Today, I'd like to offer some thoughts on figure construction.
Figure construction, not as a specific method or procedure, but rather, in the broadest sense, is the practical arm of the belief that knowledge of the figure is instrumental in the realization of its full expressive potential.
Construction shares a lot of ground with the discipline of anatomy, but the two are not exactly synonymous. Anatomy, as a general term, encompasses the study of a wide array of functions and structures of the body, many of which are of very little use to artists. Construction, then, is a practical discipline, a subset of anatomy specifically concerned with the major anatomical structures that give form to the body, with their rhythmical arrangement and with their integration into one another. Construction is not just the study of anatomical units, but of their harmonious relationship, all toward the aim of movement.
This stands in contrast to the position that advocates a purely optical observation of visual phenomena stripped of all preconceptions*. But it stands in contrast, not in opposition. When confronted with a visual experience that needs to "captured" exactly as it appears visually*, an optical approach is a vitally useful tool. The recording of perceived angles and distances, and their attendant relationships is paramount, as is the resultant arrangement of shapes, if the aim is a true likeness.
A distinction should be drawn (get it??) here between shape and form. Shape in the sense that we use it in drawing, generally refers to the space that a thing takes up in the visual field (or in its analogue, the picture plane). Again, an exacting analysis of shape is crucial when attempting to draw something objectively*. Form, however, is a mental idea of the physical materiality of the subject. It is the impression of the three-dimensional space taken up by a body. Shape is incidental, it changes from moment to moment, depending on the position of the subject and the position of the observer. Form, on the other hand, is a bit more stable. Nearly every spectator understands that if a fully extended arm turns toward them, so that it appears foreshortened from their point of view, the arm hasn't gotten any shorter. The change occurs in the shape, but not the form.
Here, I would like to recount a conversation between George Clausen, the Naturalist painter, and G.F. Watts, a painter from the previous generation. This is from Clausen's "Aims and Ideals in Art":
"Some years ago that great artist, whose long life has just ended --Mr Watts-- was good enough to give me some advice. I was speaking of the difficulty of doing something I was trying to do, because I could not get a model to pose; and I said, 'Of course one has to rely on memory.'
'Yes,' he said, 'memory is a good thing, but there's a better.' I asked him what that was. 'Knowledge,' said he, and he took a piece of chalk and made a drawing of the bones of the knee. 'There, he said when you really know the shape of these bones, it doesn't matter what position you draw the knee in, you'll understand it." It was a most valuable lesson, and made things clearer to me.." (Clausen 20)
Granted, Watts uses the term "shape" to refer to the form of the bones, but in the context of the conversation and his work, I would chalk this up to a casualty of language. The terms I'm proposing are obviously not universal, but I think this underscores the importance of clarifying what we mean when we say "shape" or "form" (or whatever we wish to call them, so long as we define what we mean).
Construction finds its expression in many ways, and is followed through many methods, from the exquisite inhabitants of Leighton and Baudry's painted worlds, to the atrocious excesses of Burne Hogarth. As with any conceptual model, the test for any constructive method is how closely it maps onto the real phenomena that it seeks to organize and explain. In teaching construction, it is imperative to review and revise old diagrams in favor of improved models that clarify or better represent the realities of the figure.
All this being said, construction is an arduous discipline and this kind of study does not appeal to everyone; but it does have many incredible benefits. For instance, it allows for the quick apprehension of the basic facts of the figure, for the development of subtle, sophisticated, moving form and for the ability to modify or invent figures within believable limits. It's what allows us to produce 10 minute drawings that are beautiful, coherent records of the figure.
At its best, an understanding of construction encourages a powerful synergy between the figure and the method of expressing it; the movement of the pencil becomes the movement of the body; it speeds and crawls, laughs and weeps in perfect harmony with the figure itself. Form and movement are no longer being recorded, but actively generated in the virtual space of the picture plane.
Below are some selected quotes from various artists, primarily from the 19th century, along with images of constructive drawing from centuries past.
"I have seen a great deal since then — and heard artistic theories propounded without number — but the science of constructive drawing as taught by Mr. Schussele remains clearly with me, and is, in my opinion, as thorough and right as a method can be. I have endeavoured through all these years to carry out his theory (I have never studied under any other master), and whatever of shortcomings is said to be laid at my door — and alas! I fear this is not a little — I can truthfully say that I owe whatever of science I have to the groundwork of advice I had at Mr. Schussele's hands."
Edwin Austin Abbey, royal academician; the record of his life and work (13)
"The importance of the correct perception of tone has given rise in France to a system of drawing by tone merely, to the ignoring of constructive drawing; the result is that there is no school where tone (or as they call it "les valeurs") is better understood; the absurdities and crudities of modem English art in this respect being unknown there. [...] There is no necessity for carrying matters to this extreme; the great Italian painters were none the less masters of tone because they devoted themselves to the study of form, and to the higher points of construction and ideal beauty. But it must be kept in mind that no amount of anatomical or constructional knowledge of drawing is of value without a true perception of tone. A figure which, as we say, is 'all to pieces' in this respect, however correct the outline, will never stand the light of intelligent criticism"
Lectures on Art (150)
"...the case is different when he is before the living model; a slight movement of the shoulder, or a pressure on the elbow, will in certain positions cause the collar-bone to start out in strong relief, or disappear into the shoulder. In order that he may draw it with any accuracy, therefore, it is necessary that he should know its form, the part it plays in the construction of the body, where it is attached at either end, and by what muscles it is surrounded. He must therefore carry on with his study of drawing the study of anatomy, which he will do by drawing from the skeleton and anatomical casts, and attending if possible a course of anatomical lectures."
Lectures on Art (152)
"One day Gerome said to a student who had made a disjointed design: 'Go see the drawings by Raphael in the Louvre; see how he attaches his figure together at the knees and shoulders and hips; how careful he is to insist on this continuity of the form; how every bone hangs by a string to some other bone; and how careful he is to express this dragging and weight of the form.' I have never seen a drawing by Gerome which did not insist on the same quality of nature. He may violently bend the joint of a figure, but what he insists on is the flow of it, not the break of it.
This continuity is one of the great traits of a figure by Gerome; another is, that when the conditions of the picture do not give a chance to tell all the facts about a figure, and when some have to be expressed and others omitted, he expresses the facts of the mechanism of the human frame, so that the figure, however slight, is a viable machine."
Études in modern French art (5)
"Truth and logic were the basis of everything he did. Construction and values, values and construction, how often did the student hear those mysterious words, until he learned that, with the addition of color, these made up a formula which, if properly followed in an art work, meant life."
Modern French Masters: A Series of Biographical and Critical Reviews (50)
*To the degree that this is possible.