Adventures in foreshortening.
Students will ...
* learn the definition for foreshortening and be able to see foreshortening in their compositions.
* use good watercolor technique in the form of simple flat washes.
* experience the spontaneous process of monoprinting.
* 18" x 24" Plexiglas sheets
* 18" x 24" heavy watercolor paper
* Large bamboo brushes
* Black overhead projector markers
* Watercolor palettes
I became excited when I read Geri Greenman's "First Impressions" in the Nov. 2002 issue of Arts & Activities. In the article, Greenman had taken some of the anxiety out of drawing a self-portrait by having students trace their image directly on a mirror with a water-soluble overhead marker and then printing the image onto paper.
I, too, was looking for a way to reduce my anxiety about teaching and the student's anxiety about understanding the difficult concept of foreshortening of the human form. I thought the idea of tracing would be perfect for the students to really see and believe that learning to foreshorten the figure was crucial in their development as artists. Greenman's idea of directly tracing on the mirror gave me the idea to have students use large pieces of Plexiglas[R] instead to draw one another in foreshortened poses. Like Greenman, we too would follow the tracing with a printing process.
Every year classes go over body proportions in a figure-drawing unit. Students seem confident until the model sits down or lies down in a foreshortened pose. Even when the students use a viewfinder and can see how much space the closest part of the figure is taking out of the viewfinder, they have trouble understanding the concept of seeing that the figure is distorted. It is sometimes difficult to sell them on the idea. I can get various comments as, "Oh, the foot can't be that big" or "It can't be that small." The statements vary depending on whether the student is talking about the part of the figure that is up close or the part that is far away.
After reviewing proper body proportions on the human body the students were told that now they were going to study a foreshortened figure. Basically they were going to study a human figure that was "ill" proportioned because there is usually some kind of distortion taking place when a figure is sitting or lying down. This led to the definition of foreshortening which is described as an obvious shortening of the figure or form in relation to the angle from which they are observed.
We then discussed that the Renaissance artists held up glass grids to help them understand proportion and foreshortening. Instead of glass I used Plexiglas cut in 18" x 24" squares as a tool to convince my students that foreshortening really exists and they have to learn how to see and draw it in their figure drawings.
Skeptically, my students began this figure drawing by pairing off with another student. Next they were told they needed to have their partner stand or sit in a pose that exaggerated foreshortening. The students caught on quickly to this idea and directed their partners to lie down with their head or feet close to the viewer. Some of the students stood up on a chair or sat on the floor.
Students grabbed their 18" x 24" Plexiglas viewers and a black Vis-a-Vis[R] marker (for overhead projectors) and braced themselves for an expressive hands-on contour line drawing. Some of the students were more patient than others. The patience came with being able to hold the Plexiglas plate still and being able to keep one eye shut and their hands steady while trying to draw the figure.
Students could not wait to get to the process of printing the line drawings from the plate onto the dampened paper. This proved to be the tricky part because the variations in moisture of the paper made the marker do a variety of things. Wet paper made the marker run and paper that was too dry made the print too light.
This was an exciting process for everyone. The class wanted to watch when someone was ready to pull a print. The fact it was such an accidental process added to the excitement.
After students pulled their print they had to hurry and lay in simple flat watercolor washes with large bamboo brushes. I reminded them to stay loose and direct with the washes, so they wouldn't lose the excitement that was already created from the printing process.
There was one hurdle to get over, however. The students had to realize that this project was an exercise on "seeing," not an actual exercise on drawing, which they were used to and comfortable with. This exercise would be just a tool in helping them with other compositional challenges in the future. In other words, they would now truly understand foreshortening and would know what to look for. This exercise gave them the confidence to be able to create the distortion on their own.
As you can see, these are beautiful and sensitive observations. They were very direct and surprisingly quick, as the foreshortened figures only took two class periods to fully complete. Wow, what a great start Geri Greenman gave us!
Susan Buck teaches art at Valley Heights Junior/Senior High School in Blue Rapids, Kansas.