Thursday, April 8, 2010

Let's Talk About Necks

After all, one of our most faithful readers is a nosferatu anyway.

Before I get to necks directly, let me share with you a really smart thing my wife Charlotte once said to me. This was a few years ago, when I was deep in the midst of getting up and running with getting paintings to look like things at all. Think about what the beginning oil painter faces. On the one hand, there is the world. On the other hand, there is a viscous fluid to be applied to a surface, and then pushed around perhaps, by means of bundles of hair. And this ridiculous procedure is meant to produce a configuration of pigment which resembles something in the world! Outrageous! When I began, I thought of oil paints as being like the chariot of the sun: unimaginably powerful, and nearly impossible to control. And I still think of them like that. What sublime color and richness of tone! And what a nightmarish goal, to coordinate their willful movement into something with grace, with resemblance...

So anyhow, I was working on a painting, and I said something like, "I would like to get the hands right on this one." And clever Charlotte said, "What you should do is get everything right." And I said, "What means this - this strange idea of getting everything right?" And she said, "You can't settle for doing a good job in one spot, and letting the rest of it be a mess. Every part of it should work. It should be perfect."

Now, if Steve Wright is reading this, Steve, I know you hate the idea of "perfect." So you can just go ahead and substitute "works" for "perfect." It means the same thing in this context. At that time, I was accepting that parts of my paintings did not work:

The Burning of the City I, oil on canvas, 2005-6

And after that, I didn't. I redoubled my efforts and made sure that everything, to the greatest extent I could make it work, worked. Which brings us to necks.

Necks are up there with the muscles of the upper back and shoulders among the parts of the body with the most complex visible structures. The surface appearance of the neck is the outcome of several complicated layers of muscle, as well as fat, certain cartilaginous structures, the mind-bogglingly stupid hyoid bone, and not a few blood vessels.

These structures are complex, and worse, they are in constant flux. The multiple layers of small muscles move in response to breathing, jaw tension and movement, and the micro-positioning of the head; and these factors in turn vary not only because of issues of position, action, and fatigue, but because of emotions and thoughts. A person's neck, no less than their forehead, responds minutely to what they are feeling and thinking.

The upshot of this complexity is that a great many artists who are, overall, very good at depicting the human figure, just completely screw up the neck. And it's not necessarily an obvious problem; rather, they deploy a generic depiction which reads as "good enough" to the eye. But this is the "good enough" against which Charlotte warns. The complete figure in the painting should have a neck that is not just believable, but that is theirs, in all of its subtlety and emotive power (if you don't think you see necks as emotive, trust me, you do, you just don't register it consciously; it's one of those weird things that works like that).

Now, am I going to offer an example of this failure of the neck from some living painter who is considered good at figurative painting? Hell no. I'm a working artist - I might have to be friendly with these people later. I'll burn my bridges when I get to them.

Fortunately for us, I do have an example to share with you. I am happy to be friends with Sarah Boardman, a painter and adventurer living in Colorado. She has been doing some lovely black-and-white portraits lately which she generously offers as sacrificial lambs for this post. Here's the first portrait:

Grey Day Into Light, 2010

Now, this is a rapidly sketched-out piece that happened in a burst of inspiration. Every artist hopes for days like these, when you just move into the zone and the necessary thing pours out of you. The subtle emotion of the face, the distribution of tones across the canvas - all are beautiful. But take a look at that neck. The main structures are sketched in, but once you start to think about it, they're not really convincing. The head doesn't rest on them; they do not turn quite properly with the rotation of the head. The neck is in shadow, but that's no reason for the few visible details not to work. And these do not work. It drove Sarah nuts when she realized the flaw.

Displaying what I think is commendable discipline, Sarah didn't fix it: despite the neck, the painting works. Overworking a fundamental flaw would have ruined it, so she gritted her teeth and let it go. She moved on to this painting, executed in a similar state of carefree inevitability, of painting in the zone:

Ambiguity, 2010

You see that? Now the neck works. The folds caused by its rotation are present, the play of light across the laryngeal structures is accurate, and it contributes to our understanding of the person painted. How?

The neck is not tensed. So despite the ambivalence of the facial expression, we subliminally understand that the subject is not preparing for a fight-or-flight response. And this makes her vulnerable in a way that the face alone cannot convey. What we are allowed to see here is a private and solitary moment of doubt - or a moment of doubt in the company of somebody who is absolutely trusted; the expression makes the painting sincere - but the neck makes the painting intimate. That's what a neck that works can add to a painting.

Let's assume for a second that I've convinced you of the importance of a well-observed neck. So, you say, how am I supposed to learn this tao of necks? Well, there's never any magic trick, so I would answer, as ever, the hard way:

Superficial muscles of the neck

Deeper muscles of the neck

Those are studies I did from cadaver dissections. As with all of my anatomical work, I don't consciously think about this stuff every time I draw or paint a person. Rather, I have become intuitively familiar with the anatomy and with the typical behaviors of the anatomy, so that I can organize the chaos of sensory data into a coherent schema when I am working.

But structure alone is insufficient for a true rendering of the neck. Remember the other key component - the response of the neck to emotion and thought. There is only a hard way for learning to depict this as well: you just have to watch people intently for a long time, and really think about what you're seeing. And eventually, you'll learn. I'm not writing this from any sense of lofty accomplishment. I'm not done with this process of learning, I never can be. It's just that this method of careful and ongoing observation and practice is the only one I've ever stumbled on that has allowed me to make any progress at all...

But the first step is to become aware of the neck as a pivotal component of a good depiction of a person. That said, let's take a look at a few really impressive necks:

Caravaggio, of course. Here we have two emotionally impressive necks. Notice the striation of raised fibers at the base of Christ's neck. The muscles here (don't ask me the names; I never learn the names of anything) are tense. Because he's in an unnatural position and because he's in pain.

Expressing an entirely different emotion, the muscles in the neck of the flagellator on the left are also tensed. This is a response to the motion and tension of his jaw and shoulders - this pattern of tension is the tension of aggression. You might never think about these cords of muscle, standing out from the neck, but you will definitely integrate them into your understanding of the dynamics of the scene.

Now let's take a look at Parmigianino's Madonna of the Long Neck:

Awooga! That is a long neck! Notice that Parmigianino has balanced two opposed necessities in his depiction: forms are defined at the base, indicating that the neck is, indeed, supporting the head. And yet the upper part of the neck is more purely columnar, suggesting a state of muscular relaxation - of serenity. The unusual length is involved with Parmigianino's Mannerism, Mannerism being a school of art involving getting so awesome at anatomy that you can blatantly screw around with it and still make your figures work.


  1. Great post, but I'm not sure if the Madonna "works" in Parmigianino's painting. That long neck reminds me of Dr. Suess, and I have always found those old Dr. Suess cartoons to be creepy. So can the Madonna "work" if she comes across as creepy?

  2. Short answer: yes. I'm glad you enjoyed the post overall though... The creepiness in that painting is usually localized with the infant Jesus who looks kind of, well, dead.

  3. Yeah, Jesus doesn't look too healthy in the painting. But still, the serpentine neck of the Madonna makes her seem anything but benevolent.

    And what do you think of this?


  4. Interesting - no clue though. I know that I have naturally drawn necks like that myself, absent knowledge of the Parmigianino. So it strikes me as entirely possible that the depictions arose independently, but I also wouldn't be surprised if they were linked. How did you even find that image?

  5. Well, you have to know these things when you're me. =)

    Seriously, I was doing a little research on the lute, and that is what our long-knecked maiden is playing in that sculpture. The lute is a very old instrument, you see...

  6. You mean our old friend al oud?