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Friday, January 30, 2015

Muscle Painting

The Battle of Cascina, 1504, Michelangelo Buonarroti.
Muscular skeletal drawing by
Leonardo da Vinci
For those working artist who have never had the joy or privilege to have taken a college-level figure drawing/painting class, this is for you. You really should. Sooner or later, as you move through your career as an artist, you're going to want to or need to paint the human figure, either nude, nearly nude or clothed in form-fitting clothes. Having had little or no experience in this endeavor you're going to try nonetheless and realize pretty quickly there's more to it than simply drawing naked people. The fact is, every naked figure is composed of skin, bones, and muscles (by far the most demanding part) whether they're exposed or merely suggested. The reason so many otherwise excellent artist avoid painting figures are many, but most come down to the fact that, first of all they're quite difficult, second, there are certain societal and religious moral factors mitigating against such works (many of them solely in the artist's mind, and third, in today's art world, the line between legitimate figural art (below) and erotica or even pornography is treacherously thin. Moreover, it's an undulating line, changing position, if not daily, then at least yearly. Add to that, the element of gay erotica, and most male artists wouldn't touch the genre with a ten-foot paintbrush.
Muscles II, 2009, Rob Bartrell,
tinged with homoeroticism.
Nude on Pillows II, 2003, Robert
Lambert, muscle panting today.
The female nude today, lots of
muscles, spike heels and all.
I don't suppose I'm revealing any long kept secrets, but let me say for the record that painting nude figures goes back at least to the Ancient Greeks around the 6th-century BC rendered in black on jars meant to contain olive oil for coating the body the PanHellenic games around that time. I mention it here but don't offer photos simply because this type of painting is far too familiar include. And, I might as well bring it out in the open here as anywhere. Such figural art often evolves into sometimes quite graphic homoerotic art. Moreover, that's pretty well been a trend down through the entire history of painting. Regardless of era, even pretty much regardless of artist, painters have been unwilling or unable to divorce sex from the nude body. And if that were true in the past, in today's Internet-driven world of art, that's doubly the case. You have no idea how much porn I had to plow through to collect the images you see here...okay, maybe you do.

Study for the Creation of Adam, 1514, Michelangelo Buonarroti.
Vitruvian Man, 1490, Leonardo
Regardless of whatever latent sexual motivation an artist might have, stick figure just don't make it. Neither do shapeless blobs. As two of the stars of the Italian Renaissance demonstrated more than five hundred years ago, drawing nudes is a scientific pursuit as well as artistic. Well, that kind of takes a lot of fun out of it right from the start. We see that in Leonardo's Vitruvian Man (left) from around 1490. There's even an element of mathematics and geometry involved. Michelangelo, no doubt, instinctively recognized this but mostly chose to ignore it. A few of his drawings would indicate that decision had it's negative impact. Aside from his David, which is, after all, sculpture rather than painting, Michelangelo's most famous painted rendering of a nude figure is his Creation of Adam (above), the centerpiece of his Sistine Chapel Ceiling. And, had he consulted Leonardo, he might have more accurately gauged the proportions of the head to Adam's muscular nude body. As many critics and historians have pointed out however, Michelangelo was much more interested in muscles than faces. Often his drawings simply omit the head. In fact, it would seem that he was only interested in male muscles. His female bodies don't differentiate much as to gender. His female sculpture of Night (below) from 1526-31 in the Medici Chapel in Florence appears to be a man with breasts attached (and somewhat ineptly at that). He does, however, redeem himself somewhat in his (now lost, except for copies) Battle of Cascina (top) from around 1504. Never before, and seldom since, has a single composition delivered so many complexly drawn figures interacting so perfectly.

Night, Medici Chapel, Florence, 1526-31, Michelangelo Buonarroti
Elevation to the Cross, 1610-11,
Peter Paul Rubens
With the passing of the Renaissance, only Peter Paul Rubens (in painting) and Bernini (in sculpture) carried on in the muscular tradition of Michelangelo despite the much vaunted impact of the Sistine ceiling on painters yet to come. Rubens had a muscular festival of the arts in his Elevation to the Cross, from around 1610-11. Much of this embracing of the female nude (no pun intended) can be laid at the doorstep of the rise in social acceptance and male popularity of the female nude during the 17th-century Europe. What? You say, women have muscles too. Well, no, not like they do today, nor would painting them in the manner of Michelangelo's masculine female figures have been acceptable in any case. Women were seen as rounded, soft, chubby, voluptuous, in fact, sometimes what we'd call simply downright fat. We see this in no less an artist the Diego Velasquez's Venus at her Mirror from around 1649-51. That tradition carried on to the "sanitized" nudity of French academic art in the 18th-century as seen in Alexandre Cabanel's Birth of Venus from 1863. I've seen Teddy bears with more muscle structure. It began to wane only as the purposeful distortions of Cubism and the various flavors of Expressionism took hold in the early 20th century, largely eliminating the sexual element from nude painting (not to mention any hint of muscles).

Venus at her Mirror, 1649-51, Diego Velazquez
Female Nude, 1907-08, Pablo Picasso
However, during the 20th-century, largely replacing the nude painting came nude photography--some of it quite artistic, some...not so much. Although pornography had existed mostly in etchings and even in some painting for hundreds of years (thousands if you count the Greeks), photography allowed it to explode, first in Europe, then after the wars in the more prudish United States. First there were the imported French postcards, then cute, and relatively harmless pinup calendars, then in men's magazines, and now it literally pollutes the Internet to an almost unimaginable degree. What is more, with the advent of body building to a level that would have made Michelangelo rub his eyes in disbelief, the nude figure, of either gender, bears little resemblance to those in the past. Sexual elements, if not overtly exploited, lie just beneath the surface. Cabanel would have rubbed his eyes too. Yet as never before, figure painters have come to recognize the importance of accurately rendering muscle structure, whether in their "fine" art or the most disgusting examples of (mostly male) pornography. Full-frontal nudity is pretty much the acceptable norm, the line between that and pornography seemingly resting with the display of erect genitals. Within a century or less, this line will probably have moved further to depend only upon the operational status indicated.
Birth of Venus, 1863, Alexandre Cabanel--marshmallow soft.

Paint my muscles...please. The artist is listed only as Hughes.


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