I’m becoming ever more interested in the Russian method of figure drawing. Actually, it’s not a method invented or used only by the Russian art academies, but they have preserved the best traditions of the old masters and come up with a strong output of highly skillful contemporary artists capable of executing fine realistic drawing in various media.
What is really the Russian approach to drawing and how it differs from other methods of teaching drawing? First, the Russian approach to drawing is founded on two very sound principles: observation and knowledge. Besides drawing what you see, you also draw what you know. Observation is key to making a good drawing, but having a thorough knowledge of the subject you are interpreting with a pencil on a piece of paper can make the difference between a drawing that is merely good and one that is truly great, capable of communicating not only the visual aspect of a subject, but it’s nature and character as well. Think of Leonardo’s botanical studies, the mechanics of the hands, the dynamic flow of water, and so on. Drawing becomes a tool for the acquisition of knowledge, without hindering in any way on its artistic value. Quite the opposite. Drawing that is both the result of careful observation and acquired knowledge can produce a highly emotionally charged piece of art, capable of stirring our imagination and uplifting the spirit.
It might be said that a drawing made with such precision as the Russian artists still do can render a cold, motionless figure. That is not the case with the Russian drawing approach, because it often starts with a gestural assertion of the general idea of what the drawing will become when finished. In gestural drawing, one does not draw the appearance, but instead the action of the subject. From this initial approach, the drawing is “constructed”, the gesture sketch is divided into ever smaller shapes carefully placed using multiple comparative measurements, building up volume through tone and creating the illusion of depth in perspective. In the particular case of the human figure, the shapes of the body are rendered with their anatomical function in mind. Tone is rendered by well-thought crosshatching, akin to a sculptor gradually chiseling the statue out of the block of stone.
Drawing from photographs isnot encouraged by the art academies which prefer to rely on direct observation of the subject to render volume and space the way the human eyes see, different from what the camera lens capture. Most people will assume that a photo is more accurate than a painting of drawing, but the fact is that a camera lacks human stereoscopic vision and its lens can cause errors in magnification, such as barrel distortion, in which objects that are closer look much bigger than reality. That is the reason why some people complain that their noses look impressively larger in photos.
In realistic drawing, knowledge is very helpful in taking into account these distortions in photos and making the proper corrections.