very kind to me so I preferred animals, seascapes and landscapes.

It has taken some years and convincing to talk me into placing them back into my practice of drawing and painting. Having life drawing as part of my diploma course has also necessitated me taking on the skill of rendering the human form. Having a bias in your thinking isn’t an easy thing to face, but to be a well rounded artist, it has been something I have had to do. It sill isn’t an easy subject, but with David’s tutoring this semester I am hoping to start to conquer it or at least make a start.

David starts his workshops with about half an hour of discussion about what we are trying to achieve, what he wants us to learn and with examples of our goals from artists that have given us the best of the subject, be it colour theory, tonalism, composition, or style and method.

Even though we are painting life paintings from a model, we are also looking at how to paint skin, mixing skin tones, all the unthought of colours that can be used for human skin and creating an artwork from what we are observing.

When painting nude models we have roughly two choices:

  1. Paint with no background, traditionally a dark background and very little detail in the foreground
  2. Paint the figure with the surrounding interior or landscape as an important part of the composition

For our lessons to begin with we are concentrating on the figure, getting skin tones correct and not working on the surrounds. We were asked to bring sketch books and pencils to these lessons, which is new for David’s workshops, but we were broaching a new subject so working on more drawing skills made sense.

We began with five 1 minute sketches. They had to be loose and continual, not raising the pencil from the paper. Then followed five 3 monte sketches done the same way. By the last one I had finally begun to draw something I was close to happy with and that looked a bit like the model. The object of the exercise was to capture movement and life, varying the weight of application of the lines would help to give form and depth.

David talked to us about how mediums have their own characteristics and limitations. As artists we should try to have a good hold on most of them, especially if we want to teach as I do. David said that mediums have subjects that they excel in more than others, some subjects are best done in one medium rather than another. I was really happy to hear this as I have often looked at a subject and it nearly yelled at me, what medium dot do it in! IE: “I’m a pastel and I am going to be a loose impressionist drawing, so hurry up and start drawing me!” or I’m a watercolour, so get out the water colour paints and paper and get to work”.

Anyway, getting back to the workshop, David talked to us about the changes of colour in the body as someone stands in the spot light for example, as our model was. As you work your way from head to toe, the warmth changes, and as the nearness of blood vessels and bones to the surface changes, so does the colour of the skin. Skin will also react to the warmth or coolness of the light source. You can also factor in the natural heritage of the person, whether they are very fair skinned, lightly tanned, olive complexion or very dark skinned.

Many people automatically pull out the yellow cures, reds etc to paint skin – I had just done that. We were encouraged to look again and select some blues and greens, as well as browns. It really did surprise me as I tried to observe better, how the model did really have shadows in the blue and green/grey range and that her legs were much warmer than her abdomen and her head different again. There were light cools on the shoulders, light on the edge of the legs, which were drier and warmer elsewhere, warm upper arms and warm towns of resin the hands.

Along with all of this was understanding that a body is not that much different to painting a still life, the colours you choose rouse must all relate to each other. You can’t just plonk a colour in and hope it works with all the rest, even if you see that colour, you may need to change it to warmer or cooler to work with all the others you have on the palette. If you have a warm palette, all the colours must work with that.

We looked at Monet’s works on hay stacks and the famous cathedral paintings, where he did the same subject but changed the tonal values, he changed his palette and experimented with a light tonal scene, a mid tonal scene and a darker tonal scene, working to see what tones and colours worked and which didn’t. As long as the tone works, he discovered and it is our hope by learning, everything else will (given that you have a good composition and have “drawn” it in well).

There was one other thing as far as composition of colour in our paintings, work from left to right and top to bottom, with a lighter side to darker and warmer side to cooler. For example you may decide on left to right will be lighter to darker, and top to bottom will be cooler to warmer. For examples of this have a look at the portraits of Rembrandt. You will also see great examples of shadows (shadow, reflected shadow, cast shadow, occlusion shadow etc).

Remember your three light areas in an object and five dark areas in shadows for creating form and atmosphere (see my previous blog talking about light and shade). This is especially important with the human figure just as with anything in a still life or landscape. Experiment with other colours when painting humans form, try out your blues, greens and even charcoal black to create more interesting and subtle skin tones.

Next workshop for me will be tonalism, the first for the semester on this subject. Until then happy painting!

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