Olivia Newton-Jon & Her Sweatband

Convey Movement in Fine Art Oil Painting & Figure Drawing

Ugh, after all the summer splurging I’ve been doing, I should probably go exercise or run laps (note to find indoor track because there ain’t no way I’m going outside to do it!). But as a warm up I thought I would talk about how artists represent physicality, power, and movement in their paintings and figure drawings. (Am I the only one hearing Olivia Newton-Jon singing about “getting physical”?) Maybe this’ll be the inspiration I need to get off my duff and workout. Or maybe not.

First of all, I maintain that physical force in art doesn’t have to be interpreted literally with bulging muscles and sweating brow. Degas’ dancers are often presented at rest or stretching and this still implies physical action without being overt. And even in the pastel figure drawings that show more activity, a mere extension of the arms or an arched back is all that is needed to convey the movement.

Two Dancers in Blue by Edgar Degas, 1899, pastel figure drawing.
Two Dancers in Blue by Edgar Degas, 1899, pastel figure drawing.
Dancers by Edgar Degas, 1899, pastel figure drawing.
Dancers by Edgar Degas, 1899, pastel figure drawing.

Sometimes the energy and spirit of a sporting event isn’t about the athletes’ prowess as much as the spectacle of it all. Tafa, a Harlem-based contemporary artist, conveys the frenzied liveliness of big-time basketball games through the crowds that surround the court–the players are all but specks. Every time I look at his oil painting, Game 7, it is almost as if I can hear the roar of the fans. And the way the paint is dabbed on in varied colors that get lighter toward the center of the painting makes me feel like I’m being pulled into the action.

Game 7 (Just Like Nike series) by Tafa, oil on canvas, 56 x 68.
Game 7 (Just Like Nike series) by Tafa,
oil on canvas, 56 x 68.

Yet there will always be a place for the figure drawings and paintings that push the physical limits. From George Bellows’ boxers to Steve Huston’s works, which features men in peak condition doing physical labor, you can see the ways in which the body can be displayed with a sense of motion, and these visual cues have been around for generations. What unites all successful figure drawings and paintings of this kind is that the artists evaluate the body as a composition in itself—with limbs positioned with a sense of direction and dynamism. The body is the landscape and every part of it is crucial to expressing the whole.

Stag at Sharkey's by George Bellows, 1909, oil on canvas, 92cm x 122.6cm.
Stag at Sharkey’s by George Bellows,
1909, oil on canvas, 92cm x 122.6cm.
Grabbing Hold by Steve Huston, 2009, oil painting, 20 x 16.
Grabbing Hold by Steve Huston,
2009, oil painting, 20 x 16.

To celebrate all the power and capability that are inherent in the human body, we first want to have a handle on drawing the figure accurately. That’s why I urge you to get Figure Drawing Fundamentals, one of our top instructional DVDs that shows you how to draw the figure with power and accuracy. It was one of my primary inspirations for today’s article. See if it captures your interest and as always–enjoy!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

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