Attack of the Masses

I want to say a few things about massing. There are a few basic rules in figure drawing that will deliver results, but underlying them all is massing. If you cannot master massing, no matter how much you know of all the other elements of drawing, there will always be something missing. Somehow it just will not be quite right. So if you're not already versed in massing, give it your best and results will follow almost immediately.

Drawings by Albrecht Durer. Drawings by Albrecht Durer.
Drawings by Albrecht Durer.

What is massing? To force images into words, massing is a simplified visualization of a complex form brought about in order to be able to make educated decisions about the form's basic properties. These properties are absolutely necessary to know if we wish to draw the form. They are the size, shape, position in space, and its relationship to other forms.

All of us who have tried to learn how to draw the human figure have probably been repeatedly puzzled about how can it be so hard to draw something we are so familiar with. We wear a body ourselves, we see the human figure from the moment we open our eyes in the morning, all day long, and then we probably dream of it too. The answer to this puzzlement is simple. The figure is so complex and constantly changing that it is not possible to observe and capture each and every detail needed to convey our relationship to it on a piece of paper. The thing to do is what we always naturally and effortlessly do when something is too complex. We simplify.

Drawing by Luca Cambiaso.
Drawing by Luca Cambiaso.

The great masters knew this and worked out a good system that works really well. They discovered that we can relate to simple geometric shapes fairly easily. As a result, the box, a ball, and a cylinder have become the artist's greatest aids in his effort to comprehend the human form. Turning the complex form into something manageable, something with a low level of complexity, allows us to make conscious decisions about the form's size, shape, position and the relationship to other forms on the paper .

You don't have to take my word for it. Albrecht Durer, one of the artistic giants of the German Renaissance, left us his drawings capturing his process of simplification. Working out proportions was one of his obsessions. And proportions are nothing else than the relationship one form has with another within the sheet of paper.

Luca Cambiaso used the same method to work out his compositions. Simplified figures are fast and easy to draw. A drawing easily unfolds the narrative as the artist doesn't need to pause and let his hand catch up with his thoughts. Changes are possible and made quickly. As you look, you'll see the same simplified geometric solution in master drawing after master drawing. Sometimes the massing is more hidden–some of them only make a dot where others would place a line, but the principle is the same.

To demonstrate the above in a very practical way, compare the following two drawings. They are drawings by my students. The drawing on the left was made during the first session of an eight-week long course, where each week had only one three-hour session. The right hand drawing was made towards the end of the course. Both drawings were made as a part of a series of "warm up" one-minute poses.

The immediate impression of the first drawing is that it is very flat despite the three-quarter position of the figure. The second drawing is quite the opposite. It presents clear and lively volumes despite the pose of the figure, who is posed with their back to the artist. Neither drawing has any detail, shading, or elaboration. The lack of time did not allow for this and so we are in luck to observe the stripped down construction or lack thereof.

Student drawings. Student drawings.
Student drawings.

Since the geometric approach was already explained when the first drawing was made you can see the attempt to apply this knowledge but the results are strongly two dimensional and lack vitality. Applying the same approach only after a few hours of practice and guidance results in a great construction ready to be developed into a nice drawing.

And of course, the smaller details within the larger mass would have been approached using the same technique. Massing is everything when it comes to understanding the human form.


P.S. This blog entry also has a free video counterpart which you can watch here.

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5 thoughts on “Attack of the Masses

  1. I mass a bit differently, I use concentric circles for my massing, Vilppu style, it seemed to work a bit better for me personally because of the way I approach a 3D object is more “in the round” as opposed to blocks.

  2. To Palespyder:
    I use both methods and finding that one needs this kind of flexibility – to be able to interchange concentric circles and blocks as the human form constantly changes. A good example of this is the roundness of the forearm flowing into the block like shape of the wrist.
    In my Masterclass course I explain both and some people gravitate towards the round and some towards the block like. I think it is quite personal, but it’s good to practice both.
    I think I dwell on the block like massing more in the above article as this opens a link towards perspective in general.

    To C. Brown:
    It’s my pleasure. Stay tuned, there will be more.