One of the most important qualities to convey in any figure drawing is the sense of balance and a lack of understanding of this key principle is often the source of many problems in beginner figure drawings. Student works often appear as if they are in the process of toppling backwards or forwards. If something is about to topple over it is our innate instinct to set it right. Because of this, if we ignore the balance of our figure drawing, the viewer will be subconsciously irritated by your work without perhaps even recognising why. Luckily for us balance is a simple mechanical principle and is easily addressed. It is merely where the centre of gravity is in relation to the point (or points) of contact with the floor. In the beautiful academic study by Viligiardi above we can see one point of contact with the floor in the standing leg. If we take our centre of gravity and drop a plumb line straight down we can see that the feet sit directly below and this is what conveys a sense of balance to us. To the right of the main image I have edited the drawing to give an example of how a beginner might go wrong with the balance. As you can see, if we shift the centre of gravity too far to the left or the right our figure begins to topple. The most common cause of this error is in ignoring the large relationships of the extreme top and bottom of figures so paying due attention to these will help us to avoid this fundamental error when drawing or painting the figure.
Another extremely important component of gesture is what path the weight takes through the body, and where the main points of tension in the pose are as a direct result. This is an important element in conveying a relaxed and natural sense of repose in a figure drawing. In the image above we see a fantastic example of this idea in action. The figure is posed in the classic contrapposto position with most of the weight going through the standing leg, in this case the left leg. Much of what makes this pose feel so natural is the clear tension therefore collected in the left hip. The artist has communicated this clearly by shifting the hip asymmetrically to the left. Another important element being used here to communicate this weight through the left hip is the diagonal angle of the hip and the countering (hence the name contrapposto) angle of the shoulders in repose.
A common mistake often seen in student work is to straighten out the figure, bringing the hips more to the centre and making the hip and shoulder angle more parallel. In the edited version on the right of the above image we have edited out the gesture to make this idea more clear. If a drawing is made over a long period of time, the model can suffer from fatigue and this can affect the gesture of the pose in subtle ways. If we are not careful to select and hold onto a dynamic gesture the resultant straightening out of the figure in our drawing can have a deadening effect. Gesture is something that should be seized at every opportunity and students must be encouraged to be decisive about what they want out of the gesture and seek it out!
As with all ‘rules’ in art making, there are times when an exception should be make to the pursuit of perfect balance in our artwork. An interesting example of this is when an artist wishes to depict dynamic motion. In fact, one of the key components of a suggestion of motion in a still image is a strong sense of imbalance in a figure. One of the most iconic images which demonstrates this is George Bellows’ ‘Stag at Sharkey’s’. For the boxer on the left, Bellows has used this perfect imbalance to lend a powerfully dynamic sense of forward motion to the figure. And so we see that balance should always be a core consideration of picture-making, for any effect we are wishing to create.