tutorial | planes


"We shall see that the [plane] parallel with the source of light predominates, and that the others, in proportion as they recede from the source of light, are toned and shaded" Solomon J. Solomon. In this journal post we discuss how to find solidity in your work through good planar design.

A plane is the result of a straightening out of round forms into clear, identifiable facets. When drawing or painting a 'soft' form, for example a cheek or the flesh of an arm, it is important to consider the form's planes. It is easy for us to become lost in softness and to allow our work to become generic and overly round. Planes lend structure to softness.

The human form is made up of a series of round forms of varying curvature. When drawing the figure, beginners tend to be seduced by the roundness of forms they see which leads to a loss of structure in their work. To remedy this, we can begin any painting or drawing with a thorough study of the planes of our subject. This exercise helps us establish the strength of our subject before tackling its softer qualities.

As demonstrated in the diagram below, any round form can be broken down into a series of planes.The plane which most squarely faces the light will be the lightest in 'value'. As the planes turn away from the light source they will appear darker and darker. Once the planes are well established we can soften and merge the edges of these planes, one into the other, to arrive at whatever level of roundness we desire, while still maintaining the solidity of our initial planar design.

Ilya Repin was a master portrait painter and his portraits always displayed an excellent sense of structure that can only be achieved through a solid understanding of the planes of the head. Let's use this wondrous portrait of 'Pavel Chistyakov’ to see planar design in action. In the series of images below we have reverse engineered the painting to see how Repin may have initially blocked in the major planes. Note how even through the exquisite softness of the final image, Repin's planes remain clearly defined.These planes are where the crucial element of solidity in the painting comes from. The softness, which we removed in the breakdown, gives the painting atmosphere. 

When blocking in our own work we should aim at the same solidity in our planar design. If we start with these simple major planes we will find it easy to correct any drawing errors. Once we are happy with our major planes, it will be relatively simple to break them down into subtler minor planes. You will find that even at the first stages a strong planar design will lend your work solidity and structure.

Academic painters, like Ilya Repin, endeavoured to represent all the planes in their subjects. While this created beautiful results it is not the only option. For example, a more contemporary painter, Euan Uglow, restricts his paintings to only the most major planes. The planes, therefore, are increased in significance and convey the painting's meaning with remarkable concision. This difference in treatment make Uglow's painting like haikus to Repin's epic novels.




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