By Thom Wright 2020
A Western art tradition for over 500 years, representational figure painting continues to be taught and practiced today. In my art education I spent about ten years taking classes to draw and paint the figure. After doing undergrad required art courses part time for four years at Cal State U Long Beach in 2004, I was then accepted into the graduate art program, based on my figurative portfolio. But in 2005 I had changed my direction to abstract painting, and all that figurative study and practice did help in making that change and better understand expressive painting.
In the painting shown above, my wife Linda posed for me in the morning light of the stained glass window that she had made. Students in life painting classes usually paint family and friends as free volunteers who might like to have a painting. The quality of the painting is not like Vermeer, but it does show expressive qualities of strong warm color light and patterning almost everywhere. I personally prefer this brushy rendering more than photographic copying, and as with many figurative painters over that past 200 years, I have shifted away from competing with the camera, and in general am making more expressive paintings. Also note that the framing of the figure by the window adds a geometric order, and there is a symmetric rhythm of rectangular shapes in the window panes to counter all the curves in the figure.
In my second painting shown above, a work done in a three-hour class session at CSULB, I was fortunate to have a frontal view and lighted with a sky light above and two lamps left and right. However, I first made a pencil sketch of the composition on the horizontal canvas to bring the figure forward and make the parts relate to the whole. Again, notice how the arrangement of the palette tables and stacked canvas frames behind the figure provide a rhythmic movement of geometric shapes that contrast with the figure. The lighting creates good volumetric forms on the figure as well as shadows her face, adding to the contemplative mood. I changed the background drapery to greens to heighten the complementary green/red dominate colors. Her lighted gray hair adds focus to her face and relates to her workout clothes in light and dark grays. The gestural brushmarks of paint add to the spontaneous feel and consistency of painting handling throughout the painting. Even the tilting of the stretched canvases behind the figure echo her shoulders and provide a movement to the figure. Thus, this life painting shows my developing skills in composition and expressive painting style that I sought.
I continue to do occasional figurative works, as the painting shown above, made four years after my graduation and still searching for new directions. It began with a fairly representational rendering of the two figures, then went in four different directions as the painting evolved into a painting with figures versus a painting about figures. The male/female differences in body shapes and psychological mood gets reinforced by the opposing seated stances, by their dress and by the strong cast shadows behind them. Note how the wall, seat and cushions, and floor have abstract patterns and a wide range of colors and values, all relating to and interacting with the figures and shadows. She wears white shoes, and he is barefoot, but has a white line surrounding one foot that is sorta tied to her shoes. His yellow-green aura surrounds his upper body, but is smaller, softer and only surrounds her head. Thus, there are many relating parts and features throughout the painting while supporting and strengthening the narrative and the composition.