The Block-In, Part One

Abrieviated steps of this tutorial (click to enlarge)

To view a high resolution file of the finished drawing click Here.

Engaging: When beginning any Drawing or Painting

I like to approach any drawing or painting project in these simple terms:

1) Envision what you want to express and what is most critical to communicate.

2) Work towards that vision, and take advantage of any unexpected discoveries that further it.

3) Solve the problems that are compromising your vision.

In constructing a figure drawing, depending on the pose I will use different variations of a technique commonly referred to as a ‘Block-In’.

The Block-In: Overview

Learning to work from the ‘Broad to the Specific’ is a reoccurring theme and educational cornerstone of the curriculum I teach. The visual world is full of complexity. Learning to simplify that complexity in an elegant manner is a top educational priority and tall-order challenge. In other words, seeing the ‘big picture’ is much harder then seeing the minute detail. It is a natural tendency to gravitate towards the details at the expense of the broad design; to jump into rendering the eyelashes and fingernails without building the ‘archtecture’ of the figure. Take a moment to view the Bargue drawing below.

The design structure of the block-in (left) translates into the rendered version (right)

Take notice of how the block-in on the left is a simplified or ‘distilled’ version of the further developed image on the right. The block-in on the left not only establishes the proportions and anatomical structure, but also links together the shapes and forms in a designed manner. The illustration below highlights some of these design themes.

Some design themes highlighted (click to enlarge)

It’s important to understand the block-in as much more then ‘simple outlines’ of a drawing or painting. The block-in should contain all Proportional, Structural, Graphic and Rhythmic themes in a work. The rendering or painting process executes the Value, Form, and Color aspects. Think of your drawing or painting not in photographic terms (as a snapshot) but as a construction of a temple where the block-in functions as the foundation and scaffolding. After learning to harness these capabilities working from a single figure, the artist can expand this tool set to organize more complex multi-figure compositions. Caravaggios ‘Entombment’ is a good example of this:

Carravaggio’s Entombment, take note of the embedded cross where the center of it is located on St.Peters eye (click to enlarge)

Beginning the Block-In

Before getting into all those fun design aspects of a block-in, the general scale, proportion, and ‘heart’ of the drawing/pose needs to be established. The type of pose dictates how I begin a block-in. For example, if the pose is a ‘compressed’ type (such as when the model is curled into a ball) I usually begin with the overall abstract shape of the figure and/or Envelope. Poses that are compressed but have a strong directional thrust, I may begin with a combination of the abstract core shape and diagonal for that thrust. Below are 2 ten minute quick block-ins illustrating these approaches.

2 ten minute quick Block-Ins (click to enlarge)

Usually with standing poses and in cases where the limbs aren’t linked with the overall shape of the body mass, I’ll begin with a rough Armature. By ‘armature’ I’m referring to the general shape and orientation of the ribcage vs. pelvis with directional lines and markers locating the limbs, feet and head. The reason why is with these poses the ribcage to pelvis to weight bearing leg(s) relationships are the most critical, and need to be the 1st priority to establish.  Using an armature is a good way to do so.

I used an armature for the pose in this tutorial, and the image below illustrates this.

Plate 1, the Armature (click to enlarge)

The seemingly simple set of lines that make up an armature contain a great deal of information and shouldn’t be glossed over in a drawing. For example, in the drawing above the armature contains the following information: Tilt of the ribcage and pelvis, center axis of the figure, gestural leaning back, proportional relationships between the torso, legs, head and arms, and vertical alignments such as the foot of the weight bearing leg with the pelvis, torso and head. The small ‘points’ on the drawing are ‘Anatomical Landmarks’ that were useful in establishing those relationships described above. Below is a color-coded illustration of this:

click to enlarge

The names of the Landmarks above are: Acromium Process of the Scapula (top of shoulders), Jugular Notch (pit of neck), Anterior Superior Illiac Spine (point on Pelvis), Olecrenon (point of elbow), Patella (knee cap), and Lateral Malleolus (outer ankle). However, the artist doesn’t need to be an anatomy expert or even know these names in order to make use of their basic functions in drawing. There are many great books on the subject of anatomy and art. A small ‘manual’ of a book that has paired down information that I like to have handy is called ‘Anatomical Diagrams for Art Students’. This book can also be used as a ‘primer’ or introduction to understand core anatomical aspects relating to drawing.

A good ‘manual’ to have handy

Don’t Rush The Block-In

When working on the early stages of a block-in, take care to not underestimate aspects responsible for the movement or gesture of the pose, such as the tilt of the pelvis vs. ribcage. It’s better to lean on the side of too much gesture then not enough, as drawings have a tendency to ‘stiffen’ as they progress.

If there is something global not working in the armature, resist the urge to jump forward into the drawing. For example, if you find that a foot is uncomfortably close to the edge of the paper, or something just doesn’t feel right about the general proportions or balance of the drawing, it’s far better to hash it out at this stage of the drawing then rush ahead. It’s typical when working from the figure to be in a group setting, such as in a class or open figure drawing sessions. Because of this there can be a great deal of internal pressure to make your drawing ‘look like something’ before the timer goes off and people start circling the room and check out your drawings. Learning to pace yourself independent from what others are doing is important. The length of the pose will dictate the pace that you will need to work at. For example, if it’s a 1 session sitting (3 hours) you will want to complete your armature and block-in by the end of the 2nd 20 minute pose. You’ll then want the rest of the session to render in a relatively broad manner if you are aiming for a ‘finished’ drawing. If you are working from an extended pose (5-15 sessions), that’s a much different timeline and have more room to develop your block-in and establish a strong foundation. The drawing for this tutorial is based roughly on an 8 session timeline. With 6-8 sessions, I usually spend up to the end of the 2nd session to have my block-in finished.

Once the armature/overall relationships of the whole figure are established, I then proceed to develop the area that is most critical and central to the pose. Everything in drawing is relative: the legs compared to the torso, compared to the head, and so on. When comparing these relationships artists often struggle with what to adjust when noticing a problem. For example, someone might say “I think the legs are too long, or perhaps the torso is too short, but then the head might be too small if I lengthen the torso from the bottom, and then the arms won’t attach, I don’t know!” It can get confusing really fast, and for that reason it’s a good idea to learn how to ‘prioritize your relationships’. If we can stabilize or ‘freeze’* certain aspects of the drawing, and then compare and change all other elements against those, it cuts down on the confusion dramatically. Which do we freeze and which do we leave to change? The answer is that it’s a progression of relationships that freeze one after another in order of priority. The first relationship to freeze is whatever area of the pose is most central or critical.

In this particular pose, I found the area of the torso between the top of the pelvis to the jugular notch the be the most critical to the pose . The a.s.i.s landmark at the top of the pelvis was very pronounced and made for an ideal measuring marker of length to the jugular notch/top of the ribcage(refer to color coded image above). This distance was the first relationship that I ‘froze’. After establishing this I could break down some of the major shapes of the torso and get a good sense of its width compared to length. If, after breaking down these relationships the torso looked too wide, I would want to change the width, not the length. Changing the length would undo that first Going forward, we’ll also be able to use this length (a.s.i.s to jugular notch) as a Standard Unit of Measurement.

First aspect of this pose that I ‘froze’, the image on the right shows the finished drawing (click to enlarge)

In developing this core aspect of the pose (the torso in this case) one level further, the goal is not to finish the area completely but to bring it just far enough that we can use it as a stable means of comparison to relate the other areas of the drawing to. Once we have accomplished this, it is time to move on even though there will be a strong urge to keep working here. The reason for this is the further certain areas of the drawing get away from others in terms of how developed they are, the harder it becomes to link and weave them all together as a coherent whole. In other words, once this central area can do this job, move on to the other areas so you can weave them together.

Plate 2 below illustrates the torso developed to the level that it can be used as a stable means of comparison and standard unit of measurment.

Plate 2, torso developed 1 stage further in order to establish a Standard Unit of Measurement (click to enlarge)

In developing the torso I squinted to to see the basic Shadow Shapes as both a graphic pattern as well as an anatomical/structural statement. This is something that’s useful to do throughout the entire drawing.

Dual ways to make good use of the Shadow Shape (click to enlarge)

After establishing the torso area to the degree that I can use it as a ‘stable means of comparison and standard unit of measurement’, I moved onto blocking in the legs-specifically the one bearing the most weight first. Using a plumb line as a guide, I more exactly established the vertical alignment of the of the ankle in relation to the pelvis (the a.s.i.s landmark on pelvis) and torso (pit of the neck/jugular notch). In this case I found the ankle to be directly beneath the jugular notch and a little to the right of a.s.i.s on the pelvis. I also took note that the 10th rib(bottom of ribcage, see landmark diagram above) was also located directly along this vertical line.

Plate 3, establishing the vertical alignment of the weight bearing leg (click to enlarge)

After establishing the torso with the weight bearing leg, and checking to see if its it’s working visually, we can now freeze this set of relationships. What this means is even if the actual pose shifts (i.e the model has moved), do not change these relationships unless you have a very good reason to do so. This is what some artists refer to as ‘chasing the pose’. This is one of the top reasons why many drawings that start out well well fall prey to an early death. I’ve experienced this many times myself. Keep in mind that in figure drawing you are building something from the ground up, not mindlessly copying. Changing a fixed relationship has the potential of destabilizing all other relationships higher on the ‘pyramid’. For example, arbitrarily changing one side of the pelvis without considering the other side and its corresponding relationships is like taking a chainsaw to a foundational pillar of the drawing.

After freezing the above relationships, I blocked in the other leg. In the armature, I had initially placed it a little further in towards the other leg. At this stage with more information (the torso and other leg established), it felt better to move it out a bit. Moving it out seemed to yield a little more dynamism and stability to the drawing.

Plate 4, Establishing the other leg (click to enlarge)

Next, I moved to the arms. Similar to the right leg, I shifted some of the angles to improve the movement and design of the drawing. The left arm for example (models right arm) I angled a little higher so that it would have an implied connection through to the right leg, among other factors (see below). I fine-tuned the angles of the right arm in the same manner.

Plate 5, connecting the arms (click to enlarge)

Click here to proceed to the next section of this tutorial.

* (I was introduced to this term by artist Michael Grimaldi)

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