No Bad Poses (or) Revenge of the Model

September 18, 2011

When I go to drawing sessions, hell, since I went to art school (insert Star Wars opening here) there is one comment I over hear from other artists that drives me insane… “What a lousy pose“. Wrong. It’s not a lousy pose, there are no lousy poses, nor bad ones, lame ones, dull, or boring. It’s your job as an artist to make any subject into an interesting image, not the model’s. I don’t think Ansel Adams ever stood in front of a mountain and said, “What a lame looking pile of dirt“.  It is what it is, and an artist finds the framing, composition, or angle that best explores the subject. What most art students, or even professional artists, really mean when they look at a pose and say this is, “I don’t LIKE this view.” There are two easy solutions for this—

A) Shut up about it.

B) Move. (not the model- you!)

It drives me nuts to hear artists start filling the air with grumps and sighs after a model sets in. You hear it most when artists end up with a heavily foreshortened view from their vantage point, or when they aren’t seeing the figure flat on. By that I mean a position where the model is straight up and down, or laid horizontal side to side, with little (or no) foreshortening; something like this…

More often than not, I hear artists make these comments just before they whip up the most pathetic images one can imagine. What they really mean is that they’re seeing the model before them in a pose they know they can’t draw, or worse yet, can’t make interesting. Either the head is angled towards them for a view they don’t often address, or the body is placed in a Mantegna type of foreshortened view they don’t want to be challenged with.

Mantegna "Dead Christ"

They’ll often take that foreshortened figure and draw it as how they “think” it looks from the angle they’d rather be drawing it from, which is usually flat on with no challenge, and in their artistic comfort zone.

For example, one of my favorite models returned to our drawing sessions recently (the girl with the jet black hair) as seen in my previous post. She set herself into a reclining pose (see below) and I was seated closer to her feet with a view up her leg, to her reclined head. Granted it wasn’t as extreme as the painting above, but it was similar to that challenge— and it was just that, a challenge. The guy next to me, obviously an art student (and kudos to him for doing figure drawing sessions on top of his normal school load) sadly began squirming in his seat, and grumping. The poor kid next to me not only finished his 20 minute pose in around 6 minutes, but managed to draw it from an angle he could not have been seeing it from. As ALL artists do, we tend to look from side to side to see what others around us are doing. (sometimes out of a competitive nature, but more often to see if someone has solved a problem we’re also facing but with more success). He had drawn her straight on from the side, and without acknowledging the change in vantage point. I’ve approximated what I saw, but keep in mind this isn’t his actual image; people rarely volunteer their drawings as examples of what “not” to do. I do remember that despite flattening the figure to a straight on side view, the artist in him still slightly exaggerated the proportions of the feet and legs (as if refusing to ignore subconsciously the foreshortening). Again, this is my interpretation of what he did, not the actual image.

What gets me so upset is that these are people are not facing these challenges during a professional assignment where it has to be correct (as I often am in my work), but rather during a practice session, let me repeat, practice session. You know, when you allow yourself to make mistakes, when you try to perfect your craft, when you deal with problems you don’t normally face; and for what reason? To learn from them! Does this mean you’ll nail that drawing of the model’s head from the odd angle? No. (Case in point)

The following image is what the young man (mentioned above), and I, were attempting to draw. Note the foreshortening of the legs, but also the slight elevation of the viewer’s vantage point. We’re not looking straight on at the figure, but slightly down at it. Sometimes I crank out a drawing that I wouldn’t be afraid to show my old figure drawing teacher Mr. Brekke. Granted, it may not win awards, as the feet are slightly too small, but it doesn’t suck bong water either.

So next time you’re in a drawing session, don’t start swearing like a sailor when the model gets into their pose. It’s not them who has the problem, it’s you. You’re the artist, there’s the problem, now solve it, and shut up about it. Sheesh.

5 Responses to “No Bad Poses (or) Revenge of the Model”

  1. emj2011 said

    I’m a model and it felt good reading this! I was recently in a class full of senior citizens, and they would constantly complain. The monitor told me that it’s not my fault. At times people complain when really they are the one with the shortcoming.

  2. Andrew said

    One of the main reasons to practice figure drawing is for the artist to tackle the challenge of drawing a very complex subject. It is commonly said, if you have mastered drawing the figure, you can draw anything. Some poses – or some perspectives, as you said – are more difficult than others. I agree that people who complain about a pose are usually complaining that the challenge is too daunting.

    You wrote: “It’s your job as an artist to make any subject into an interesting image, not the model’s.” While that is true, as a model I feel it is my job to offer creativity and variety in the poses. Is there no such thing as a bad pose? Maybe not, but some poses are certainly more interesting and expressive than others.

    I used to be sensitive about someone getting a boring back view, but my thinking has evolved on this. There’s lots of subtlety in the back, and I’ve seen some really beautiful drawings of a back view.

  3. Thomas said

    I have to agree with you – in an open, practice drawing or painting session, the point is to work with what gets thrown at you. People often want the aesthetic appeal and composition to be given to them by the person modelling. But composition, framing and emphasis are always at the disposal of the person drawing or painting.

    There are positions that will strike more or less of a chord with different people, and some poses are more appropriate for conveying certain messages about the subject, or about bodies as subject. Ultimately, that’s where people need to get their own models, if they need a specific look or body language. Otherwise, drawing live people should be like exercising; you want to exercise all your muscles, not just the ones you think you need.

    I do quite bit of life drawing. For me,the presence of the person sitting is key. If they seem present – which probably means they are doing a better-than-average job of masking their discomfort and tedium – it is more inspiring than someone who is interesting-looking but looks like they’d rather be somewhere else.

    I agree with Andrew above – people’s backs and sides have lots of beauty and subtlety. What makes for the best images is a marriage of sitter and drawer’s presence, and what light contributes, and one cannot predict when and how those all contribute to something magic.

    If you’re interested, a bunch of my efforts can be found at

  4. Julia Pitt said

    I am an art model and I have been in a class where almost everyone is over the age of 60. They complain when I change from what they are used to and it annoys me but I understand that we are creatures of habit. As an artist I always thought they would enjoy a challenge. I also have been in another situation where I give a different pose and listening to the artists say, “How am I going to work this on the page?” That gives me a good feeling to know that I have done my job and later they thank me for giving the challenge because that is exactly what they were looking for. So I truly think that it is something that depends on the class and the response that the model will get.

  5. Thomas said

    Which comes back to the original poster’s point, that people drawing ought to open their eyes and minds more, and embrace challenge.

    Beyond the dramatic and mildly unconventional aspect of foreshortened poses, on a practical basis, they often fill a picture field more effectively.
    At 7.5 heads long vs. 2 heads wide from the front, a stretched-out body fits into a long, skinny rectangle- roughly 4:1, and even thinner in a side view. Most paper and canvases tend towards a 2:3 or a 3:4 ratio of width to height. So basically more than half of the picture field in a standing pose or a side-on lying-down pose is going to be negative space, to be dealt with in some way.

    Moreover, a foreshortened body enhances depth, with the body itself creating a foreground/middleground/background. as opposed to the stretched-out side view you showed, in which most of the body is at the same distance from the viewer. (then again, Holbein the Younger’s Dead Christ panel totally rocked that side view - –
    but look at how skinny a rectangle it employs…)

    Someone who made good use of dramatic foreshortening was Paul Cadmus. His figure drawings really exploit the drama of unconventional vantage points. If you don’t know him, look him up.

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