Read The Latest Blog Posts and Articles Recent Posts! the perfect playground to explore and be inspired by art.
Subscribe to RWK Clark for FREE publications!

How Figure Study Has Evolved Over The Years

Blogs: #5 of 20

Previous Next View All

Figure study is an act of drawing the human body in a certain medium, whether it be drawn or painted. Most of the time, figure study is practiced with the subject, or model, without clothing; however, it is not limited to just nudity considering artist have practiced figure study fully dressed. The human body has been the subject of many different types of artwork over the years in all mediums all over the world; commonly referred to as figure study. Dating back to prehistoric times, figure study is considered by many to be the best way to learn to draw in terms of anatomy, overall accuracy, and help the drawings have depth instead of seeming flat and not rounded and curved like a real human. The body has many curves and lines that make light reflect and bounce in specific contours that are unique to the model. This can be rather difficult to replicate in drawings and paintings. Live models tend to be the norm when it comes to the preferred reference, but exceptions such as statues are used as substitutes when models are unavailable. There isn’t a wrong way to approach figure study. However, most approach it straight forward and draw what they see in front of them, while others draw a skeleton of sorts, followed by the muscular system, and then finally the skin and such. Others have been known to approach it differently and use geometric shapes in place that help to build onto the figure from there. Other than drawings, figure study has evolved from paper to other mediums.

Paintings were among the most popular and first fine arts to begin practicing figure study. Like with drawings, painting has been around since prehistoric times, though very rough at first and not as well constructed as the figure art in modern time. Egyptians were among some of the first that truly began to add detail to the figure studies. Along with Egyptians, the Ancient Greeks and their depiction of gods and goddesses, and many Asian territories that depicted Asian calligraphy and historical figures on scrolls, which showed how the foundation of figure study was evolving over different periods and cultures. However, because of how long ago these pieces of art were made, a lot of the early figure studies never had a chance to be preserved for safekeeping, and as a result, a lot of early Pre-Renaissance artwork has been destroyed or lost. During the middle ages, figure studies continued, however nude figures were taken out of the pieces. Around the middle ages is when the Christian religion was practiced in huge numbers around the world, and the idea of celibacy came into effect greatly among many people practicing the faith, and the concept of human figures depicted in the nude was shunned upon. One of the only exceptions of this rule at the time was the works that depicted Eve in the garden of Eden, Mary Magdalene, and paintings that depicted the Virgin Mary, or the Nursing Madonna. It is unclear as to why this was decided originally, but it is believed that the idea behind leaving certain biblical figures nude is because of the representation of the certain individual being defenseless in the scenarios surrounding the character.

It is believed that the Renaissance era was when the figure study became organized and perfected with realism. When nude art became acceptable again in a sense, the depiction of a woman was very different than it previously was with Hugo van der Goes paintings of women. Early paintings depicted models as very masculine and fit in a sense. However, Goers' figures were presented as to how figures are in reality. Figure study over the years eventually revealed how our bodies really are and how every curve and contour we possess is not depicted as the perfect figures before. Other than Leonardo de Vinci and Michelangelo in Italy, most do not know that Rogier van der Weyden from the early Netherlands and Matthias Grünewald from Germany where practicing figure study as well. Both Weyden and Grünewald's work consisted of mostly religious iconography involving the Crucifixion of Christ. It appears that during the Renaissance era, most if not all followed de Vinci's rule when it comes to the basic form of figure study and the proportions of the human body. As time went on, most did not seem to stray away from de Vinci's template. However, artists began to work more with lighting. Paintings down the line seemed to get more and more details because painters began working around different lighting and observed the way the shading and shadows worked on a human body.

It is said that paintings depicting females were painted using males as the models and simply give the model feminine features after. A drawing by Michelangelo called the "Study of a Kneeling Nude Girl for The Entombment" proves this because of her flat chest and boyish figure. Regardless of the model used, this drawing is considered by many to be the first nude female figure study. It is written that this practice of male models lasted many years, but fellow Renaissance painter Raphael Sanzio da Urbino is the first painter to use actual female models for his paintings. In the 1600s, painters began using female models for females depicted in paintings. Even though the practice of depicting figures accurately in paintings was becoming more frequent, many artists still preferred to portray their figures as fit and idealistic. Artists soon began merging the two together; by not exaggerating the perfect curves as much and leaving the natural contours and such that were present on the live models. As far as how the models posed and were presented, all were shown posing in specific ways and at very specific places. In the 1800s French painter, Édouard Manet began experimenting with the idea of depicting models not only how they naturally appeared but models appearing in everyday situations. One of his paintings, known as the "The Luncheon on the Grass," caused a lot of uproar among the public. The painting depicted two females and two males; both men are seen seated as one of the females is shown bathing in the back and the other seated nude between the two males. Many artists took a liking to Manet's ideas, and soon after, paintings depicting females in casuals situations became the norm. Around the time the invention of the camera appeared pioneering artists shifted focus from canvas paintings to camera work. Painting Figure study is in no way dead. However, it just isn't as popular considering the advancements in modern times. The figure study now is very different, though. Most simply it exaggerates the models into their own style in favor of realism. Even though realism figure study isn't as popular, all fine art classes still encourage students to practice and learn realistic figure study and build up their knowledge of the practice and convert their learning into their own style.

Other than painting and drawing, the sculpting of the human figure was another practice that dates back to the Egyptians and the Greeks. Many artists desired other methods to study under and began sculpting figures in many types of stones, woods, and in more modern times, welding of metals. When it comes to figure study in sculpture form, Greek gods and goddesses are among the most popular. In ancient Greek paintings, it shows how they had a basic understanding when it comes to the human body. Considering how long ago the art was created, it is unaware if these sculptures came from a live model or not. Over the years, the materials to create these figures have changed as well. Many tools were originally types of metals, bronze, and even different types of bones. Tools soon began to evolve as metal forging became more perfected. At the time, many of the figure studies that were stature were for beliefs. Egyptians and Greek made these pieces of art to honor their respective gods, rather than for self-expression and such. One major observation a person can make about these two types of art pieces; in the early days of figure study in sculptures, the models were depicted as extremely fit and on the strong side. It is believed that many people saw these traits as the popular figure that both males and females alike preferred and saw attraction in. It is unclear as to how these figure portrayals became the preferred by many people, but it is believed that many people who were not of royalty in those times were workers, which cause them to build muscle over time. People say that having muscle clearly meant you were stronger in terms of being able to lift heavy objects. As a result, sculptors began figure study around workers body's to apply the strong figure on their gods.

Another very popular method of figure study is photography. Ever since the first camera, photographers have been taking photos of people. However, in the late 1800s, many people declined to agree that photography was a fine art until much later. At the time figure study, or nude study was very different; which often featured women over men models. Early photographers such as Gaudenzio Marconi and Jean Louis Marie Eugène Durieu often took monochrome photos of models posing in particular ways that appeared inspirited by the many poses of Greek mythology. Considering figure study with photography featured real models over figure study drawings that just featured sketches of the models, the nude study was controversial. Many photographers at the time got around the issues by stating that their portfolios consisted of figure study references for drawings and paintings. Many did, for a fact, use them as such, while others used the excuse as a way to continue their choice of fine art. Over time, many people would criticize nude study and say it was simply for sensual purposes and nothing more. It is true that some may indeed be, however not all are meant to be. Some artists make artistic nude pieces without the intent to arouse or to be erotic. Many artistic nude photographers seem to intend the satire, surreal, or expression of oneself present to be the main idea or thought behind the piece. Similar to how objects from a certain shape and people look at it in abstract ways, nude photographers express this by appreciating the shapes and forms that a model can make and pose in.

In the early 1900s, the nude study began to gain respect with the help of Rudolf Koppitz and Alfred Stieglitz, who dedicated their lives to help photography become accepted by the public as a fine art form. Photographers began to move away from the classical Greek mythology look and began to experiment with more stylized looks that emphasized on abstract expressions and natural, or real-life appearances using reflective distortions and many other printing techniques. Aside from that, the use of male models became more frequent as well. Using both males and females as models began to help drive the point across that photographers attempted to express idealism and the act of becoming comfortable with oneself with the stylized photos they took. Other than including models of both genders, the art form grew as photographers began stylizing not only on the models but also the backgrounds. Models began appearing photographed in front of huge landscapes and other locations in nature that gave interesting lighting effects and helped bring out the contours in the model's curves. The backgrounds also helped set up any types of tones or moods that helped the photographers vision in the art piece. Alfred Stieglitz began displaying his nude study photography in his galleries in the early 1900s, causing many art critics to gain interested and infatuated with the new art form for figure study. An interesting fact about Stieglitz is his view of photography in that he tried looking inside of a person, rather than simply photographing the person, and captured on camera the inner and purest form and beauty of a model to push forward the life we have. Another interesting photographer was female photographer Imogen Cunningham, who is one of the most important figures in nude photography as she is the first woman to take a fully nude photo of a male, as well as being featured in the first full-frontal adult nude photo to be published in Life Time magazine alongside model Twinka Thiebaud in 1976. Regardless of this, Imogen main style of photography was taking sharp focused photos of objects with a group of photographers named Group f/64, which takes its namesake after the camera aperture used for this style of photography. As photography began becoming even more respected, other photographers began experimenting with many other types of techniques to make unique and distinct styles to call their own.

A visual artist named Emmanuel Radnitzky, who went by the name “Ray Man,” was one of the artists who inspired many with his “Rayographs” style. Ray Man began taking photos on strips of film that had their tones partially flipped or on negative sheets of film; which gave the models a slight glow and at times a surreal look. This process is known as Solarisation in modern time, and many people practice this effect today in the digital era by simply desaturating photos and inverting it afterward. Many surreal artists from that time soon took a liking to him because of the odd effect the process presented and many photographers such as Maurice Tabard, who would overlay multiple photos that were solarised and would create haunting surreal photos. Raoul Ubac, who would photograph groups of models in odd and pliant poses, as well as single models glancing unnervingly, on negative film strips. It’s regularly debated if these styles of photography are considered figure study since these styles seem to focus more on the odd surreal looks over actually trying to capture the simple shadings and contours of a model. However, considering the models appear nude in the photos, there still appears to be an appreciation on figure study.

Many photographers at the time seemed to use medium formatted cameras, however photographer Edward Weston soon began figure studying with different cameras. Weston used a 4x5, and later on 8x10, which could capture movements at a quick or rapid speed, using model Helen Charis Wilson over a large span of his career. In 1937, Weston established photography as a fine art by becoming the first photographer in history to win a Guggenheim Fellowships award.

Just like when the camera came out, the video camera was an opening for new opportunists, and a new medium as well. Many artistic films that featured nude study began to emerge. Film manipulation was treated similarly, the way camera film was, which included recording entire movies on negatives and splicing together layers of film to create certain effects. As technology advance more and more, figure study in the film became very simple considering the film was replaced by digital. Like with photography, many people were unaware at the time what is considered adult filming, and what was considered art. Some figure study in the film can have sexuality present, but like with photography; if the sensation isn't meant as the main idea or thought behind the piece, then it is not categorized as an adult film. Another way figure study in motion has been depicted was in performing arts. Again, much like photography; people have challenged the theory that performance arts are not really an art form. Most performance arts are acts that express feelings and ideas in sometimes surreal and in odd mannerisms. With film figure study, the viewer is really limited with their learning abilities in terms of studying the models; however, in performance pieces, they are usually performed in front of crowds of people, and the views can witness the figure study first hand directly in front of them. Many performance acts are pieces of very strange and odd mannerisms for that exact reason; so the viewer can see how the model can actually move and what the human body is capable of.

Today in modern times, many of the practices and styles from over the years do indeed shine through in all photographers. Modern artists like early photographers have models lit in a way that really shows off the contours and curves of the human body, as well as some abstract poses and lighting. Considering how much work and study goes into figure photography, there is no denying that how true it is that you don’t take a photograph, you make it.

Table Of Contents
Subscribe To This Blog!