Archive for June 20th, 2010


We referred to it back on April 19 when we talked about the ellipse.  Contrapposto. Big word, simple concept.  It means that when drawing the figure, make the shoulder line and the pelvis line go in opposite directions; one up, one down.  It’s an invention of the ancient Greeks, was de rigueur from the Renaissance to the 19th century and is still with us to the max. You can’t pass a shop window, skim a fashion magazine or glance at your junk mail without getting an eyeful of contrapposto.   So, thank the Greeks.  Around 480 BCE this happened in Greek culture, the Kritios Boy.  Notice how his pelvis is higher on the right than the left.  The shoulders are straight, that’s true. Later the shoulders would also slope, in the opposite direction.  It seems so natural, so graceful, so at ease, that we’re tempted to take the contrapposto stance for granted.  But before the Kritios  Boy, the Greeks imitated Egyptian sculpture, which was stiff and square, even when making an attempt at expressing conviviality, like this Egyptian couple, ~2500 BCE.   Even though one foot is in front of the other, the legs are stiff and there’s no shift of the weight to one leg, which would cause the pelvis to tilt up on the side of the load bearing leg.

Here are some Renaissance icons…

The use of the contrapposto design became so dogmatic that even a reclining figure like Michelangelo’s Dawn at the Medici tomb has that at-ease-soldier twist.  What are we to make of a dying body on a cross  gracefully complying with this aesthetic fashion?  Is Michelangelo perhaps sacrificing expressiveness on the altar of aesthetic dogma?  By the 19th century contrapposto was used in an obviously formulaic, even insip, manner.  I give you Ingres, right.

Still, it’s a useful tool.  And, clearly, we’re still standing around with one shoulder up and the hip on the other side pushed up by the load bearing leg.  When drawing the figure, look for the contrapposto lines, put them in with a bold stroke of your pencil and leave them there.  There’s no doubt that contrapposto animates the figure.  At left, a drawing by L.D., a student in my Thursday drawing class, working from the ad shown at the top of this page. He eventually took the contrapposto lines out, but without their guidance this drawing would miss its grace. Despite the drapery, you can see that the model’s right hip is higher the the left. Btw, you will not find the contrapposto stance in any ballet positions or in any martial arts.  More on that another time.

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