The Block-In, Part Two

The Head and Hands

Artists often find the head and hands particularly difficult to draw. Probably the result of thousands of years of evolution learning to group information symbolically, it can be very difficult to break down these information sets visually. This is especially the case in regards to the face. Even the most advanced artists will catch themselves ‘isolating facial features’ of the head or ‘frontalizing’aspects of it. Consider how we approach drawing as children: faces are almost always completely from the front or side, have eyes that are ‘football’ shapes with circles in the middle, lines above for eyebrows, a hook-type shape for the nose, etc. Facial features are considered as separate entities placed on the head (like Mr.Potato Head), and the eyes are usually the largest of these. If it is painted or drawn in color, the sclera of the eyes (‘white’ of the eye) is filled in with pure white, and the lips pure red.

Children exemplify our nature to draw symbolically (© public domain)

Although I’m sure this type of organizational thinking is very useful in other contexts, it very persistently gets in the way when trying to observe in visual and structural terms. Take for example drawing a head in a 3 quarters position. In trying to describe the side turning away, the artist will often ‘frontalize’ that side by pulling it too far away from the center axis of the head. Another example is when the head is close to profile, the artist will often ‘snap it to grid’ by making it a total profile even if it is not. There are many, many examples of how symbolic thinking makes visual observation difficult.

When blocking in the head, I first squint and try to observe the broad, abstract shape of it. Next, I look specifically for a way to ‘anchor’ the head with the body. Usually I find this in the angle of the Sterno-mastoid between the Jugular Notch and Ear. This is a very high priority task and I don’t proceed very far with the head until this connection is sound. It can be very discouraging to block in a well-drafted head and then find it doesn’t connect with the body or drawing.

connecting the head with the body and finding the overall shape and tilt (click to enlarge)

When finding the angle of the Sterno-mastoid between the Jugular Notch and Ear, I also look at what the vertical distance is between these landmarks compared against our ‘standard unit of measurement’. Once the ear is located and the vector of the Sterno-mastoid is placed I look for the overall tilt of the head, which can usually be found by drawing the angle between the top of the ear where it attaches to the head to the eyes. I then mass in the overall shape of the head and work with these three elements together on a broad level until it feels sound and connected. At this point it is also important to re-check how the head is working with the overall gesture and rhythm of the drawing. In this drawing the face was in profile, but if we were seeing the model at all from the front or back, we would want to also place a center axis.

Plate 6 (click to enlarge)

If there are any shadow shapes, they can be useful to help map in distances. In this case there was a fairly pronounced shadow that ran down the face along the zygomatic (cheek bone) and suggested the plane break between the side and front of the head. Using a simplified version of the shadow shape I could measure approximate distances between the edge of the nose to the edge of the shadow shape (core shadow), and between the core shadow and the ear (see Plate 6 above).

Next I began to break down these larger shapes and volumes into the next level of refinement (like peeling away layers of an onion). At this stage it’s easy to get ‘sucked into detail’ and go from the very broad straight to the eyelashes. Try to resist this and look for the next level of sub-shapes within the broad shapes (such as the shadow shape that creates the volume of the eye socket) and locations of landmarks such as the tearduct(s) and corner(s) of the mouth.

Plate 7 (click to enlarge)

Below are some additional examples of the description above. The head contains a whole set of useful ‘landmarks’ to scan for when drawing, which is beyond the scope of this tutorial (perhaps I’ll do one in the future), though many are evident in the examples below.

Step 1 (click to enlarge)

Step 2 (click to enlarge)

Step 3 (click to enlarge)

In terms of the hands, although there doesn’t seem to be as many ‘symbolic obstacles’ as the face, it’s still quite easy to fall prey to a ‘5 sausages attached to a balloon’ depiction of them. Like drawing the torso or head, finding the overall broad shape/planes and axis lines help greatly to avoid this. In finding the broad shape, look for any finger groupings that may act as a ‘shape container’. Also look for the box-like shape of the palms, slightly curved axis along the knuckle-ridge as well as joints. The block-ins below illustrate this.

Block-In Steps of Hands (click to enlarge)

Returning to our drawing, the next step I took was to lightly fill in the shadow shapes and link them with the beginnings of a background ‘wash’. The reason for doing this before moving into rendering is can be difficult to ‘see’ your drawing when it is in a linear state. By massing in the shadow shapes with a flat tone we can get a more accurate preview of where the drawing is headed. I often find problems at this stage that I couldn’t see previously. In this drawing for example, I noticed that the head felt a little too wide, or more specifically it seemed there was too much distance between the ear and front of the face. To correct and shorten this distance I shifted the whole front of the face in, rather then move the ear over (which would destroy the more important head/body connection that we already established!).

Plate 8 (click to enlarge)

To finish the Block-In I massed in the shadow shapes more completely and further developed its connection with the background. As far as the direction of strokes, I often look for an abstract theme of the pose that I can enhance. See the diagram below. Ultimately I decided to not implement the ‘theme’ marked in blue.

Directional strokes in the background to enhance abstract themes (click to enlarge)

Plate 9, the finished Block-In (click to enlarge)

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