Summer is almost here and a lot of people reading this will probably want to be outside enjoying the sunshine rather than sitting indoors life drawing. However if you do want to carry on with the classes you may be interested to know that I’ll be carrying on the sessions over the Summer in Horfield (North Bristol) on an informal basis. I started doing it last year as an experiment. It’s a little having six or seven individual life drawing sessions over the summer months but instead of paying £46 pounds for ten classes, which is what I would usually charge, you pay in advance for as many or as few life drawing classes that you think you might be likely to make. So, if you don’t want to miss out on your ‘fix’ of life drawing over the Summer months but have to disappear for two weeks in August to go and visit your Aunt Mabel in Dorset this gives you another option.
The subject of drawing figures when you don’t actually have access to a life model made me think of the various lay figures that I’ve owned over the years.
A lay figure, if you didn’t know, is a jointed wooden doll used by artist’s as an aide to painting or drawing figures from imagination. The type that most people are familiar with has a very distinctive, almost lightbulb shaped head, slightly rounded but basically cylindrical limbs and very prominent ball and socket joints. I’ve owned three or four lay figures over the years but I’ve never found much use for them. The ball and socket joints don’t really tell you about how muscles work and they are often very stiff and difficult to pose. Just recently I’ve thought that that they might be useful for visualising foreshortened poses from imagination–for example if you were trying to draw a figure with it’s arm outstretched it might provide a way of judging how big the hand might need to be relative to the face–but I’ve yet to do much about it and I think they are kicking around unloved in a box upstairs somewhere.
But the lay figures of old were a different proposition altogether, some of them had faces and convincing musculature and came complete with outfits to wear. According to Vasari the first such figure was used by the painter Fra Bartolommeo and was said to be life-sized, made of wood and fully articulated. In the Stattliche museum in Berlin is a lay figure from South Germany which dates from 1520. There’s also a painting by Werner van den Valckert of a man with a lay figure in the JR Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. The Museum of London web site has a good photo of a 64 cm high lay figure in it’s collection by the sculptor Louis Francois Roubiliac which also came with male and female clothing. I’ve also included a scan of two 19th century figures. one made of papier mache and the other with an upholstered body
In !878 Edgar Degas painted a strange portrait of the painter Henri Michel-Levy, leaning against the wall of his studio alongside one of his outdoor figure compositions. At his feet is a life-sized lay figure with a yellow hat and a red bow.
The painter Walter Sickert owned a life-sized lay figure said to have once belonged to the painter Hogarth. I saw it recently (Why did I not have my camera with me?!) in a touring exhibition of the painters work at Bath organised by the British Council. The painting by Sickert entitled the raising of Lazarus is actually based on a photograph of the same lay figure being hoisted upstairs into his studio.
These days it’s much easier to work from a photograph than a lay figure but the idea continues in 3d software packages Poser and Daz figure studio. Daz is free to download and comes with a basic male and female figure, enough really if you wanted something as a starting point for a sketch or painting although I wouldn’t want to attempt using it on a computor unless it came supplied with a pretty good graphics card.(www.daz3d.com)
I’ll close with some links. One is to the Museum of London website where you’ll find a really nice colour photograph and more information about the Roubilliac lay figure. There is also a lay figure in the Danish National Gallery and a real player file of an item on Women’s Hour from a few years ago concerning a lay figure that was discovered in Packwood House Museum in Warwickshire. It’s well-worth downloading.