Friday, September 20, 2013

Menzel's underdrawings

Unfinished paintings reveal insights about an artist's working methods.

This unfinished painting of the inside of a church by Adolph Menzel shows the scaffolding of perspective lines that he laid down before covering them area by area in oil.

Note the careful spacing of the steps and tiles, and the diagonally sloping centerline from the floor through the feet of the priest, to a point on the eye level. I believe this line helped him establish the correct relative heights of the figures.

One art historian wondered why Menzel painted that blank-looking face staring out at us. I believe that's just a stand-in figure placed there for measurement to set the heights of the other figures. That figure would not have appeared in the final work.

Such careful preliminary underdrawing would be necessary for an accurate study like this one, too. In fact, you can see some more uncovered preliminary lines in the lion in the lower right.

Edit: Blog reader Ken did this diagram to explain. Thanks, Ken!

15 comments:

Tom Hart said...

Thanks for another great post, James!

I'd appreciate it if you would expand on the use of that head to set the heights of other figures. I've been looking at the earlier post you sited about that, and I can't quite see how that head would work in that regard. I know that the head would have the same relation to the horizon line as other figures in the picture. But so far I haven't been able to reconcile that with the kneeling figure. Maybe I've mis-identified the horizon?

Ken said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Hart said...

I agree, Ken, about the head and the figure being on different planes. Whenever that's the case (two figures on different planes) I'm not sure that one can then be used as a reference for the other. I'm thinking not (?)

Kevin Mayes said...

As I see it, the head is representative of a person in the foreground. Therefore, by projecting lines from that head you can easily establish the relative height of those figures in the mid-ground and background. Even the kneeling figure would be relative to the head ( if you stand the kneeling figure up he is at a relative height to the head.

Tom Hart said...

I think you're right about that Kevin. My point was poorly expressed. It had to do with the "Loomis" rule which is referenced in the other Gurney Journey post that James sites. That is, the horizon line intersects like bodies at the same point provided they are on the same plane. The head and the kneeling figure are clearly on different planes, and so one would have to use the projection lines as you describe in order to extrapolate the size of one from the other. The more I think about this the clearer it gets (:^). But perspective involving more than one plane gets my mind spinning a bit...

Tom Hart said...

...and actually, I now see your other point, Kevin, which is that if you stand up the kneeling figure, he is likely on the same plane as the head.

Okay. That's it for me! :^)

Ken said...

I had some difficulty understanding this, so i made this diagram. Does it look correct?

http://imageshack.us/a/img689/8587/wl97.jpg

Ken said...

I made some corrections to this old history painting :

http://imageshack.us/a/img694/5708/zhc4.jpg

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Ken. That explains it brilliantly. I added your diagram to the post.

James Gurney said...

Ken, your corrections to the history painting would be right if the ground were truly level. But because it appears to be a sloping beach, the original artist seems to have gotten it more or less right. The level of the ocean is well below the action in the foreground.

Ken said...

http://img855.imageshack.us/img855/5249/6jjz.jpg

Well i tried to work out how the scale of background figures were calculated. I also attempted to figure out the distance from the picture plane. Not sure if this is all correct. Many thanks.

erc said...

Hi there,
Maybe that head belongs to a short person or its a floating halloween thing. Its interesting to see the construction lines. Thanks for the Menzel post.

Christian said...

Excellent post. I'll pass it on.
Thanks for sharing!

Keith Patton said...

Awesome post James! I appreciate how much Menzel spent getting the drawing correct first, too. So often I think artists just rush into the painting, throwing down large masses of color and working the drawing out as they paint. But that's not how it was usually done in the old days!

I'm going to go back through your posts, but this makes me curious about perspective in general. It seems you haven't covered perspective THAT much, compared to other topics? Perhaps you could discuss how to best learn perspective in future posts?

Love your blog regardless!

erc said...

hey guys,
I looked at the diagram more closely and its right on. Good diagram Ken! Good observation.