Lessons: Alternative Approaches to the Figure

I’m sitting here in the studio today looking over many months of my watercolor figure paintings and I am struck by how varied they are, many of them I would not do them same way today.  It is not that I was trying to be different in each painting, it was that I was teaching a variety of lessons on alternatives to a traditional line drawing and correct color approach to the figure.  There is nothing at all wrong with getting a nice gestural drawing on the paper with a wonderful feeling of exaggerated contours and expressive angles followed by a colorful series of transparent washes, really striving for a strong representational feeling.  18 x 24 Watercolor on Arches paper15 x 22 watercolor on paper

By all means do this approach and stick with it if that is your preference, but sometimes the goal is a more abstract or expressive approach and at those times you need to move out of your comfort zone and approach the figure from a more personal and creative point of view. 15 x 22 watercolor on Arches
In this painting I let the figure drawing touch all of the edges of the paper, trying for a really strong feeling of contour line and I restated the lines with a dark 4B graphite stick.  I then emphasized selected areas of the figure with really strong contrasts of warm and cool pure pigments making sure that I treated the edges of the colors by softening and blending them.
15 x 22 watercolor on Arches paper

In this painting used a water soluble graphite stick and really pushed the graphite hard into the paper, again trying to get a nice feeling of contour.  I wanted the line to be a bigger factor in this painting and the color to feel more integrated with the line.  I tried to have one strong focal point, the face, and then have the rest of the drawing fade off into the paper.15 x 22 watercolor on Arches
In this figure painting I wanted to use the interior of the figure as one big white shape, with a feeling of interlocking with the outside color forms.  I have used a dark passages of water soluble graphite, and strong earth tones like raw sienna, and burnt sienna.  These colors give a wonderful grayed effect when they mingle with the blueish black color of graphite.  Make sure you are really thinking of the quality of the white shape you are creating, it should move across the paper and touch all of the edges.  This will give you a very monumental painting.15 x 22 watercolor on Arches
In this painting I was shooting for a painting defined by grays and blacks with just a few spots of color.  I intentionally left out all features on the figure which gives it a ghostly quality and makes all of the shapes important.18 x 24 transparent and opaque watercolor on Arches
This painting was a lot of fun to do, I lightly sketched in a figure using a pencil and then emphasized several places with Higgins Eternal ink, a very rich and black ink.  I immediately began placing strong warm colors on the figure and rich pure cool tones in the back.  I then used very strong sticky white paint to come over top of the edges of the figure, push and pulling the edges contrasting grays against the pure reds and blues.  The figure feels like she is sitting in a the landscape, with wonderful fall trees behind her.15 x 22 transparent and opaque watercolor on Arches

The approach to this painting is the same as the last one, in that after I got a nice gestural drawing on the paper I pushed in some dark ink, using a round brush to apply it to the paper.  I used warms on the figure and cool tones in the background and then over painted with really thick Titanium white watercolor.  If you use thick white paint with just enough water to make the paint spread and apply it with a stick bristled brush you can really get some nice edges and grayed colors.  I do affect the edges with scrapes and textures. I love the effect. 15 x 22 watercolor with Titanium White wash
In these next two paintings, which I have shown before, I glazed the paper with a combination of New Gamboge and Cadmium Scarlet.  After the paper dried I lightly drew in the figures with a pencil and then restated some of the lines with a rigger charged with Alizirin Crimson and Ultramarine Blue.  I tried to keep the lines very expressive and didn’t follow the original drawing exactly.  I then took Titanium White paint and brushed in the backgrounds and a few details.  I found this approach to really create an exciting and unique painting.

15 x 22 watercolor with Titanium White wash
The following paintings represent a few more class demonstrations I did for the Alternative Approaches to the Figure watercolor classes.  I hope you get some inspiration from these paintings and that they push you to try some new ways to paint the figure.22 x 30 watercolor on Arches

detail of 15 x 22 watercolor on Arches

18 x 24 watercolor on paper

15 x 22 watercolor on Arches

15 x 22 watercolor on Arches

18 x 24 watercolor on Arches

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  • Colleen SaboOctober 8, 2012 - 2:59 pm

    Wow–wonderful to see these paintings in one stop and the progression to abstraction. Makes me long for a figure workshop!ReplyCancel

  • Moira StevensonOctober 10, 2012 - 12:21 pm

    😀 Oh Steve, I envy your eye and magic touch with the brush! I really love these interpretations and they will hopefully re-invigorate my own approaches to figure painting. Thanks as always for sharing.ReplyCancel

  • gillyNovember 19, 2012 - 12:43 pm

    Dear Sir,
    I teach life drawing and I,m looking at expressive drawing.Your life drawings are very good examples to demonsrate to my students,may I have permission to use them?

  • SandyOctober 16, 2016 - 11:39 am

    Thank you for sharing your new approaches. Excited to try this weekReplyCancel