People can be a challenge for artists. Drawing or painting them, and also, coping with (often unsolicited) advice and opinions about our work.
People can also be a gift to artists. All the people who support us by making space and time and resources available to us, offering encouragement, sharing and collecting our artwork, and supporting art in our communities.
And all those people, challenging and supportive, have opinions and advice about your art, too—what you should paint, how it should look and how you should go about creating it. And where and how you should display it or sell it. Some of that is helpful; some, not so much. Every artist has to wrestle with when to listen to outside opinions and when to ignore them.
(And that goes double if you actually dare to put people in your paintings. And triple if they are people you know.)
In what ways do find yourself influenced by comments and opinions of others in choosing what work to create and how to create it (subjects, styles, colors, work habits, etc.)?
Which influences are welcome and helpful (e.g. feedback from a trusted friend, input from a commission client, reports from your gallery on collector’s reactions)?
Which influences are only welcome or helpful under certain circumstances (e.g. not until you ask for input, not until the work is finished, only on certain types of work)?
Which influences do you want to avoid or protect yourself against (e.g. self-proclaimed experts, people who see your art as taking attention they feel you owe to them)?
What structures would you like to put in place to create boundaries that are comfortable for you and allow you to make your work freely, but still receive welcome feedback or influence?
Including some people in your paintings—even tiny figures—can be a powerful tool for directing a viewer’s attention, and for telling a story in a painting.
Painting people has a reputation for being difficult. This is true, in a sense, but not because it’s harder to make human shapes than, say, tree shapes or building shapes. It’s just that, since other people are so important to us, we have an innate ability to detect small variations in human shapes and features. We don’t paint people wrong any more often than we paint individual trees wrong. It’s just much, much easier for us to see when we paint people wrong.
But the funny thing is, we can also paint people pretty wrong and have them be recognizable as people, and even tell what those people shapes are supposed to be thinking and doing. Think of all the weirdly drawn cartoons and children’s book characters and human figures in other forms of illustration that you can interpret perfectly well. Also, how recognizable caricatures are, even though they wildly distort the subject’s features.
So, what’s going on here? It’s actually easier to paint people than you thought! The trick is to figure out which things are important (some indication of a head and body? knees that bend in normal ways?) and where you can take a lot of liberties (hair? noses? proportions?).
Today’s activity is to play with making people shapes. Start a “page of poses” to collect little human figures in various poses to put in your paintings. Or to practice drawing or sketching people around you.
Or start collecting ways that other artists, cartoonists and illustrators have suggested simple human figures. Try different ways of distorting people-shapes to make some stylized people of your own. And then, if you find some that you like, maybe try to make some companion “elements”—trees, furniture, cars, household items—in a matching style.