Common Drawing Mistakes: The Loss of Volume

As you progress with your studies of the human body and the ways of drawing anatomy, you will keep coming back to a very few of the basic principles. It is hard to think of them when one picks up the pencil and that is the reason for practicing drawing. When these principles become second nature we no longer have to think about them, we're just in for the ride. For the joy of it.

A student drawing when the volume is lost.
A student drawing when the volume is lost.

I say this many, many times and I will repeat it still, it is so important. Massing is one of the cornerstones of figure drawing. For those of you who are new to the idea, massing is the way of converting complex shapes of an object – in our case the human body – into simple geometric shapes one is then able to think of. Once you can think of the shape, you are able to make decisions about its shape, size, orientation and relationship to the other shapes around it.

You need anatomy. No question about it. The bones, muscles, and tendons become part of your draftsman's toolbox. But, when drawing a finger, one doesn't start with remembering the boring anatomy lesson on how the first phalanx connects to the metacarpal via the articular facet of its superior extremity. If that was what artist were required to do no art would ever see the light of day.

We start by simplifying. Imagine the finger as a cylinder. We all know what a cylinder looks like. (If you need to practice drawing cylinders ((a very good exercise)), lay down a bottle of wine and study the shape.) Seeing the finger as a cylinder, you can very quickly determine which way it is facing, whether it is pointing at you or someone else. You can easily see its size. And then you lightly indicate this cylinder on the paper. Without any details, knuckles, nails, wrinkles…without any of those…it immediately looks like a finger. Then you do the same thing with the next finger. Then the palm of the hand. With that one you might want to switch from the shape of a cylinder to that of a cube. And so on. Once you have massed your figure lightly, you can start remembering all those details you learned in anatomy. But by then the essence of the figure, it's proportions and expression, is captured with lively speed. That is massing.

Now that we have remembered and established that bit, we can focus on this episode's content. We will continue with a very important concept that is part of massing: the loss of volume. The easy way to explain it is through the rib cage. We place our observations of the body mainly on the bone structure because it doesn't change. Muscles tend to shift and when not contracted they tend to (literally) hang off the bone. Rib cage is one of those bony structures we rely on. It is also the one that changes the most. After all it flattens and expands with every single breath we take. The change is very small so the rib cage remains just as reliable a road guide as any other bone in the body. The concept says that no volume can disappear from the body. The volume can shift, change shape, but it cannot disappear.

You can see in the drawing by one of my students what happens when you allow the volume to be lost. The drawing is quite nice, there is a marked attempt at massing. The head is conceived as a ball in perspective, both of the deltoids are seen as balls, and so is the left buttock. But then traveling down the torso, the rib cage is suddenly not taken into account and this mistake gets passed on to the position of the external oblique as well as the pelvis and the buttocks. Moreover the size of the pelvis gets distorted. From below the scapulae it seems as if the work becomes a different drawing. There are now two bodies joined, visually speaking.

To fix the lower part of the drawing you have two possibilities. Either you decide the left hand side drawing of the rib cage is correct and you change the right side or vice versa. Either way you reclaim the volume of the rib cage.

You can fix this figure drawing by adjusting the rib cage volume.
You can fix this figure drawing by adjusting the fullness of the rib cage and angle of the hips.

The following drawing is where loss of volume of the rib cage occurs most frequently: in the reclining nude. Various problems surface here: perspective, foreshortening, proportions getting away from the artist. However most of the problems disappear if the volume of the rib cage is reclaimed.

A figure drawing with the rib cage in need of correction, and the adjustments that need to be made.

The video counterpart of this blog entry has extra content. Also some of the concepts can be understood better if you see them drawn. You can find it here.

–Robert

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