My friend, model/muse and blogging mentor Claudia likes to post photos of herself to celebrate the anniversaries (first, second, third) of the launching of her great blog, Museworthy, and it has been my honor to be the chosen photographer each year so far. This year we were seeking a new approach. Claudia had the idea of getting in low and close with the camera, treating the body as a landscape. She chose this sensual abstraction for this year’s anniversary post.
I love seeing the body this way. Unusual angles create perspective effects and unfamiliar juxtapositions, and utterly transform the familiar forms of the body. Foreshortening is a fundamental concept in drawing, designating the distortion of long shapes when seen end-on. Often, in figure drawing, this refers only to an arm or leg that appears pointed toward the viewer of the image. A familiar example would be the pointing finger and arm of Uncle Sam in James Montgomery Flagg’s iconic army recruiting poster of 1917. Here I post examples of my figure drawings in which not only the extremities but the entire body is seen from a foreshortened perspective.
Looking at the body from an angle close to the central axis is very helpful in understanding it as a three dimensional form. In these foreshortened torsos, we see the protuberances of the iliac spine of the pelvis rising to either side of the pubic bone. The abdomen is a saddle-like shape, concave in one direction and convex in the other. The ribcage is a converging arch. The pectoral or breast muscles show a continuity with the deltoid muscles of the shoulder. The upper of these drawings still shows analytical lines I drew to figure out the angular relationships of bodily landmarks.
Looking at the body from the head end shows a succession of rounded or symmetrically swelling forms: the top of the skull, then the cheekbones and nose, the jaw, the collarbone, the shoulders, the chest, the ribs, the abdomen and pelvis. You can see it as a kind of architecture based on a series of differently shaped arches that you pass through or over, or as a landscape of hills and valleys that you can traverse on a meandering trail. From this angle the legs and feet are often severely forshortened, and are best observed in relation to the cross-sectional contours of the torso.
I try to see organic physical forms as manifestations of patterns of energy. In looking down the length of the body, you can see each of these levels as manifestations of the elemental forces associated with the chakras, a series of focal points arranged along the central column of the body in a Yogic conception of energy anatomy. For example, the pelvis, corresponding to the water element, has the form of a basin, while the chest, corresponding with the air element, has the form of a bellows. Here are a few sketches from a series exploring the energy patterns of the body in this context:
To see the body in extreme foreshortening, I find it helpful to look at it not in terms of an understanding of structural relationships and proportions, but cross-sectionally, as a series of transverse contours receding in space. The National Library of Medicine’s Visible Human Project, a three-dimensional atlas of human anatomy, has a website that offers animated “fly-throughs” of the human body in the various planes of sectioning. Here’s the transverse section animation, the one most relevant to these end-on views of the human body.
Here are some more of my compositions of the body in extreme foreshortening:
The examples above are drawn from a distance of at least three meters and so show a sort of compressed perspective. The feet and head are roughly in the same proportional scale but the angle of view has caused things to be seen in unfamiliar juxtaposition. The drawing below is drawn from much closer, so it shows more perspectival diminution. The feet and legs, closer to me, are large in comparison to the upper body and head, which are further away. The length of the foot, measured on the drawing, is more than twice the width of the skull, but it looks right because it represents the perception of perspective.
In this foot-end view, the angles of the feet and legs are the foreground of the drawing, while the upper body becomes the mountain on the horizon.
When the head is the foreground element, it remains abstract as we are looking at the top of the skull, and the face, if seen, is highly abstracted. The body is even more landscape-like seen from the head end.
In the drawing below, the blue line in the background is the “horizon”, or edge of the floor on which the model was lying. The body formed a tilted rectangular form, so I tilted my drawing board to maximize usage of the page.
Sometimes these end-on views become visions of pure organic form.
The twisting of the body, as seen in the example above, also creates interesting sculptural forms seen from the foot end.
Here the legs go one direction and the head the opposite, with the hand and arm reflecting that arc of movement.
Here the position of the legs gives a soft curve to one side of the figure and a sharp angle to the other.
When the body is visually compressed by foreshortening, an upraised knee becomes dramatically long and vertical by contrast.
In the drawing below, the use of a mirror gives a view of the same pose from both the head end and the foot end.
I’ll close this collection with a more finished piece, a foreshortened figure of graceful serenity.
All the drawings in this post are aquarelle crayon on paper, in the size range of 18″ x 24″ to 20″ x 30″. Other examples of foreshortened figures can be seen in this post and this one, and there are many others scattered through my portfolio site and other figure drawing posts on this blog. This post features a famous 15th century foreshortened figure painting by Andrea Mantegna.
If you’re a student of drawing, you might be interested in a new series of articles on learning the basics of drawing that has begun appearing in the Opinion pages of the New York Times online edition, under the title “Line by Line” by James McMullan.