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Painting the figure - a personal approach by Ken Howard

Posted on Thu 21 Mar 2019

Painting the Figure - A personal approach

Ken Howard outlines the various aspects which, for him, make painting the figure an exciting challenge.

The fascination of painting the figure is, that like life itself, it never ceases to offer something new. Like the seasons of the year, which seem to follow a general pattern yet are never the same, I can paint from the same model month after month, yet she surprises me every day and leads to new discoveries about light, tone, colour, movement and rhythm. I have now settled into a pattern of work which means that for most of the year  I work from a model first thing in the morning and these first three hours awaken my visual consciousness, nourishing the whole day’s work.

For many years after leaving art school I had little or no interest in the nude as a subject for painting. I associated the figure with the life class, and although much later on I became interested in the life room as a painting subject, in the years after leaving school I consciously set out to break with what I termed as ‘Art School Art’ and the study of the nude was somehow the epitome of this. I became interested mainly in landscapes and cityscapes, reflections, cathedrals, Spain, Italy and eventually Northern Ireland. Throughout these various periods the one unifying factor behind all the work was my interest in light.

When I moved to South Bolton Gardens in 1974, and came across the group which met there once a week to paint from the figure, although this was still in essence an art class, the years which had elapsed since leaving art school enabled me to see the figure quite differently. I no longer saw the model as an object for study; for the first time I saw her as a vehicle for the interpretation of light.

But, if I see the figure as a vehicle for light, you might ask why I don’t just paint a still life? First of all the figure is human and therefore the artist has an immediate relationship with the model, something which doesn’t happen with a still life which, for me, lacks what I can only describe as ‘life’. Of course, this need not be so, especially if we consider the lifes of Chardin, Bonnard or Morandi, which are full of ‘life’.

Lorraine, Summer Morning, oil 48” x 40¼”. Reproduced courtesy of Sotheby’s

There are two distinct approaches to the figure. One is personified by Sickert, who regarded the figure purely as an object, I believe he once likened it to a sack of potatoes, implying that no personal contact is needed to paint it. Then there is the approach of Augustus John who believed you could only paint the model if you had been to bed with her. For me the ideal approach lies in between, although closer probably to the attitude of Sickert, perhaps the finest English painter of the figure this century. I need to establish a rapport with my model, to have a certain sympathy with her; I have to like her and I am affected by her moods. All these are of course to do with the human quality of the model; she is not an inanimate object. Far from being inanimate, which immediately suggests lack of life, the human figure is the most ‘life-filled’ of all subjects.

Apart from the play of light the most fascinating aspect of the figure is rhythm or movement and above all else this must be mastered in order to paint the model and give her life. The parts of the figure themselves are not hard to draw or paint, but fitting them into a coherent whole is essential. The figure must look as if it could walk away if given life, and not fall into a heap of parts on the floor. Rhythm or movement must be expressed by the recognition that one part of the figure flows into another, and another; if you treat each part separately you are lost.  When I taught figure drawing in the 1960s, I lost patience with students who argued about things like whether or not the hand was a millimetre out of place. I knew they weren’t interested in the figure as a whole, in its essential rhythms. The main difference between their drawings and those of Rembrandt was that theirs were ‘Art School Art’; Rembrandt’s are ‘National Gallery Art’.

Valerie, Black and Red, oil 24” x 20”

Another aspect to be aware of when painting the figure is its relationship to fabrics. This is the stock-in-trade of the portrait painter and old masters, such as Gainsborough or Goya, often seemed as intent on rendering the fabric as the flesh. Fabrics constantly echo the movement of the figure, whether they are the fabrics the model is wearing or the fabrics in the setting in which the figure is seen. Although I have spent several years painting only from the nude model I now find myself drawn more and more towards the clothed figure, for this can accentuate many of the aspects in which I am interested.

Red Lightbreak, oil 48” x 40”. Reproduced courtesy of Oscar and Peter Johnson Ltd.

Fabrics not only echo and accentuate the movement of the figure but also the light aspect. With my great love of working contre jour I found that light coming through silks and light fabrics was extremely exciting. I first discovered this when my model left her robe over a chair by the window, and there in my room was the equivalent of a windbreak on Sennen Beach. The light came through the fabric, throwing the shape of the chair as a shadow against it, just as people on the beach appear as shadows behind their windbreaks. This led me on to dressing the model in thin fabrics and I have now moved on to using Kimonos and parasols within the room – where this will lead me next I can only wonder. I can hear you saying that I am only stating the obvious, but I believe that this is the nature of inspiration; you don’t manipulate or initiate, you have to see it and realise it.

Another intriguing aspect of the figure is its relationship to the space around it; in other words its relationship to the interior. All those years ago when I was a student at Hornsey I didn’t see the model in the context of the studio, in fact I now realise I wasn’t seeing her at all; she was purely an object for a discipline I had to learn. One of the great revelations when I saw the model at South Bolton Gardens for the first time was not only the realisation of the importance of the light and the other figures around her, but also her relationship to the setting.

The Red Parasol, oil 48” x 40”. Reproduced courtesy of Oscar and Peter Johnson Ltd.

The problem of the scale of the figure to the setting, or to the rest of the canvas, is one which never ceases to engage me. It is one of the basic compositional problems of all my interior paintings. I find myself see-sawing back and forth, from having the figure about half the height of the canvas, then a period where she gets smaller and smaller or, in other words, the interior becomes more and more important. After all, in relation to a large room a figure is very small, particularly in my Cornish studio, which is 60ft x 30ft. Then I find the figure begins to grow again and I go headlong towards having the figure fill the canvas. I keep on in the belief that in the next painting I shall get it right.  But that is the nature of painting – one never does get it right and again one always hopes that the next painting will do it.

The Black Stockings, oil 24” x 18”.

Another element to be aware of when painting the clothed figure is the way in which the colour of the clothes contrasts with the subtlety of the flesh. Everything in painting depends on relationships and the figure is no exception. Two years ago while in France I saw a beautiful little painting by Toulouse Lautrec called Seule in which a prostitute lies across a bed in a pair of black stockings. This painting started me on a whole year of work contrasting flesh against black, the one obvious and dark, the other translucent, light, ever-changing, constantly alluding me. Last Spring we went to Spain in order for me to reacquaint myself with the work of Velasquez and Goya. What a revelation it was when I saw again the play of black, silver and red against the subtlety of the flesh; I am always finding new aspects in the great paintings of the past, perhaps because, like life itself, they always render up new truths.

Many years ago I had a very old friend, a part-time painter, but above all else a lover of art. Until a year or so before he died at the age of 92 he went every week to the Wallace Collection to see the great Velasquez painting The Lady with a Fan. When I asked Maurice why he was so interested in this painting, he said: “Because she never ceases to surprise me, never ceases to offer me something new, she is like life itself.”


This article was first published in the July 1989 issue of The Artist


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Painting the figure - a personal approach by Ken Howard

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