Getting Back to Drawing from James Mc Mullan, Opinionator, NYT

Opinionator - A Gathering of Opinion From Around the Web
November 18, 2010, 9:00 PM

The Chain of Energy

In order to observe the nuances of movement in musculature, we will study the nude body. It will give you the foundation for better understanding the clothed figure.

(Note: Because the approach I am introducing you to entails a big change of thinking — a reach for the life force rather than just the surface shadows in drawing the figure — I will present the subject in two columns. In this, the first column, I will explain and demonstrate what one could call the goal of drawing the figure, and in the next I will give you strategies for approaching the goal from different directions. This may seem counter-intuitive, since I am giving you the “steps” last, but because the central idea of this approach is so necessary to all practice of it, the leading-up exercises would mean nothing if you didn’t know where you were headed.)

The body, as we know, is a miraculous system of bones, muscles, blood and nerves, and it is possible to study it in purely anatomical terms. We can follow Da Vinci’s example and learn as much about the body as any medical student, and it might serve us well as artists, but most of us don’t have the inclination for this scientific kind of study nor the stomach for dissection.
We should, of course, have a general grasp of the major bones in the skeleton and the big muscle groups as a basis for drawing the figure. But knowledge of anatomy can take us artists only so far, because studying anatomical illustrations gives us a static view of the body that is difficult to impose on the actual gesture of any model we see before us.

Fortunately, the body, moving as it does in life, tells us a story that we can learn to read. Because the body is a cooperative totality — every part is engaged, to one degree or another, with any movement that is initiated — we can read this rhythmic dialogue that courses through from the feet to the head and out to the fingertips. It is a chain of energy. We learn to read it by looking at the figure in a more total and empathic way.

Instead of concentrating on details and accumulating our drawing bit by bit, measuring each part as though it were an equal component to every other part, we see in each particular pose that the energy is being used and controlled in a way that is specific to that pose. We can find points of pressure or relationships that make the model’s movement come alive for us; each of those points or relationships can become a “big idea” that helps us find a place to start and a theme to pursue as we continue to draw.

Once you tune into this story that the body tells, it will seem like one of those Aha! moments where you say to yourself, “Why didn’t I see this before?” Yet getting to that moment is often difficult. Most people have to discard an approach to the figure where they make a “picture” of the model that depends mostly on setting up edges and shading in the interior forms.

The change in thinking that achieves liveliness in drawing involves recognizing that the forces that animate the body are widespread. We have to be prepared to see the pressure in a hip, for instance, being echoed and continued in the pressure on the opposite side of the rib cage and on to the pressure in the opposite side of the neck. It is a much more spatial way of seeing the body than the “containment” method that many artists use. Instead of locking down the forms of the body, the approach I am introducing celebrates how much the forms are moving back and forth in space, and implying, in the moment after our drawing is finished, that the model will move again.

In the video that follows, you will see me draw a model in two poses and analyze my thinking as I go along. I hope it will introduce you to these ideas about drawing the figure in a way that is clearer than a series of still drawings.



I include here some drawings I have done using color in a non-naturalistic way to intuitively register my response to the changes of pressure and direction of forms in the poses I am observing. I hope they will help you to see the possibilities of concentrating on the energy of the figure as the objective of drawing.

In the next column, I will give you exercises that will help you achieve more vitality in your drawings of the figure.





1 Response to “Getting Back to Drawing from James Mc Mullan, Opinionator, NYT”

  1. 1 munza dhlimi samaila 29 March, 2011 at 15:25

    just using this opportunity to thank you for your book ‘High Focus Drawing’. It was very enlightening.

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“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”


Upon common theatres, indeed, the applause of the audience is of more importance to the actors than their own approbation. But upon the stage of life, while conscience claps, let the world hiss! On the contrary if conscience disapproves, the loudest applauses of the world are of little value - john adams
November 2010
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from the man who taught me everything:

“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind.”



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