In my short chapter of studying art in college, one of the most important lessons I experienced were nude figure studies in drawing class. Not only did I learn a lot technically from those classes, but it laid the foundation for meaningful artwork I would make nearly twenty years later. In this post, I explore the importance of figure art from a technical, cultural, and personal perspective.
What are the Benefits of Studying Figure Art?
Figure drawing is an excellent way to develop artistic skills. It requires an understanding of anatomy, proportion, form, and perspective, all of which are important skills for any artist to develop. In my college drawing classes, we practiced both long and short drawing sessions – some only a few minutes in duration. In the short sessions, I learned to quickly assess the figure and prioritize the most important lines to illustrate the form properly. In the longer sessions, I learned to study not only the lines of the human body, but also develop shape and form with shading techniques.
Figure drawing is also an excellent way to improving observation skills: Drawing from life requires careful observation of the subject, which can help artists to improve their ability to notice details and accurately capture what they see. I think artists have a gift of seeing and observing the world in a unique way, so any opportunity we have to practice intentional observation will help improve our artistic vision.
Finally, practicing drawing from life models allows artists to explore self expression. Figure drawing can be a powerful tool, as artists can use it to explore different themes, emotions, and ideas through their work. The human body is the vessel for our soul, so by practicing drawing from various poses, artists can begin to draw intuition from how the different positions of the body represent the human experience.
What I Have Learned From Figure Artwork
The first time the nude model removed her robe and assumed her pose in the middle of the room, I’ll admit I was uncomfortable. I had been a modest person my whole life and generally been under the impression that nakedness was shameful. This opportunity in an academic setting pushed me to begin rethinking my relationship with nudity.
Additionally, as I have continued to work with nude female figures as subjects of my own artwork, my attitude about the human body, and more specifically the female body (of which I have one) has transformed. Feelings of shame, disappointment, judgment, and a lot of criticism accompanied my past relationship with my body. And while my perspective is constantly evolving, I now hold ideas of the human body with much more grace and admiration. When I integrate my experiences drawing and painting the human body with many other life experiences like growing and giving birth to children and climbing mountains, I am in awe of what these soft soul containers can do. What I once looked at as somewhat of a burden, I now consider quite the miracle.
Why is figure art so popular?
Figure art, or art that features the human form as its primary subject matter, has been a popular and enduring subject in art throughout human history. Some of the most famous artworks in history have been depictions of the human figure:
- Michelangelo’s “David” – This iconic sculpture of the biblical hero David is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of the Renaissance.
- Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” – This drawing of a male figure with outstretched arms and legs, inscribed in a circle and square, is a symbol of the perfection of human proportion.
- Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” – This painting of five nude figures is considered a landmark in the development of Cubism and modern art.
- Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker” – This sculpture of a nude male figure sitting on a rock with his chin on his hand is considered a symbol of contemplation and intellectualism.
- Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” – Also my favorite, and one that I have a large replica framed in my dining room. This painting of an embracing couple is known for its intricate patterns and use of gold leaf, and is one of Klimt’s most famous works.
I have found that in my own body of work, my figure art is what sells the fastest and most often. There are several reasons why figure art continues to be so popular:
- Universality: The human form is something that we all can relate to and understand. We see ourselves and others in these figures, and they can evoke a wide range of emotions and meanings that are universal.
- Beauty: The human form has been traditionally considered a thing of beauty, and figure art can celebrate and capture the grace, poise, and elegance of the human body.
- Expression: Figure art can be used to express a wide range of emotions, ideas, and stories through the body language, gestures, and facial expressions of the figures depicted.
- Technical skill: Drawing or painting the human figure is a challenging and complex task, and many artists and art enthusiasts appreciate the technical skill and mastery required to create realistic or expressive figure art.
- History and tradition: Figure art has a long and rich history in the art world, and many of the most iconic and celebrated works of art feature the human form. This history and tradition have helped to establish figure art as an important and enduring subject in the art world.
Overall, the enduring popularity of figure art can be attributed to its ability to evoke strong emotions, express complex ideas, and capture the beauty and universality of the human form.
“Embodiment” – My First Foray into Figure Artwork
The first time I explored figure art in my adult artist life was actually a mixed media project where I reused old figure study sketches from my college drawing class. There were several poses on newsprint I had saved “to do something with” someday. They sat in my portfolio for a couple decades. I had a large 30” x 40” canvas I had messed with a few years earlier but never liked, so I began to wash some acrylic paint and gesso over it to start fresh.
I cut the figure sketches out of the newsprint and attached them to the canvas and begin to paint abstractly around them, adding some oil pastel and acrylic paint pen marks as well. Finally, in small letters, I added some words to each of the bodies: deceitful, too big, sinner, psycho bitch, sensitive, and smile more.
This piece came together very intuitively; other than my initial plan to use those nude sketches, I had no plan of what the end result would look like. I just worked on instinct and let the story unravel. Since “Embodiment” was my first completed piece in the figure art genre, there were a lot of disjointed thoughts and subtext trying to work its way into the artwork. It felt sort of like opening a can of worms; I knew it was the beginning of a conversation I needed to have with my artwork and might not always be easy to explain.
Watercolor Female Figure Studies
I’m documenting these little figure studies created with watercolor markers here because I don’t want to forget about them. They were exploratory and super fun to make, but I didn’t plan my use of the paper well so I don’t see any way for them to stand alone as a displayable piece of figure artwork. Perhaps someday I can repurpose them like I did the figure sketches that made the foundation of “Embodiment,” but until then, this is their stage.
“Nonchalance” – Acrylic Figure Painting on Canvas
This lovely lady is a favorite of mine and others who have seen her. She is relaxed and confident, comfortable in her own skin. This gal doesn’t have a care in the world! I so enjoyed my time spent with this female figure painting, and the soft color palette too! The original is sold, but it is available in a fine art print in multiple sizes. She prints just beautifully!
“She is Enough” – Acrylic Figure Painting on Canvas
I followed shortly after “Nonchalance” with another female figure painting in a similar style. I changed up the color palette but otherwise followed the same creative process. This piece was more stoic than the previous. She is tired of carrying the weight of the world and the sins of others. She kneels to take a breath and a moment, alone and hidden from the outside world. The original is sold but like the previous piece, this one makes a beautiful fine art print.
“She’s a Flame” – Female Figure Painting on Canvas
After my small figure paintings, I felt the urge to go big. One evening I got out a decent sized canvas, some vibrant paint colors, and began to finger paint. Or paint with my hands. I smeared the paint all over energetically. I found a nude reference photo that inspired me and began building her body with my hands and fingers. I don’t recall using a paintbrush at all on this piece – possibly at the end when I began styling her long hair. And there was a little bit of palette knife action with the white around the edges.
I adore these strong, bold colors, which just emphasized the strength of this woman. Though you can tell in the muscles of her back and arms that she is physically strong, there is also so much power in her demeanor. She is aptly named after a lyric from Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” song.
“Temple of Tears” – Abstract Figure Painting on Canvas
I had an intuitive abstract painting hanging around for about a year, that I decided needed to be taken a new direction. I loved the colors and energy in it, but I knew it needed more soul. The first rendition had fallen rather flat and no longer inspired me. I began some random layering of the neutral brownish gray to cover a lot more of the original piece.
As I considered what direction to take this abstract painting, I thought about a concept another artist had shared, and that was to allow the subject to appear on the canvas, rather than impose the subject. I observed the abstract shapes and colors and began to make out how a woman’s body could work into the composition.
I began pouring through nude reference photos to find a pose that I could use to create somewhat accurate shadows and highlights to bring her out of the abstract background. I wanted her to remain ethereal and somewhat nondescript, so I kept her skin transparent. I wanted her to be representative of any woman, from any culture. As I finished with the white “tears” that fell from her eyes and along the length of her body, I myself wept.
This piece was painted just a few days after the death of Mahsa Amini, and I mourned the many injustices against women and our bodies, often in the name of organized religions.
“For the Girls Who Dreamed of Being Mermaids” – Abstract Figure Painting on Canvas
Perhaps the most fun I had with a large abstract painting that would end up becoming a female figure painting as well, was this 30” x 40” colorful canvas piece. She began as an energetic abstract exploration – just painting intuitively to see where the painting took me. After “Temple of Tears,” I remained open to the idea that something could emerge. Sure enough, a female figure emerged, so I went with it!
I brought her out subtly in a similar technique to the last one, just using a palette knife with paint to bring out the highlights and shadows of her shape. She felt magical and the blue-green colors took me seaward. This abstract female figure was wild, enchanting, adventurous, and sensual. I finished her with some iridescent blue paint accents that hinted of mermaid scales. The energy I felt with her resonated almost immediately with a friend who claimed this painting nearly just as soon as I shared the finished piece – my email subscribers got the first look before it went on social media.
I’ve learned through my own experience, the study and creation of figure art offer several benefits to artists from a technical, cultural, and personal perspective. Drawing or painting the human figure can help improve observation skills, develop technical skills such as proportion, form, and perspective, and provide an opportunity for self-expression. The enduring popularity of figure art can be attributed to its ability to evoke strong emotions, express complex ideas, and capture the beauty and universality of the human form. Moreover, figure art has a long and rich history in the art world, and many of the most iconic and celebrated works of art feature the human form. For me the study of figure art has helped me develop my artistic skills while transforming my attitude towards the human body, providing a new perspective on the beauty and grace of the human form.