Drapery and the Figure – the Use of Memory

Drapery Study by Judith Reeve
Drapery Study by Judith Reeve

Yesterday, I completed my workshop on Drapery and the Figure. It was a dynamic group with a range of skill sets. All were committed to the figure and approached their work with serious intent. It is always a pleasure as an instructor to have such students. They excite me as I hope to excite them about the beauty and grace of the figure.

The more successful drawings contained the proper action that identified closely with the model. They also contained a level of emotion that was tactile. The drapery added and brought out these underlying things and carried the movement and composition to a more dramatic closure.

All successful drapery drawings depend on a solid armature. Just as a sculpture cannot be started without an armature that is properly proportioned and contains the right amount of action, drapery cannot be modeled upon a figure that is flawed. The movement, proportions and a sense of balance must be evident prior to designing the drapery.

Memory plays a huge role in successfully being able to compose drapery without the use of a lay figure. One needs to hold in one’s memory the movement of the drapery as the model reveals it through the action of the pose. Each time she takes a break and returns to the pose the drapery will be different. But there will be certain folds that will repeat themselves. These are the folds that one must retain. These repeating patterns re-occur because of the tension between model and drape. These points of tension must be observed carefully. There are also points where gravity acts on the drapery- folds falling from points on the model that are directly revealed through the drape, i.e. the shoulders, hip, elbow, knee etc. Without these two aspects in the drawing the underlying figure cannot be understood- its essence will not be revealed.  Differences between fabric drawn upward and fabric allowed to fall naturally must also be noted as well as differences between types of fabric- i.e. silk or wool. In designing the drapery one must adhere to the underlying forms, eliminating any folds that conflict with the general movement and form of the figure. This is paramount, all else is superfluous.

Workshop drawing by Whitney Prentice

When one reaches the stage of modeling ( that is the rendering of light and shadow), one must be conscious of the figure and how say, the form of the deltoid is revealed in the shadow pattern of the drape. The drape must always be subordinate to the armature.There must be a conscious unity between figure and drape, successfully carrying the patterns of light and shade between the underlying as well as the exposed forms on the figure to the drape itself. One must also note how these patterns of light and shade effect the over-all design. This will affect the larger rhythm of the piece.

The most challenging aspect to rendering drapery successfully is to be conscious of one’s idea of the image. When one has set the idea in memory, one can then successfully compare what lies before one in the form of the model to this idea. Without the idea it is easy to be swayed by the changing aspects of the drape and lose oneself in the process. The idea must be held in memory allowing memory to determine what works. One thing I learned that enhanced the student’s ability to make use of his memory was allowing him to make a sketch of the draped figure prior to working on the larger armature. It was a way for memory to remain conscious and keep the student on the path that most adhered to their emotional center. I intend to keep this as part of my instruction next time.

Drapery and the Figure

This week I will be giving a workshop at the Woodstock School of Art on the use of drapery and its relationship to the figure. Very little attention is given to the expressive quality of drapery. In most cases it is a mere still-life within the larger framework of the composition. But when one observes the use of drapery in the masters, one can see how every fold in the costumes and drapery of every sort is given minute attention. The drapery acts as a means to enlarge upon the expression and gesture of the figure. It adds force, rhythm and beauty to the underlying emotions. It intensifies and clarifies the idea of the artist. It also acts as a compositional element carrying one part of the image and uniting it to another. It becomes the music and tone, a stage upon which the figure will act. The figure remains the principle character but the drapery adds grace and dimension to the piece.

Although drapery can reinforce the movement of the figure, it can also act as an independent force- an element of conflict and resistance,  a force to be dealt with. It can also carry the power of an element (such as wind, fire or water) and can act as a source of energy which is difficult to describe. It can also carry more hidden, unconscious or intuitive impulses. It can act as a character in its own right.

When I started to take drapery seriously, it opened up an aspect in my work that was more impulsive- revealing an element or character within myself that was seeking form but was not as descriptive as an object. How does one describe a force that is felt but not seen? The work of Rubens contains this undeniable force. Drapery carries his consuming sense of movement- that which is within the subjects themselves as well as forces that lie without.  The drapery unites these elements tying the serpentine compositions together and intensifying its emotional impact. We are pulled into the image and partake in the action.

Frans Hals and a Simple Palette

When I was a student at the Lyme Academy, I began painting with a set of 8- 10 colors on my palette. This is how I began because it was the selected palette of my instructor. I came about the proper relationships of color by sheer repetition. Repeating the same combinations over and over again. Only through trial and error and a memory for the right combinations did I achieve a painting similar to my subject. There was no basis or underlying structure to the palette. I find this is still the case with students who enter my classes. They have taken many courses with many excellent instructors and have adopted this color from one instructor and this combination of colors from another. I look at the palette that they are working with and  it is chaotic. There are too many colors for one thing and there is a repetition of colors- 2 blues or three reds etc.

“Simplicity is the hallmark of genius”. This should be written on every artist’s paint box. My own search for a palette that was simple and relied on some basic system lead me to one of my favorite artists, Frans Hals. In the 19th century he was hailed by such artist as Courbet, Sargent, Henri and Delacroix. He was admired greatly for his brevity of brush stroke and his ability to produce what appears directly on the retina of the eye. But I began to look at his color. The utter simplicity of his palette was striking. He achieved a full range of values as well as a variety of color temperature  all with a wonderful sense of harmony.

Hals’ palette was based on the three primaries. One of which had a greater intensity than the others. For this palette I used: Cad. red medium; raw sienna deep ( old Holland produces the only raw sienna that is adequate); and ivory black. Although, when researching the chemical extractions from some of Hals’ paintings, academics say there possibly was a green in his palette, I never found it necessary to add one ( I copied “Madam Bodolphe” at Yale university Art Museum and my palette came pretty close to what Hals used- give or take the heavy varnish applied to it and its age. And in regard to the stability of the pigments, it was quite amazing to see very little discoloration or damage to his work).

I took these three primaries and I expanded them to 12 colors, mixing first the secondaries and then expanding my range by  mixing these with their neighbor. This is what it looked like:

R (cad. red med.)              Y (raw sienna deep)              B ( ivory black)

O ( R+ Y)                                     G (Y+B)                            P (B+R)

PR – R -RO – O – OY- Y – YG- G – GB – B -BP –P               [ This is the set palette]

What I found in this simple palette was that it expressed all the inherent potential of each of the colors. And I found that its potential was far more vast than I could have imagined. Part of its expressiveness is based on intensity. Two colors are grave and one color, that being the red ,was intense. This variety of intensity added to its success.

I used this palette exclusively for two to three years. It was some of the most constructive and rigorous work I have done as an artist. It allowed me to see the complex in the simple and simplicity in what at first appears complex. I found it much easier to achieve harmony; greater control of temperature and value; and to use intensity as a key to color composition. There was something solemn and simple yet beautiful about the limitedness of this palette. It expressed many of the attributes I see in Hals work.

Love of Hals lead me to the work of Robert Henri ( although as a footnote, nothing is always clear cut- I was reading Henri and delving into his archive during these experiments and much of his influence can be felt also in this work- i.e.- the spectrum palette). Henri, who himself was attracted to Hals, had a developed sense of color and based the underlying sense of his palette on Hals and the work of H.G. Marratta (color theorist and paint manufacturer). With this basis, I allowed myself to seek color for its emotional impact beyond these initial explorations. Henri became my primary tutor from this point on. His use of color appealed to my modern sensibilities. I wished to transform my work from its academic beginnings to work that tapped into our modern sensitivity to color, allowing the image to speak in those terms.

(image from www.polskina5.pl/data/Motywy/s/hals.jpg)

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