DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Reclining, Not Boring

Body Helix (Beu), 2010, by Fred Hatt

Some artists denigrate the reclining pose as the choice of the lazy model getting paid to nap.  But reclining poses can embody tension or emotion rather than just relaxation, and the open-minded artist will revel in the chance to see parts of the body foreshortened and juxtaposed in unusual and even complex ways they would never see in a vertically composed pose.  This post is a collection of my recent reclining pose sketches, twenty-minute or ten-minute poses, mostly from the Saturday morning life drawing sessions at Figureworks Gallery in Brooklyn.

The above sketch is as far as possible from the familiar gently-curved sideways reclining nude painted by many artists from Giorgione to Modigliani.  Note particularly the twisted torso, showing both front and back of the body, the balanced angled supports of left arm and leg, and the lower leg folded up the wall.

The posing area at Figureworks is in an archway between two rooms, with artists drawing from both rooms.  Models are not posing in the round, but to two sides, with a sort of frame providing supports for leaning.  The model in the drawing below raised his left leg with his foot up on the wall of the arch:

Dreams (Saeed), 2010, by Fred Hatt

Here are some other uses of the wall as a leg support.  Here the body is held in a state of tension between the hands pressing against the floor and the foot pressing against the wall:

Angle Tension (Theresa), 2010, by Fred Hatt

This pose conveys an unusual bold power in the contrast between the closed upper limbs and the open lower limbs propped against the wall:

Arms Crossed Legs Open (Beu), 2010, by Fred Hatt

Another pose by the same model, also using the wall as a support for the legs:

Right Angle (Beu), 2010, by Fred Hatt

Reclining poses can provide interesting challenges in foreshortening.  I try to see the body as though it were a landscape, with the shapes as hills and mountains arranged at different distances.

Hands Clasped Behind (Jiri), 2010, by Fred Hatt

The face is a particular challenge when seen from an angle at which the features are not in standard frontal relationship.  Studying faces from these unusual perspectives can give you a much stronger sense of their three-dimensional structure.

Lying Back (Danielle), 2009, by Fred Hatt

Ribcage (Jiri), 2009, by Fred Hatt

I often approach the foreshortened forms of the body using cross-contours and studying light that strikes the body from opposite my viewing angle, as in these two studies of the model Corey’s unusually well-defined musculature:

Hammock Style (Corey), 2009, by Fred Hatt

Hugging the Blanket (Corey), 2009, by Fred Hatt

Similar techniques are used to convey the form of this beautiful female back:

Callipygia (Lilli), 2009, by Fred Hatt

Various twists and crossings can add interest to reclining poses:

Ankle Knee Cross (Jiri), 2007, by Fred Hatt

The quick sketch below is interesting because you can see my first approach to analyzing the figure, building it out of ovals, in beige, and then a second stage, going for more precision, in black and white, with significant corrections to proportion and relative positions:

L with Twist (Claudia), 2008, by Fred Hatt

That’s Claudia, the Museworthy blogger.  Here’s another of her great poses.  This is dynamism in a horizontal orientation:

Arm Overhead (Claudia), 2010, by Fred Hatt

Here are three wonderfully sinuous poses from the model Madelyn:

Complex Repose (Madelyn), 2010, by Fred Hatt

Tight Coil (Madelyn), 2010, by Fred Hatt

Supine Arched (Madelyn), 2010, by Fred Hatt

This model created an evocative pose simply by posing with a flashlight, giving a feeling of lying awake at night in a lonely tent:

Flashlight (Taylor), 2010, by Fred Hatt

Contrasting that waking stillness, the final pose in this post gives me the impression of active dreaming:

Dreaming Puppeteer (Theresa), 2010, by Fred Hatt

In previous posts I haven’t always credited all the models by name, but in this case it seemed appropriate, because these poses are all so creative and expressive.  You’ll notice some of the same names appearing several times.  These are magnificent models, and I would never have been able to make these images without them.

All drawings are aquarelle crayon on paper, sizes ranging from 18″ x 24″ to 20″ x 28″.  All are 10-minute or 20-minute sketches, mostly drawn at Figureworks Gallery.


Exercising Perception

"Innenperspektive", illustration from "Beiträge zur Analyse der Empfindungen", by Ernst Mach, 1886, G. Fischer

 Your ability to draw what you see is limited by your ability to see.  Vision is not simply a mechanical process that is naturally perfect.  Seeing takes place more in the brain than in the eyes, and it can be transformed and expanded by serious practice, just like any other skill that involves the interaction of body and mind. 

The complexities of human visual perception, and techniques for training or honing your vision, are a topic for a whole book.  This post offers a collection of links and ideas as a very basic introduction. 

If you’re up for an experiment, this link describes a “Selective Attention Test” involving counting basketball passes in a video.  Read the description and then take the video test before reading further. 

Part of learning to see is simply learning to notice things.  Most people actually notice very little of what passes before their eyes.  What they do see is what they have been taught or told to pay attention to.  Stage magicians can make you not see something simply by directing your attention to something else.  (Unfortunately marketers and politicians have also mastered such manipulations of attention.) 

Cover of "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" by Annie Dillard, first edition, 1974, Harper's Magazine Press

 In the classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes eloquently about learning to see in the natural world.  Dillard is a poet, philosopher, artist, and keen observer of nature.  Her words helped awaken me to the rich and strange mystery of seeing.  Read chapter 2, titled “Seeing”, or better, get the book and treat yourself to one of the literary masterpieces of our time.  Learning how to see more and better is a primary concern of the whole book. 

Nearly any craft or specialty involves learning to see what most eyes would miss.  For example, the ancient Polynesian navigators, who crossed thousands of miles of ocean in simple boats without any instruments, learned to see land beyond the horizon by observing light reflected on the bottoms of clouds.   Noticing and naming the phenomenon awoke their vision to it. 

Surface Anatomy of the Back, fig. 477 from "Applied Anatomy: The Construction Of The Human Body" by Gwylim G. Davis, 1913, Lippincott

Surface Anatomy of the Back, fig. 477 from "Applied Anatomy: The Construction of the Human Body", by Gwylim G. Davis, 1913, Lippincott

 This is why figurative artists study anatomy.  When you learn the names and locations of bones and muscles, you can see them because you know what they are.  The subtle and sometimes confusing bumps and curves on the surface of the body are more clearly seen because you understand them as manifestations of an underlying structure. 

But there’s a contrary principle.  Sometimes what you know can actually make it hard to see what you see.  For example, you know that the legs, for instance, are long shapes.  But when they are foreshortened, that is, when they face you along their axis, they may not appear long at all.  Thinking of the leg as a long shape may interfere with your ability to see it as a foreshortened, oval form.  So there are cases in which you need to forget what you know in order to draw what you see. 

"The Dead Christ" by Andrea Mantegna, c. 1480

 The illustration at the top of this post is from The Analysis of Sensations and the Relation of the Physical to the Psychical,  by Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach, whose name has become the scientific term for the speed of sound.  Mach’s philosophy starts from the idea that all we can know, we know via the senses, so understanding how the senses work is fundamental to understanding anything.  In the illustration, he is attempting to represent the view from inside his head, through his left eye.  You can see his nose and mustache to the right of the eye socket. This is a pretty good representation of what you can see with one eye, sitting in one place, keeping the head still, but moving the eye around. 

Everything in the Mach illustration is in sharp focus.  If the eye does not move, only a tiny fraction of what it takes in is actually seen sharply.  The fovea is a dense cluster of light-sensitive cells in the center of the retina, the image-receiving surface in the eye.  The fovea sees in high-resolution and full color, but it only covers a very narrow spot of the complete field of view of the eye.  The eye does take in close to a 180 degree view, but away from center it becomes increasingly lower-resolution and less sensitive to color.  If you could capture a snapshot of sensor output from the retina for a single instant, it would look something like this simulation: 

Rough Simulation of Foveal and Peripheral Vision, illustration by Fred Hatt derived from "Fisheye Domilise's", photo by Editor B

 The eye provides a wide-field view, like a photographer’s fisheye lens, but not very sharp, superimposed with a very sharp narrow-angle view like that of a telephoto lens.  The wide view, or peripheral vision, is useful for noticing movement coming from any direction, and for orientation and aiming of the foveal center of attention.  Of course we’re just describing the raw data coming in from the eye.  The eye scans about and the visual cortex, or image processing center of the brain, knits all of this moving data together into a seemingly sharp view of everything.  But fix your eye on one word on the page of a book and see if you can read a word a few inches away without moving the eye, and you will see that the area of sharp vision is quite small. 

In observational drawing, we’re using these eyes, a sharp foveal scanning element combined with an unsharp peripheral image.  The foveal vision cannot see the whole shape or composition, just one small area at a time.  The peripheral vision can see the whole shape but without much clarity. 

Certain practices and exercises can train you to make better use of this dual data stream.  Artists understand this instinctively.  Often you’ll see artists squinting at their subject or at their work.  Squinting is a way of partially disabling the foveal vision, throwing the whole visual field out-of-focus.  Since foveal input usually dominates the processing functions of the visual cortex, disabling the fovea allows attention to take in more of the peripheral view.  This can help you to see the whole general field at once, understanding it as a simplified and unified shape.  If you are an artist trying to turn vision into a picture, that is just what you need.  It helps you to see compositionally, and to maintain proper proportions and spatial relationships. 

I do many practices to improve my visual perception, not just when I’m drawing but when I’m moving about in the world.  For example, I squint or cross my eyes to bring awareness to my peripheral view when I’m walking down the street.  It is not unsafe, as your peripheral perception, important for navigation and collision avoidance, is actually heightened when you’re doing these things.  Still, I don’t advise doing it while crossing a street as the unfamiliarity of looking at the world this way could be disorienting. 

I also use photography as a tool for honing perception.  If you carry a camera with a single focal-length lens, not a zoom, you will learn to look for images that fit within the angle of view of that lens.  Your brain will be composing your visual world into a rectangular frame as you look at it.  You are learning to see the world in terms of compositions and patterns, another vital skill for an artist. 

Whether you are an artist or not, exercises to improve your ability to perceive the world can open you up to more of the beauty the world has to offer, and can liberate you from some of the marketers’ attempts to manipulate what you notice. 

Illustrations in this post link back to their original online sources.


Face Plus Body

Betty, 2010, by Fred Hatt

The portrait and the nude are generally considered distinct and separate genres within pictorial art.  The nude is rarely a depiction of a particular person; rather, it is usually generalized or idealized, used to depict eroticism or heroism, struggle or abjection, joy or disgust as universal phenomena.  The portrait is about conveying the essential character of an individual.  Historically, the line separating these subjects was rarely breached, except in the occasional portrait of a mistress. Alice Neel and Lucian Freud both made highly individualized depictions of nudes, but they’re outliers.  In contemporary art, the body is still nearly always de-individualized and even depersonalized, used as a symbol or provocation.

Piera, 2010, by Fred Hatt

The realistically observed portrait has been a staple of art since the Greeks and Romans, but of all the classic genres it has been the most challenged by the rise of photography and the most marginalized by the conceptual turn of contemporary art.  To me portraiture remains a compelling pursuit.  I believe a drawing or painting captures a subjective reality that photographs often miss, and the essence of a person is a rich and complex subject to tackle.

Jeremiah, 2010, by Fred Hatt

The nude portrait became one of my own primary genres simply because, many years ago, I was asked to be the monitor, or session supervisor, for a weekly three-hour nude pose at Spring Studio.  This isn’t the class I would have chosen to run, as I was more interested in quick poses and movement than in long poses and academic rendering.  Nevertheless, learning to sustain my focus and to develop drawings through a longer process was a great learning experience.

Aimi, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Minerva Durham, the proprietor of Spring Studio, favors models who have unique character, and that surely helps keep it interesting for the more advanced artists.  When you draw from life as a regular practice for years, after a time you struggle more with boredom and the rut than you do with form and proportion.  Drawing endless generic nudes could get a bit dry, but if you try to perceive and capture the specialness of each model, it remains much more interesting.

Sue, 2010, by Fred Hatt

The face and the body both show us something about the person’s character and life experience.  The face is the window to the soul but also the public mask of self-presentation.  In the body we see how the energy flows and rests.  The body also conveys a great deal about the subject’s attitude and way of relating to the world.

Kate, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Nude portraits are nearly impossible to sell in a gallery show.  People love these pictures, but no casual collector wants a recognizable picture of a nude individual hanging in their home – even if it is themselves.  People have often commissioned me to do nude portraits of them, and they love the resulting pictures but have difficulty deciding where – or if – they should hang them!  But since I have always supported myself by other work in order to keep my art free from the dictates of the marketplace, I don’t mind that the work is unsellable.

Christophe, 2010, by Fred Hatt

The division separating the nude from the portrait may exist because of market realities, rather than because of any deeper reason.  But the combination, the nude portrait, represents to me a reunification of the primal split in the human soul, our loss of connection with our physicality and our earthly nature.  Technology has allowed us to separate ourselves more and more from Nature, which is our origin and on which we are utterly dependent whether we realize it or not.  Only our own bodies can reassert this primal symbiosis.  A portrayal of face and body as one is a small statement of the unity of spirit and matter.

Amalia, 2010, photo by Fred Hatt

There”s a section on nude portraits, as well as one on head-only portraits, on my portfolio site.  Also, many of my previous blog posts have featured nude portraits.

Julio, 2010, by Fred Hatt

All portraits in this post were made in the last six months during the Monday morning long pose session I monitor at Spring Studio.  All are aquarelle crayon on paper.  Sizes range from 18″ x 24″ to 20″ x 28″.


Ohno: Oh Yes

Kazuo Ohno, photo by Guido Harari, date unknown

Kazuo Ohno, a seminal figure in the butoh dance movement and one of the great creative spirits of our time, passed away June 1, 2010, at the age of 103.

I saw Ohno perform in 1996 at the Japan Society in New York.  In an essay posted on my first website, I wrote, ” I will never forget seeing Kazuo Ohno dance at the age of 90, light as a feather, radiating love, a whole audience embraced in his heart.  Love was a palpable force in his performance.”  I have never seen another live artist who created such an aura.  I felt that the hearts of those sitting around me in the auditorium were opening up, and that a kind of love filled with both sadness and joy was circulating through the theater.

The soulful singer Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, whose album The Crying Light is dedicated to Ohno, said, “In performance I watched him cast a circle of light upon the stage, and step into that circle, and reveal the dreams and reveries of his heart. He seemed to dance in the eye of something mysterious and creative; with every gesture he embodied the child and the feminine divine.”

The arc of Ohno’s career was far from the norm.  Coming from a fisherman’s family in Japan’s far north, he attended an athletic college.  As a student he saw an electrifying performance by the dancer Antonia Mercé, known as “La Argentina“.  Deeply moved, Ohno knew he had found his muse, but he had at the time no dance training, and it would take him many years to be able to pay tribute to her with his own performance.  He was drafted into the army and spent nine years at the front.  He presented his first public dance performance at the age of 43.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Ohno was a major collaborator of avant-garde performance artist and choreographer Tatsumi Hijikata.  Hijikata’s work evolved from raw, radical provocation to a sophisticated choreographic vocabulary based not on external forms but on internal images and sensations.

In 1977, fifty years after the encounter with his muse, Ohno created the solo performance “Admiring La Argentina“, directed by Hijikata.  This dance moved audiences around the world, and suddenly in his seventies Ohno had a new career as a solo performer and a new status as a master of soul expression.

Japanese Poster for "Admiring La Argentina", 1977, photographer unknown

As a dancer, Ohno’s approach was to embody the essence of human feelings, not to act out a story or explore a concept.  When he was interviewed at the Japan Society in 1996, in connection with the performance I saw, he was asked what kind of response he hopes to get from the audience.  He said the thing he doesn’t like to hear from an audience member is that they “got it”.  “How could they ‘get it’?” he asked, “I don’t get it.”

There’s a description of a class taught by Ohno at his studio in the 1988 book Butoh:  Shades of Darkness, by Jean Viala and Nourit Masson-Sekine:  “[Ohno] doesn’t ‘teach’.  He nourishes; he guides; he provokes; he inspires. . . He assigns a subject for improvisation.  The ‘dead body’ is a theme he often suggests.  ‘What could be the life of that which is dead?  It is this impossibility which we must create.’  He explains that for his dance, we must not try to control the body, but to let the soul breathe life into the flesh.  He adds:  ‘Be free!  Let go!’  Being free is not doing what we want or what we think.  On the contrary, it means being liberated from thought and will.  It means allowing life to blossom within.” (p. 55)

Kazuo Ohno, photo by Ethan Hoffman, p. 46 from "Butoh: Dance of the Dark Soul"

The 1987 photography book (in which the image above appears) Butoh: Dance of the Dark Soul includes these extracts from Ohno’s writing, “The Dead Begin to Run”:  “Superimposed on the story of the cosmos, man’s story unfolds.  Within this cosmological superimposition emerges the path that leads from birth through maturity to death.  The Butoh costume is like throwing the cosmos onto one’s shoulders.  And for Butoh, while the costume covers the body, it is the body that is the costume of the soul.

“A fetus walked along a snow-covered path.  It cleared a path by spreading its clothes upon the snow after removing them one by one as in a secret cosmic ceremony.  Then it peeled off its skin and laid that upon the path.  A whirlwind of snow surrounded it, but the fetus continued, wrapped in this whirlwind.  The white bones danced, enveloped by an immaculate cloak.  This dance of the fetus, which moved along as if carried by the whirlwind of snow, seemed to be transparent.

“In life there is, without a doubt, something beyond the brashness of youth which bursts like summer light.  There is something between life and death.  This part of ourselves is like the wreck of an abandoned car; if we fix it, it could start up again.” (p. 36)

Kazuo Ohno in "The Dead Sea", photo by Nourit Masson-Sekine, 1985. “The dead start running…” p. 51 from "Butoh: Shades of Darkness"

Perhaps Ohno had to wait for the ravages of age before his body could express this transcendence.  I see many performances by young dancers with powerful, trained bodies.  But to see Ohno’s small, frail and aged body move was to see divine grace manifesting in the only way it can, through mortal, vulnerable, transient living matter.

From a young age, Ohno had been devoted to the Christian faith.  While his beliefs and their part in his art are barely discussed in any writing I have read by or about Ohno, I see in his work an expression of the Christian theme of divine cosmic spirit entering into bodily form to experience passion, love, sacrifice, suffering and death.  This is not just the story of Jesus, as Ohno shows us, but the story of all embodied creatures.  And this embodiment is not, as some would have it, the debasement of the spirit, but its exaltation.


The video above, showing Ohno improvising in his studio, is dated 2000, but I don’t know the source.  If anyone can identify what this is from, please let me know so I can credit it properly.  The images used in this post were all found on the web, and clicking on the pictures links back to their sources.  Where the scans I found on the web match illustrations in books I own, I have also noted where they appear in those printed sources in the captions.

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