Sunday, October 25, 2009

On Bellies

On Thursday I painted the belly on a painting of Leah that I'm working on. Those are Leah's eyes at the top of the blog. Leah's a pretty damn charming student who does some modeling. I had the good luck to run into her when she was working at Spring Street Studios - which, if you're life drawing in New York and you don't draw there, why aren't you drawing there yet?

Anyhow, I painted the belly on this painting. Here you go:
There are two things that, at least at this point in my life, I find tougher to paint than anything else - the shadows on the underside of a woman's belly, and the fall-off of light down the back of a woman's thigh. The issue in each case is the transition from light to dark.

In the case of the belly, it is a soft transition. There are visible underlying structures, but they don't foreground themselves. The main transition is from the light area right around the belly button, down and around those two curves below it into shadow.

(As for terminology - sure, I studied anatomy for a couple of years, but did I memorize the names of things? Nuh uh. "Two curves below it" works for me - you know what I'm talking about.)

In the case of the thigh, it's also a soft transition, but there's a world of detail that you have to decide what to do with. Unless you're pure muscle, you've got cellulite. Fact of life - I've seen a lot of naked people, and I don't care how good looking you are, you've got to have body fat under 10% or you've got to have some cellulite. As a guy, I personally don't have an issue with the cellulite. It's part of the beauty of form, human form. But as a painter I have to contend with the level of detail I'm going to present. I don't do individual hairs because I don't have the patience for it.

So I have a visual paradigm that's lower-resolution than the individual hair. Similarly, it's lower-resolution than the individual cellulite bump and shadow. I happen to think this theory of cellulite representation is in conformity with the cognition of sight. An ordinary gaze also doesn't take in every little detail like that. But an ordinary gaze does take in the visual texture of a thigh in which cellulite would be visible if the viewer focused more closely on it. This visual texture is different from that of a smooth expanse of flesh; it has its own character. So painting the back of a thigh in raking light, I face a question: how do I present this textured field without putting in a cognitively dissonant level of detail?

Well, I don't deal with the thigh problem all that often, because I don't like to do back poses, because I can't put in a face without making up a really weird pose. And I love faces most. But I did tangle with it on a painting of Piera, resident muse, recently. Piera's about as beautiful as it gets. She's really curvy. She's got some cellulite in her thighs. I dealt with the problem by representing the most prominent substructures: a characteristic shadow about an inch below the fold under her butt. And also by breaking up the brushstrokes a little more than I usually do. So what I did was I found an optical equivalent through brushwork to the broken texture of the visual field of the thigh:

If you want, you can see the whole painting here. Piera wasn't thrilled that I put in any texture at all, but without the texture, there is only geometry; the humanity would be missing. The very thing that makes her beautiful would be lost. Conceptual beauty is without detail; the real beauty that rivets you to it - that has enough detail to be imperfect. Without the imperfection, there can be no faith.

This is an issue on which I will oscillate. I am a follower of the Greeks and of Botticelli, but I am also following Velazquez and Rembrandt. Nor have I settled my feelings in any one place. Ask me tomorrow, and I will give you a different answer.

Back to Piera's objection that I put in any detail at all. My problem was at the other end of the spectrum - where to stop on the detail. Here I am lauding the cellulite, but this started with explaining how to not put everything in. And that's legitimate: as an aesthetic phenomenon, I am in favor of cellulite. As a person physically implementing a painting and trying to match it to the visual cognition of the viewer, I'm not going to paint individual skin cells. Yet I am going to paint skin. So my task is to decide where on the continuum between skin and skin cells to stop. I'm pleased with where I stopped. You know who's goddamn amazing at it? Michael Grimaldi, that's who. Check this out:

What's he doing here? He's using a hard light from the side, what they call a raking light. That's the light you use to bring out detail. He's done it to his whole figure. He's essentially converted her entire body into a version of the upper-thigh problem. He now has the opportunity to go to an arbitrary and unnatural level of textural detail across every square inch of her body. He has pushed the entire composition to a state of crisis. To him, this is an opportunity to make high-stakes aesthetic decisions about the limits of detail everywhere. Why would somebody do that to himself? You may well ask. He probably has a number of reasons. I believe that at least in part, it is because, in solving the problem, he can execute a sustained passage of pretty dazzling virtuousity. He's done a few back paintings, and I'm a big fan of all of them.

So much for the theory of cellulite. Back to bellies.

As an aside, can I just say something to any women who are reading this? Here's what I have to say: I'm a professional painter, and I love your belly. I've worked with dancers with six-packs, I've worked with women with sagging bellies, round bellies, flat bellies... I loved all their bellies. Don't believe the hype. Bellies are just an absolutely beautiful part of a woman's body, and they don't need to be adolescently flat to be pretty. Trends in fashion models are decided by people who have no use for a woman's body apart from that lifeless geometry I was discussing before. Fashion aesthetics specializes in that absence of detail which does not match visual cognition. So whatever I can contribute to you not falling for the spell of an industry designed to make you hate yourself, let me contribute it. I would also add that I speak for lots of men in this regard.

Aside completed. Back to Leah's belly. The belly problem is not the same as the thigh problem, at least in Leah's case. Leah's belly is rounded, but it's close to being a mathematically-defined surface. I used to know nearly enough calculus to write an equation for a volume boundary that would be a lot like the shape of Leah's belly. If you were working in Maya, you wouldn't have a hard time modeling Leah's belly. So what's the challenge, you ask? Simple - the gradual transition of a soft surface from light to dark.

That is as hard as hell to do. For me, anyway. It is the art of the light touch, of capturing the ineffable. Any one point, compared with the point beside it, seems the same. And yet, when you step back, bright light falls into deep darkness. It is as gentle as breath.

A surprising amount of painting - at least the kind of painting I do - involves doing tonal gradients well. The belly is simply an example of that. Imagine a straight line drawn across any part of a depiction of a body. Take a value from 1 to 100 for the amount of brightness at every point on that line. If you graph brightness against location, you will get a curve. The challenge of painting is to perceive that curve, and capture that curve in paint. The curve is different at different places in the body - across a man's pectoral muscle, it sustains brightness for a long distance, then drops into darkness near the armpit. For a breast traveling down, it has a medium tone that rises to brightness, and then falls to darkness. For a belly like Leah's belly, it is almost like a sphere, a semicircle from medium to bright to medium to dark. But the difference between the real brightness-location curve and a perfect semicircle - that difference is where soul comes into the painting. To capture the soul, you must meet dead on the three primary challenges of art itself: perceive well - make a decision about how to convert what you see into an aesthetic phenomenon - physically execute it. It is not where the body diverges most from geometric purity that the harshest challenges arise. It is where it diverges least. This is why I say that bellies are hard to do well.

But they're not the only part of the body that presents this challenge. You know what the most awe-inspiring part of Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring is for me? You should be able to guess by now (hint: it's not the earring).

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