In pursuit of control

Alexandra © Samantha Groenestyn

Alexandra © Samantha Groenestyn

Our happily proactive gang of painters in Vienna recently got together for a longer session with the model—eleven hours over four evenings. It was a great opportunity to bash away at a few things I have been trying to improve in my drawing. It has been a long time since I’ve troubled myself overly much with rendering, and I have instead been making crude visual notes about planes more than anything. I decided, therefore, that rendering would be my project. I want controlled lines, delicacy, and pure intent—no lazy, unthinking scribbles. And a little bonus anatomy and memory training never goes astray.


We seem to have a never-ending supply of lovely Russian models in Vienna, and Alexandra graced us with a beautiful and complex knot of a pose. From every angle, a gentle sweep ran over the arch of her back and down her raised leg, her head tucked away. As I began to draw her, I kept this sloping mass in mind, as well as the slope at the bottom of the picture—her foot extending forward. Rather than strictly observing the jutting shapes, I pushed the unity of the drawing, clinging to big C-curves and using their rhythms to drive the composition. I loved the shocking right-angle through her head and left shoulder, but tried to subordinate it to the broader flow over the back. And what became quickly apparent as I drew was the importance of her right arm—it seemed to beg for all the attention. This was very fortuitous, since I had been studying arms, and here was a very clear and prominent arm to investigate, pronated and everything, with the radius pulling the extensor muscles over the forearm.


After the first session, I went home and nerded out with Bammes and Goldfinger. Having noted down the bony protrusions and muscles that I thought I could see, observing the colour changes across the skin as the light hugged different forms in its predictable way, I did a bit of fact-checking. It helps to have battled with some real forms in front of you and only then to read all that involved text in your anatomy book, rather than trying to memorise everything first. You are already familiar with so much, and the explanation helps to make sense of the particular situation rather than a general one.


My drawing felt quite stiff, though, and I was sorry that I hadn’t really warmed up with some quicker drawings beforehand. Perhaps I should have made a smaller practice one to get the feel for it. But, undeterred, I hoped I could bring some new energy to what I already had the next day. With this in mind, I made a very fast copy in my sketchbook, letting lots of things slide in favour of a looser, livelier drawing. Then I used this little practice drawing to work through what I had learned about arm anatomy as it applied to this pose. I very forcefully (in a feverish excitement, one presumes) marked in the muscles as I understood them.

Arm study

Returning to the model, I adjusted the arms of my larger drawing with the new knowledge fresh in my mind and the real thing before my eyes. This time I was searching for what I knew, and trying to subdue it according to what I could see, rather than just putting down what I could see. Satisfied, I turned to concentrate on something I had neglected for a long time: shadows. Obsessed as I am with form drawing, I haven’t made tone do much work for me in a long time.


I marked in the terminators (the hazy, dark transitions between light and shadow as a body turns away from light—the form shadows) and the cast shadows (the neat-edged shadows that fall across the body because something else is blocking the light), paying attention to the masses and the way that light ought to work. Light obeys rules, because physics, and will always make certain shapes on spheres, cylinders, cones and prisms, which the human figure is more or less composed of. I wanted my shadows to help describe the form, not obscure or flatten the picture, and so I made sure to wrap them around the figure in clear, descriptive shapes. The shadow cast by the arm on the leg was a beautiful opportunity to show the gentle bulge of the thigh, meaning I didn’t need to do much to the lit area, but could keep it fleshy and soft. I tried to remember to vary the breadth of the terminator according to the curvature of the forms, and decided to keep the shadows quite light. This drives everyone mad, because they want to see me darken my shadows for maximum impact. But I potter away at my own little challenges, loving to experiment with how much I can say in a controlled and delicate manner.

shadow study

I did a bad job of this shadow business, I reflected when I got home. I made another copy in my sketchbook, enjoying the process of redrawing and my growing familiarity with this pose. I marked in the shadows again, and practiced rendering them, trying to keep the tone uniform and trying to do a better job of the terminators—expanding them appropriately, experimenting with how dark they should be. I played around a little with the transition into the light, practicing the strokes I wanted to use. I have been working so hard at hatching neatly and evenly, and I don’t know what the secret is except for probably hatching several million of those tiny lines. I’m never sure that they look any more controlled, but I live in hope that my untiring practice will reward me with superhuman dexterity.


I went back on the third evening determined to take charge of those shadows. I forced myself to neaten the tone, making it uniform, and only allowing myself to knock back some subtle reflected light (only according to the form!) with my eraser.


I realised that although the arm was the star of this drawing, I was presented with a very good opportunity to study knees. I couldn’t let this pass. A bent knee and a fully flexed knee! All manner of bony goodness to investigate. I returned to Bammes and his simplified conceptions of the knee—all blocks and planes and axes. I thought long and hard about how knees fit together. I copied out drawings of the widening gap between the femur and the tibia as the knee bends further and further. I made notes in my sketchbook so I wouldn’t forget: ‘Kneecap never slides upwards because anchored by the straight patellar ligament.’ ‘Skeleton accounts for greatest part by far of sculptural form of knee.’


Armed with these mantras, I spent some time on the final day trying to match my understanding with what I saw. Then all that remained were the light zones. Having worked out all the forms, the most prominent anatomy, and the direction of rendering, all that was left to do was exercise a controlled hand and make the nicest little lines I possibly could.

Alexandra memory

Bonus exercise! The next evening I put my drawing and sketchbook away, and began with a fresh sheet of paper. I redrew the same drawing entirely from memory (without the hours of refinement!). This part really feels like magic. Have I really internalised all this information? This extra test really consolidates all the new knowledge and all the particular decisions that you have made when working with the model. And you realise what power you have when you understand the human figure, and can summon one at will.



Three (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

Three (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

I’m thinking a little more, as I’m painting, back in Brisbane, of shadows and the way they cradle and nudge the light. Not just as blank shapes, jagged voids piercing a picture, but as quiet and thoughtful terrain in their own right, and as the unshakeable support for the regions washed in light.

Nelson (p. 159) questions the modernist preference for light. ‘Things which stand out are privileged over conditions which recede,’ he writes, ‘but upon which the outstanding paradoxically depends. Shadow is relegated to the background, as though it were not integral to the image.’ He calls this modernist bias ‘photocentricity’ (p. 159), considering it the symbol of our current artistic malaise; a retina-burning dependence on flood-lit, full-chroma colours ignoring the gentle nuances of recesses folding away from the gaze, the hushed down-planes and the subdued forms shying away from the light. The quiet mystery of the dark side of the moon. Our pictures are flatter, brighter, and possibly rely more often on crisp linework to divide form from form, with shadows seeming heavy and mood-killing; overly dramatic. Modern comics, drawn on digital tablets and coloured boldly. Modern illustrations, wispy and watercoloured. The modern aesthetic is as light-obsessed as a moth.

The great eighteenth-century Western project wears the title baldly and proudly: the enlightenment extolls ‘light as intelligence and shadow as ignorance,’ (Nelson, p. 161). Shadows are dubious, guileful and deceptive. We want back-lit, fluorescent, LED brilliance, lighting our paths and shining the way forward.

In physics, one can create light by constructing electric currents and attaching filaments and such, and, in a more abstract sense, one can fill a space with light. But it is nonsensical to talk of filling a space with dark—shadow is the natural default which science allows us to manipulate. Painting equalises this bias—the painter creates shadows in just the same way as she creates light. This is the sort of super power you want to make good use of.

Campagna di Roma. Grabmal der Caecilia Metella, 1894. (c) Rudolf Bacher; Belvedere Wien.

Campagna di Roma. Grabmal der Caecilia Metella, 1894. (c) Rudolf Bacher; Belvedere Wien.

In the Lower Belvedere I found myself mesmerised by the subdued, neutral colours of Rudolf Bacher’s Campagna di Roma – Grabmal der Caecilia Metella. The girl is described with delicate modelling, her skin soft and pink, her blue dress airy in the breeze, but she rests completely in shade. Her understated colours are set starkly against the bright void of sky, the light, for once, supporting the shadow. Again, Bacher’s Redeemed, seemingly softly lit, but defiantly in shadow as evinced by the brilliant shape on the wall cast by light pouring through the window. I’ve wanted to toy with these ideas, accepting that though light is ever present, it might not reveal the truth, and it certainly doesn’t hold the secrets.


Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.


Shadow theory

Two exhibition openings in one week? Ah, to be the Duchess.

Friday evening we hopped a bus to New Farm, to sight a spectacle of lemony-fresh still-lifes painted ever-so-skilfully by one Claire Stening. Claire cleverly depicts her kitchen top drawer, her collection of ceramic bowls, and sunny rows of lemons and pears in a way that makes kitchens glorious vibrant retreats.

Perhaps it’s the contrast of the worn with the shiny and bright that makes her assortment of objects more homely than too crisp. For though often crisp, she is not afraid to bring elements of the yucky to her images. Old gumboots, old buckets, and snails, smelly fish and browning pears, tarnished spoons that have lost their gleam and picked up some odd stains. The lemons have little round stickers boasting, ‘Produce of Australia,’ and sporting PLU codes. The mundane, the historic, the intricately decorated slip together with little fanfare. The overriding cleanliness of the paintings save them from being overwhelmed by the messy, smelly bits.

(Forgive the poor quality phone photography in this post)

It was interesting to view these works in light of an old book I am reading by Andrew Loomis, Creative Illustration (1947)*, which is gratuitously filled with nudes and pinups, though certainly not to its detriment. I have been reading some age-old wisdom about depicting things thoughtfully. One would think that drawing and painting is all about the eye, and the hand, and training them to cooperate. Books ought not help one draw, for books engage the brain, which plays no part in transcribing what is seen, other than powering the muscles and reading the retinas. I have begun to realise otherwise.

Loomis writes extensively about all sorts of things that seem very obvious to the artist, such as the fact that background seem blurry to the eye when focusing on the foreground, unlike in much photography, and therefore greater realism is to be obtained by in fact softening the details of things in the background. We know that the real world doesn’t look like photographs, but sometimes it is just difficult to pinpoint why. This is where books by well-practiced, thoughtful artists come in. They tell you how to consciously mimic vision, by carefully thinking about how we see.

Loomis has an enlightening section on shadows, which I must admit I was sceptical about, if only because it seemed to involve too much thought. However, on seeing Stening’s work, I started to think that his principles are far more intuitive than one might first think.

Here is his shadow theory:

From Andrew Loomis, Creative Illustration

Each tonal chart refers to a different type of lighting: strong sunlight, diffuse daylight, strong artificial light and so forth. A bit abstract. Sure, make it real dark if it’s not daylight. However, combined with some theory on reflected light, which results in strong sunlight forcing a second, dimmer light source to light up the shadow, we start to see how this is in fact something we experience every single day:

From Andrew Loomis, Creative Illustration

I encourage you to look up Stening’s pears, because they illustrate this so precisely. While her other objects bask in varying lights that produce highlights and black shadows, her pears are lighted from behind by a block of bright light easily identified as sunlight. First, it shines through a window and is cut into a shape, rather than engulfing the whole painting. Second, the shadows, while darkest near the pears, seem to glow, and the dark sides of the pears also gleam a little golden, though only faintly. No matter what you know about shadow theory, an untrained eye can look at this painting and detect that this light source is more natural than that of the other paintings. It is possible to know what one is experiencing without being able to articulate it. The goal of the artist is to learn how to articulate it, such that she can manipulate it and present a more convincing image to the viewer.

So kudos to Claire, for producing such convincing work. And for including some yucky things amongst the shiny things.

Stillness is showing at the Edwina Corlette Gallery, New Farm, Brisbane.

* Loomis, Andrew. 1947. Creative Illustration. New York: The Viking Press.