As the Greek philosopher Plato once observed, “The beginning is the most important part of the work.” For any creative, however, the beginning can be the most difficult stage of a new project, idea, or design, representing that first barrier that must be overcome before the creative process can unfold.
For some artists, a new work starts with the first brushstroke on canvas, but for others, it begins with a figure study, in preparation for the final piece to come. Figure studies can serve as a more informal means for artists to sketch out, plan, and imagine a new work of art, using media that provide greater flexibility, such as pencil, charcoal, and watercolors on paper. For artists working in large formats such as murals, for example, paper-based figure studies offer a manageable scope for the planning and conception of the larger work.
Historically, figure studies were a more affordable way to practice, as pigment, oil paints, and canvas were made from substances that were not always easily accessible. As such, practicing a work with simpler tools and materials allowed artists to pinpoint potential pitfalls and difficulties and thus conserve their limited supplies. Two-dimensional figure studies, known as esquisses, were used by some artists to plan for three-dimensional works, while many sculptors would also create 3-D models, or maquettes, a practice still common today.
However, some artists use figure studies not in preparation for a future work but to further develop their technical skills or gain a greater sense of confidence with a particular subject matter. For example, some may focus on specific parts of the human figure, identifying and rendering those small but specific aspects of the body or form over and over to achieve greater detailer or a desired effect.
Regardless of intention, figure studies provide a fascinating glimpse into any artist’s process. Many of these studies are exceptional in their own right and have been acquired into the Museum’s collection for historical preservation, serving as a record of those first bursts of creativity, the very beginnings of a work before it transforms from the stuff of imagination into the art of our reality.
Explore these examples of figure studies from the Museum’s collection.