Research: Painting the human figure using line

Updated on 4 March 2017 (Harvard referencing and change to contents).

13 July 2016. How time flies! Three weeks since my last post and what a busy time that was. Hopefully we will be able to achieve a major step in dealing with hospital issues, but also we may have to change our life completely, in case a childrens’ neurologist we have to see in Aschaffenburg (Germany) at the end of August finds that our son responds positively to the ketogenic diet. We still find it hard to imagine that he may have to switch to eating hardly anything else except eggs and oil in order to improve his condition, but if it is so it cannot be helped. We are trying to have a nice summer anyway …

Regarding coursework I have just started Part 3, looking forward to painting the human figure again. I find that the recent extremely demanding events regarding our son have made me feel tight and unimaginative and I am struggling to shake off the giant weight sitting on my shoulders. But maybe I should adjust my painting intuitively and not by planning to sort of succumb to exactly that weight. It could be an interesting experiment and I would not need to work against my feelings. In her initial contact my new tutor suggested that I should emphasize drawing with paint, since it can have a liberating effect, and this is exactly what I am going to do. This means that I will have to ignore some of the instructions given in the study guide, but it feels exactly right.

In order to jump right into the new part of the course we were advised to have a look at the work of some painters using line in painting the human form, such as Degas, Ingres or Matisse. The French neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867) was famous mainly for his elaborate portraits, and when looking for drawings in paint I could not find but a very few – maybe I did not understand the instructions correctly. What I found, however, was a very pleasing and delicate combination of line and tone in the lovely example below (Fig. 1). It is as if the shadow behind the lady’s face somehow made her withdraw from the world:

Figure 1. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: “Madame Edmond Cavé (Marie-Élisabeth Blavot, born 1810), ca. 1831-1834, oil on canvas. Source: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) [Public domain] via The Metropolitan Museum of Art
When looking for work by Edgar Degas (1834-1917, France) I deliberately gave his ballerinas a wide berth, not only because the human form appears to get drowned in the horrible tutu dresses the girls wear, but because in my opinion he has by far better drawings such as the wonderfully soft pastel drawing below (Fig. 2):

Figure 2. Edgar Degas: “The Tub”, 1886, pastel on card. Source: Edgar Degas (1834-1917) [Public domain] via Musée d’Orsay
While the approach used by Degas comprises subtle tonal gradation to shape the 3-dimensional form of the body in a very traditional though beautiful way, Henry Matisse’s (1859-1954, France) famous “Dance” (1909) (Fig. 3) provides the effect without any tonal variation. Also, since the outlines are deliberately incorrect in places in all the dancing figures, they add little objective information about the actual form of the bodies involved in the dance. It seems to be more about a feeling of togetherness in a similar situation personally (all naked) and socially (all dancing together).

Figure 3. Henry Matisse: “The Dance”, 1909, oil on canvas. Source: Henry Matisse (1859-1954) [Public domain] via Wikipedia
I cannot write about line and the human body without referring to Egon Schiele (1890-1918, Austria), whose masterly use of line in describing the human form is both incredibly strong and sensitive. The line becomes part of the subject, i.e. the line describing the form of the dancer appears itself to be in the process of dancing, but never does so outside its task of accurately describing the outline of the dancer’s body (Fig. 4):

Figure 4. Egon Schiele: “The Dancer”, 1913, colourized drawing. Source: Egon Schiele (1890-1918) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
All the examples above have in common a more or less dark coloured line used to describe the outline of the body, combined with a very cleverly selected range of colours communicating with the line in a way to turn the outline into a vibrant, living organism.

When looking for more contemporary artists I came across Pop-Art painter Jim Dine (*1935, USA), who recently donated 230 self-portraits to the Vienna Albertina (Salzburger Nachrichten, 2016). I particularly like the way Dine combines line and tone. Line is not always used by him to provide a complete outline, while as a consequence coloured areas are not always contained within the limits provided. Since Dine does not seem to tire of his mirror image it is highly instructive to compare the superficially similar and still so different approaches to his self (fARTiculate, 2011).

Also, the interesting approach by Ryan Hewett (*1979, South Africa) using line and tone in a non-conventional way is well worth studying in depth, e.g. in his portrait of Lucien Freud (Hewett, 2015). Both elements are contained in the portrait itself and the impact by the interplay of light and shade is stunning. Hewett’s website contains several extraordinary, powerful examples of this technique (Hewett, 2017). I was also impressed by his use of palette knives, how he uses them to draw and paint simultaneously, which makes the result all the more believable, since there is no artificial boundary between line and tone (watch the “About Ryan” video on the website – you need to scroll down a bit and look for it, it is hard to describe its position).
Which makes me think that this may be what I may need to approach Part 3. Out with my set of palette knives, which has been sitting on my workshop table ever since last Christmas, waiting to be used. This might also be a good way to capture the weight on my shoulders.


Degas, E. (1886) The Tub [pastel on card] [online]. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Available at: [Accessed 13 July 2016]

fARTiculate (2011) Jim Dine, Selected Drawings & Interview [blog] [online]. fARTiculate, 9 February 2011. Available at: [Accessed 13 July 2016]

Hewett, R. (2015) Lucien Freud [oil on canvas] [online]. M. Contemporary Gallery, Woollahra. Available at: [Accessed 4 March 2017]

Hewett, R. (2017) Ryan Hewett [online]. Ryan Hewett, Cape Town. Available at: [Accessed 13 July 2016]

Ingres J.-A.-D. (c.1831-1834) Madame Edmond Cavé (Marie-Élisabeth Blavot, born 1810) [oil on canvas] [online]. The Met Fifth Avenue, New York. Available at: [Accessed 13 July 2016]

Matisse, H. (1909) The Dance [oil on canvas] [online]. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Available at: [Accessed 13 July 2016]

Salzburger Nachrichten (2016) Albertina zeigt Selbstportraits von Jim Dine [online]. Salzburger Nachrichten, 23 June 2016. Available at:

Schiele, E. (1913) The Dancer [colourized drawing] [online]. Leopold Museum, Vienna. Available at:


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