Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Friday, April 24, 2015

Black and White Figure Studies

One day last summer, I gave an assignment to my class; do a black and white oil study, using your own short-pose (5 - 20min) drawing as a reference. Although very difficult, I thought it was a great assignment that forced you to really think about many aspects of figure drawing and painting. 

One obvious difficulty was that there's only so much information can be packed in a 5 minute drawing, no matter how good you are. So when you use these as references, you have to extrapolate a lot; anatomy, lighting, form. That's almost everything.  

You may have good gesture information, general placement and proportions, light/shadow pattern mapped out (but not value information - more on that later).

Anyway, I though it was such a good assignment that I said to my class, hey, we should do more of these. Let's all do a hundred! If I heard groans, I blocked them out of my memory. Of course, I myself had to walk the walk, if not to inspire and encourage my students, then just to be fair.

So a couple of weeks ago I finally completed my one hundred black/white studies, almost all of them done from short pose drawings. A handful were done from live models, but as that's not particularly easy either and they're still in the spirit of learning the craft of figure painting, I thought they counted toward my one hundred.

Most are done on 12 x 16 pieces of loose canvas (oil primed linen) and I tacked them onto my wall as I finished them.  Finished isn't exactly accurate, for after about a dozen, I began to see these not as completed black and white paintings per se, but foundations for further exploration. That is to say, I thought I might keep working on top of them later, in color, to arrive at something more complex. So I stopped taking them very far; just enough to serve as underpaintings, of sorts.

The idea excited me, and I wanted to get on it immediately, but I held back. I will do my one hundred b/w first, and when I reach that goal, as a reward, I will allow myself to play with these sketches and develop them further. (OK I confess, I took a couple of them further with color before I finished my hundred)

Hopefully, I'll be able to share the evolution from drawing to finished painting on many of the one hundred sketches - if I can find the original drawings - on this here blog in the coming months, but for today I'll share a handful of which I took snapshots of the B/W's.

This is one of the earliest ones. No.3, in fact. The drawings on this sheet are 5 minute poses, and as you can see, I have the light / shadow pattern on the figures but no value information. That is to say, I'm not modeling forms with value modulation beyond the two values that represent light and shadow. There's no indication of highlights, variations within light, no variation within shadow. The shadow is just a quick flat fill. Some of the form shadow edges become darker core shadows but that's just a function of mapping and not necessarily observed (in these drawings, anyway).

So when the time came to do a value sketch from the drawing, I had to imagine where the light source was, and how it affected the illumination of the figure. In particular, which lit parts were lighter, and which parts were less so? I had to imagine which planes faced the light source, and also how to put the figure in an environment. 

I wasn't about to invent an interior with furniture or anything like that, but the figure needed to be standing on the floor, and I also needed something in the background. The cast shadow on the floor is made up - not too difficult to imagine that it needed to go in the opposite direction of the light source.

This one is no. 2, I think.  I had trouble redrawing the figure on canvas, so I used a grid. Sometimes I need a little help. Again, notice the flat shadow fill. I did the same thing in paint. In the drawing, there's no value variation in the lit area, but in the painting I did the best I can to imagine how the values might be modulated, by trying to visualize how the planes were angled.

A reclining pose. The drawing is a 10 minute pose. With toned paper, there is a little more information in the light side, because I'm using white conte to indicate where the highlights are. The value of the toned paper itself represents light, and white conte an additional value within the lit areas. The sanguine pencil represents the shadows. (And of course the line work) 

With this B/W study, I tried to modulate the values in the shadow areas as well. Mostly a matter separating "regular" shadows from darkest darks, and imagining which shadow planes might receive a greater amount of bounced light (her left thigh near the floor, for example).

More on toned paper. I love doing these. There's not a whole lot of easily recognizable body part shapes in this one, which made it a little tricky.

This shot is squared off for posting on Instagram. The actual painting isn't square, but I lost the original file. I'll shoot it again when it's time for me to work on this painting again. 

Are you on Instagram? You can follow my posts there too~ (terrymiura)

This one has a little bit of value modulation. I don't normally do this on a short pose drawing, but I must have been thinking about the oil sketch that would result from it. 

The painted version (No.75). A little top heavy and her leg seems to be chopped off at the knee. I'll have to fix those things in the later stage.

As I mentioned above, after the first dozen or so, I found myself stopping a lot sooner, because there was no point in "finishing" these paintings. I was going to put color on top of it and keep working later. As soon as I got the general sense of the structure, I would stop. I spent may be 45 minutes to an hour and a half on each. Sometimes, if I were having a hard time getting the gesture down, I may work on it two or three hours, but the result wouldn't look any more finished or rendered than if I had spent 45 minutes.

Here's No. 99. This one's a little sloppy. I lost the foreshortening on the bent arm so she looks like she has a very short arm. These things are sometimes overlooked when I'm drawing or painting the figure, and only become visible when I see photos of them on screen at a tiny size. It's a good idea to always take photos and check for obvious errors before sending a painting off to a gallery!

 So this is one where I've already taken it beyond the B/W. I think I posted this on the blog before, didn't I? There are small changes in the gesture that happened between stage 1 (drawing), stage 2 (B/W), and stage 3 (color). Which doesn't bother me, as I'm not trying to copy the original drawing. I just want to end up with something good.

The background in the B/W is mostly dark, whereas in the color version it's mostly light. I went back and forth several times before deciding on the light background. This flip-flopping is not unusual for me for something like this. And I'm OK with that too, since I've already decided that these 100 B/W's are for me to play with. To experiment with. To explore and try different approaches and solutions.

Naturally, I couldn't do that (flip flop and be indecisive) where there are certain expectations for a finished piece (like in a commission situation) or if there were a deadline,  but I think of these as gifts to myself to experiment with abstraction or color combinations or paint application or what have you.

So I fully expect some- may be many- of these to not come out at all. If I come away with 50 good ones, I'll be very happy. If I come away with 20, I'd still be pretty happy, because the 80 failed ones will have taught me a lot!

I highly recommend exercises like these. Why not do a 100 B/W from your gesture drawings. I guarantee you'll learn a ton. Besides, what else are you going to do with those old drawings?


  1. What a beautiful, information-packed post, Terry! I admire how dogged you are in working to learn even more when you paint, how each time at the easel is another opportunity to discover. In essence, we all are supposed to be doing that, but your approach seems so honest and filled with integrity. And then you have the generosity to share these explorations with your readers! Please know how much you are appreciated.
    I don't see how you fit all you do into the day, with figure drawing/painting, landscape, cityscape and workshops, as well as working to supply your galleries: how many hours a day do you typically spend working?
    Thank you so much.

    1. Hi Mitch, thank you so much for that thoughtful comment! It is much appreciated :-D
      Unfortunately, I don't do nearly as much as I want to, what with family obligations and all. I probably work no more or less than the average person, but the actual painting time is probably something like 30% of the working hours. The rest is all the other business stuff. But I wouldn't trade it for anything!

  2. Beautiful studies and an excellent assignment - lucky students!

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Suzanne~ Sorry this response is late!