Figuring the Human

Since the dawn of human existence we have tried to depict ourselves and the world around us Cave paintings have been found throughout the world, going back thousands of years and many seem to have been drawn from life – human figures, animals being hunted – or inspired by family or community bonds and the quest for spirituality. Collectively we have tried to Figure the Human and drawing from life for over 10,000 years. And we are still trying. When you draw from life or try to figure out the human body you are part of one of the oldest traditions our world has seen. Think about that as you watch your child make a hand print, or you review your own work, every mark made in the pursuit of figuring the human and drawing from life is valuable and helps us learn more about ourselves and the world around us.

The Tree of Life in Gua Tewet, Borneo. Paintings inside Gua Tewet have been dated back to over 10,000 years ago and are thought to be related to spiritual activities.

The Tree of Life in Gua Tewet, Borneo. Paintings inside Gua Tewet date back to over 10,000 years ago and are thought to be related to spiritual activities.

Figuring the human is not of course confined to drawing from life. Across the ages many wonderful artists have eschewed drawing implements and picked up a hammer and chisel, or a handful of clay, and tried to figure the human in a three-dimensional sculpture. Sculptural depictions of the human are among some of the most celebrated art works of the classical period and today continue to feature in many celebrated public artworks. There is something so familiar and so tactile about a figurative sculpture, that many on public display are fondly caressed by passersby, climbed over and widely photographed with arms flung around them. Sculptural work of the human figure can be immensely and gratifyingly interactive.

The Beacon of Hope (or Nuala with the Hula!) at Lanyon PLace in Belfast. Figurative art sculptures are quite prone to being given affectionate nicknames and it is all part of the public taking the sculpture to heart as there own.

The Beacon of Hope (or Nuala with the Hula!) at Lanyon PLace in Belfast. Figurative art sculptures are quite prone to being given affectionate nicknames and it is all part of the public taking the sculpture to heart as their own.

In Northern Ireland our oft portrayed, and controversial, murals often feature human figures. They have been used as markers of territory, guardians of ‘our’ area, and warning signs to others to keep out. They have also served to unite those specific communities under a common cause, by depicting that cause in human form. Many of the most controversial murals have been replaced with more inclusive images celebrating, such as, our shared history, the peace process, a collective future and of course our sporting heroes. The common thread is our use of the human figure and face, whether of specific people or generic figures. Our attempts to explain, explore and celebrate our selves and our world all feature the human figure and are all drawn from the life around us.

This mural of Rory McIlroy features in the Holylands area of Belfast and is an example of using art to promote positive messages and community spirit - the man in the left hand side is a local who lives just beside the mural itself

This mural of Rory McIlroy features in the Holylands area of Belfast and is an example of using figurative art to promote positive messages and community spirit – the man in the left hand side is a local who lives just beside the mural itself

Children often depict themselves and others in their very first drawings – regardless of how ‘accurate’ those drawing are. How children, and indeed adults, depict themselves and others in a drawing can reveal a great deal about their view of themselves and the world around them. In portraiture sessions I am often struck by how often an artist will show so much of themselves in a painting, even in life drawing we are oft likely to use our schema of our own bodies in drawing the model in front of us.

Children often describe important events in their life through drawing. The way they depict themselves and others as figures in the drawing can tell you a lot about how they are feeling. The best thing about watching a child drawing is their immense sense of concentration and of course their sense of achievement when they finish a piece - something for us adults to remember!

Children often describe important events in their life through drawing. The way they depict themselves and others as figures in the drawing can tell you a lot about how they are feeling. The best thing about watching a child drawing is their immense sense of concentration and of course their sense of achievement when they finish a piece – something for us adults to remember!

Life drawing, and depicting the human figure in all forms, is integral to who we are, understanding how our bodies work and exploring what lessons we can learn from the human body. Using our depictions of the human form we try to figure the human spirit, explore stories about our humanity, decoration and functionality, and, of course, celebrate all that we are, both beautiful and terrifying!

David Hockney (born 1937)
At the time of co-ordinating (in collaboration with Allen Jones) the 2004 Royal Academy Exhibition which had a special focus on drawing: ‘drawing has been neglected for the last 30 years in art education…That was based on the idea that photography would suffice as a view of the world…people are now aware that photography can be digitally manipulated and may no longer reflect reality…It is time for us to look at how images are made, to place greater value on drawings and draughtsmanship…practically everything comes to life on a drawing board.’