Research (5 April 2017)
In 2003 I read a compilation of Robert Beverly Hale’s lectures on figure drawing.
He taught it by positioning points, which represented anatomical landmarks, inside boxes, which represented the masses of the body, although he didn’t aim to fix the positions of the landmarks with precision.
I wondered if I could use his method to make a complete, articulated, contemporary canon of proportions, with positions of landmarks expressed in coordinates (x, y, z), and then use that as an aid to draw the human body, with realistic proportions, in any pose and relative position in space.
I read Hale’s other books and books that he recommended, including Paul Richer’s Artistic Anatomy, which gives an overview of previous canons of proportions, which I used as a checklist for doing further research into those, starting with the ancient Egyptian ones.
According to Gay Robins, who analysed the proportions of many figures in ancient Egyptian art, the Egyptians had developed a canon of proportions by the late Fourth Dynasty, which was used again and again through the Fifth Dynasty and the first half of the Sixth Dynasty, at the beginnings of the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom, and from the late Twenty-fifth Dynasty (with slight adjustments to fit a new grid system), although, in the intervening periods, various modified versions of this ‘classic’ canon were developed and used.
Traces of horizontal lines and squared grids in Egyptian tombs and temples, on walls and on the faces of blocks of stone, suggest lines and, by the Twelfth Dynasty, squared grids were used as guides to position anatomical landmarks according to the known canons of proportions. Outlines of figures were drawn on the grids and used as the basis for paintings, reliefs and sculptures.
But the Egyptian canons were only used for a very limited range of poses that tended to be used in formal art, such as sitting upright or standing rigidly with one foot forward. They weren’t comprehensive enough to derive complex poses or realism from. Although the faces of some Egyptian statues are realistic, there is some evidence to suggest that this is because they were derived from life or death masks (as explained in ‘Manifesto of Positionism’).
The Greeks seem to have learnt from the Egyptians, taking on and adapting the canon and the grid system that were in use in Egypt in the Late Period, their method of drawing on blocks, and their technique for carving stone.
Archaic Greek statues, called Korai (female) and Kouroi (male), were given essentially the same pose as formal Egyptian statues (standing), from the start of the Archaic period (c. 650 BC) to the end (c. 500 BC).
Some of these are more realistic than others, and we don’t know how the realistic parts of the more realistic ones were achieved. The sculptors presumably studied and measured living models, and they possibly measured lifecasts: they possibly ‘pointed’ from lifecasts of body parts before developing a technique to cast whole figures.
Konstam suggests in his writings[19–21] that the Greeks started basing statues on lifecasts of whole figures in around 500 BC, at the start of the Classical period; the realism and enormous variety of poses, forms and proportions in Classical sculpture suggests he’s right. There were now realistic horses and other animals, realistic women with wet-looking drapery, and realistic men in many shapes and sizes.
I’m convinced Konstam is right, so I don’t believe the Greeks derived Classical statues from canons of proportions, even though this contradicts what’s written in art history textbooks. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages (2013), for example, states:
‘In ancient Greece, many sculptors formulated canons of proportions so strict and all-encompassing that they calculated the size of every body part in advance, even the fingers and toes, according to mathematical ratios.’
This has been believed for a very long time because of what’s written in ancient books, mainly in respect of a canon published by Polykleitos in the fifth century BC, but also because they suggest other artists, including Euphranor, Silanion and Lysippos, recorded canons in the fourth century BC, although nothing remains of those.
All that remains of Polykleitos’s canon are a few sentences, quoted out of context in books written 150 to 600 years after he had probably retired.
Stewart gives translations of the main quotes, the earliest of which is from Philo’s Compendium of Mechanics (c. 250 BC):
‘So it is appropriate to warn the prospective engineer of the saying of Polykleitos the sculptor: perfection, he said, comes about little by little (para mikron) through many numbers.’
This has traditionally been taken to mean Polykleitos modelled statues according to a very detailed, numerical canon. But I think it’s just a Pythagorean saying, not a reference to a practical method; alternatively, it may be a reference to a pointing technique for transferring a cast to a different scale or material.
The writer who tells us most about Polykleitos’s canon is Galen, who was writing in the late second century AD:
‘Beauty […] arises not in the commensurability of the constituent elements of the body, but in the commensurability (symmetria) of the parts, such as that of finger to finger, and of all the fingers to the palm and the wrist, and of these to the forearm, and of the forearm to the upper arm, and, in fact, of everything to everything else, just as it is written in the Canon of Polykleitos. For having taught us in that work all the proportions of the body, Polykleitos supported his treatise with a work of art; that is, he made a statue according to the tenets of his treatise, and called the statue, like the work, the “Canon”.’ (Galen, De Placitis Hippocratis et Platonis; tr. J.J. Pollitt)
The ‘Canon’ is also mentioned in Pliny’s Natural History (c. AD 77–79):
‘[Polykleitos] also made what artists call a “Canon” or Model Statue, as they draw their artistic outlines from it as from a sort of standard; and he alone of mankind is deemed by means of one work of art to have created the art itself!’ (Tr. H. Rackham)
These later writers seem to have believed the Canon statue was derived from the canon of proportions in Polykleitos’s treatise, but that doesn’t mean it was.
Since archaic Greek statues were probably based, to some extent, on proportional schemes, Classical sculptors such as Polykleitos probably inherited those schemes. So it stands to reason that Polykleitos would have been interested in proportions, and would have noted the difference between what he inherited and what he observed, regardless of how he actually made statues.
It’s thought that the Canon statue was a bronze called the Doryphoros, which is now lost but known from Roman copies in marble. I think Polykleitos derived it from a lifecast and measured the living model, the lifecast or the statue (rounding his measurements), then presented his findings in his treatise.
The artists Pliny refers to may have studied the statue for its pose or its supposedly ideal proportions, whether they believed it was derived from a canon of proportions or not, and because, unlike living models, statues stay still.
Judging from Galen’s description, Polykleitos’s canon of proportions seems to have been similar to the one given by Vitruvius (a Roman architect) in The Ten Books on Architecture (c. 27 BC), which is the only recorded canon to have survived from ancient Greece or Rome, and which is probably derived from the written works of Polykleitos and his fourth-century BC successors.
Vitruvius’s canon is different from the classic Egyptian one, but, like the classic Egyptian one, it isn’t comprehensive enough to derive complex poses or realism from. So it does not support the view that Classical statues were derived from canons of proportions.
Leonardo da Vinci illustrated Vitruvius’s canon in his famous drawing of a man standing in a circle and a square with outstretched arms and legs, Vitruvian Man (c. AD 1490), which is realistic. But other artists tried to illustrate it and came up with much less realistic results.
Vitruvian Man is a product of Leonardo’s own analysis. We don’t know if he sometimes secretly used optical aids, and surprisingly little has been done to investigate that. He may have used tracing paper to bring the parts of Vitruvian Man together. (The Craftsman’s Handbook (c. 1437) has four chapters on tracing paper.)
I decided to use Vitruvius’s division of the face into three equal parts – from the bottom of the chin to the bottom of the nose, from there to a line between the eyebrows, and from there to the hairline – because I found it matched the proportions of men and women in photographs I’d collected.
For the same reason, I used Leonardo’s subdivision of the bottom section of the face into two equal parts: from the bottom of the chin to the bottom of the lower lip, and from there to the bottom of the nose.
On the whole, male and female proportions don’t fit the same set of rules, though.
When I continued researching the Renaissance and beyond, I found that most of the famous canons are for male figures. Cennino Cennini said, ‘I will give you the exact proportions of a man. Those of a woman I will disregard, for she does not have any set proportion.’
However, Paul Richer published a canon of average female proportions, in 1920, and a canon of average male proportions (1890), which I think are still the most detailed and realistic canons ever published.
He referred to specific anatomical landmarks, rather than obscure regions such as ‘the knee’, and he tried to incorporate what he’d learnt not only from previous artistic canons but also from statistics of measurements of the human body (anthropometric data).
Even so, his canons don’t include internal pivot points. He didn’t fix the positions of external landmarks with the precision of (x, y, z) coordinates. He gave some measurements in centimetres – which makes it easier to relate his canons to other designs and the real world – but he didn’t do this comprehensively. And I think his sculptures were made with the aid of lifecasting, and many of his illustrations of the movements of the various parts of the body with the aid of photography, rather than with the aid of his own canons.
Alvin Tilley and Henry Dreyfuss Associates’ The Measure of Man & Woman does include internal pivot points for various figure designs, including a ‘50 Percentile Woman’, which is based on anthropometric data.
I did my own analysis of the positions of an average-height woman’s pivot points. The methods I used are given in the ‘Amalgamation’ section. The side view of the result is compared with Tilley’s ‘50 Percentile Woman’ in the ‘CAD Pinning’ and ‘Design’ sections.
Like Richer and Tilley, I used anthropometric data to determine generic proportions. For the head and face, I used Anthropometry of the Head and Face by Leslie G. Farkas, and for the rest of the body I used NASA’s Anthropometric Source Book.
I took the average values and, wherever possible, rounded them to the nearest whole centimetre; I ended up using fractions in many instances.
I found many anthropometric landmarks useful, but the anthropometric data provided measurements of length, width or depth, and I could only partially fill (x, y, z) coordinates using that data.
I also needed to make up many more landmarks to build a comprehensive enough framework for my aim.
I decided what landmarks to use by looking at people in everyday life and copyright work (such as photographs, films and broadcasts), as well as by studying the existing canons, the anthropometric data and artistic anatomy.
To complete the coordinates of the anthropometric landmarks, and judge the positions of the landmarks I made up, I measured life models, people in photographic copyright work, and lifecasts taken from average-height models standing in the anatomical position (feet together, arms by sides, palms facing forward).
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