Monday, December 30, 2013

Upright Citizens: the importance of necks, shoulders & spines in portraiture


[This post has been edited for brevity]

Look at these weird babies! What do they have in common?

Bramantino, Madonna and Child
Bramantino, Madonna and Child, c. 1508 or before. [Image description: Realistic but stylized high Renaissance Italian painting of Madonna holding an apple out of Christ's reach, who is standing and being supported with her other hand. Her torso only is visible, cut off by a window-like frame, and behind her a mostly tan and greige background recedes with painstakingly perfect perspective lines to a village or castle skyline behind her painted in muted atmospheric tones. Madonna wears a dark green velvet and satin cloak and red tunic. Christ is naked but for Mary's hand placed just so. Next to them stands a tall spindly red-orange potted flower (a chrysanthemum, maybe?). The streamlined, simplified forms and soft shadows of Mary's eye sockets and nose, and the spherical shading of her jaw, create an Art Deco-like effect, but Christ's face isn't painted that way.]
This Baby Jesus's face is pretty realistic for a baby, but his head is simply out of proportion to his shoulders and body. Babies and toddlers, as we all know, have big old bobble-heads that dwarf their shoulders and bodies.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Madonna and Child
Duccio di Buoninsegna (Italian, Sienese, 1255-1319). Madonna and Child [Image description: late medieval / early renaissance icon-style painting of Mary holding Christ, who reaches up to touch her veil. She is centered on a plain gold background and wears a black veil with 2-D looking gold line art wrinkles, but her skin and Christ's skin are softly contoured with semi-realistic taupe shadows. ]
This Baby Jesus reminds me of those inaccurate but oddly literal medieval interpretations of exotic animals which Europeans had never actually seen. Only this painter had apparently never seen a baby, but only heard them described as, "like an adult but bald, very small, and fat." Thus the head has inappropriately adult proportions to the neck and shoulders. Yes yes, I know painters in those days could have been representing Christ as adult-like to express his mature wisdom, but my focus in this post is on physically realistic portrayals. Renaissance paintings, after all, are not my specialty.* So pay attention to why, specifically, these children look so wrong.

*nota bene: I have no specialty.


Ambrogio Bergognone, Madonna and Child (not sure if this is actually Bergognone; allpaintings.com is the only site that attributes it this way). [Image Description: close-up of Madonna holding Jesus in front of a detailed da Vinci-like landscape. Brown earth, blue sky, peaches & cream skin and flushed pink cheeks.]

The Bergognone Baby Jesus's face is pretty proportional for a baby, but the neck is way too wide and the ears are tiny. The shoulder, though, is in proportion.

Giotto, Madonna and Child
Giotto, Madonna and Child, c. 1320-1330. [Image description: Mary holding Baby Jesus, both against a flat gold background in a Gothic arch surrounded by black. Both figures have stylized halos made of linear designs on the gold. The skin and clothes are stylized but shaded and contoured somewhat 3-dimensionally and realistically. Mary holds a plant (olive leaf?) that Jesus reaches for.]

Giotto's Baby Jesus also has a disproportionately small head in relation to the shoulders, and again, the tiny ears. The upper arms are not in proportion, either.

As realistic as (some of) these babies' faces were, the inaccurate neck and shoulders ruined the illusion. Now, here are some more realistic proportions where the head attaches to the neck and shoulders:

Luini, Madonna and Child
Bernardino Luini, Madonna and Child with Saint Catherine and Saint Barbara. c. 1522-1525. [Image description: three women stand in the background, their bowed heads forming a horizontal line dividing the top quadrant from the bottom three. Madonna, in the middle, holds Christ with one hand and does a blessing with the other. Christ stands on a stool and reaches toward an open book, presumably a holy text, sitting on a table with a red tablecloth with black stripes. The woman on the right holds a feather quill, on the left a quill and book. The style is late Renaissance and very realistic, fully contoured and chromatic with dramatic lighting (chiaroscuro) against a dark black background and deep shadows.]



Raphael, the Tempi Madonna, could not find date (early 1500s). [Image description; soft but realistic high renaissance style painting of Madonna standing and holding Baby Jesus with his back to the viewer, pressing her face to his cheek so his face is turned and visible. The sky is seafoam green, and a landscape horizon is barely showing around Mary's figure at the bottom third.]
The way this Baby Jesus's head connects with his neck and shoulders is not only proportional, it also tells a story about his gentle nature through the gesture of softly yielding to his mother's snuggle.

Now that you're thinking of the human head, neck and shoulders, I'll just go ahead and say they are as important in a realistic portrait as the face. Unlike babies, the rest of us have our lives written on our bodies, and the neck and shoulders in a typical bust portrait are the key to expressing this. The physical condition of the body-- muscular or soft, stocky or lanky-- is hinted at through the neck and shoulders. More telling are the person's habitual gestures of the body: tight or relaxed, meek or aggressive, withdrawn or wide open.

If you're still doubting that body shape and gesture are key to identifying a person, then you probably aren't near-sighted. Without my glasses I, on the other hand, can see only lumpy blurs of people at five feet away and farther. But I can still identify someone all the way across a gymnasium by the way they move and the general shape of the lumpy blur. Buster from Arrested Development had to have been lying about not recognizing Lucille 2 without his glasses; even as a "brown shape with points," only one person moves like Liza Minnelli, and that's Liza Minnelli.

And I'm not saying you have to finish the neck and shoulders to the same degree that the face is finished. Maybe you only allude to it with a sketchy line, maybe you can only see the curve of shoulders under a puffy coat and scarf, but what you're alluding to has to be correct. And everyone is different.

Consider, for instance, Nina Simone. Notice how her head leans forward with an intense yearning concentration on an imaginary horizon, every so often thrown back and to the side impatiently. Her chin recedes into her neck, creating the general appearance of a serious frown and accentuating the forward thrust of her face. The sides of her long neck descend in sinewy muscles into strong rounded shoulders, all in tune with her persona as a performer.


[Video Description: Black & white 1969 video of Nina Simone performing live, "To Love Somebody," at a piano. She wears a tall head wrap, dangling earrings and a halter top. She plays a lingering quietly soulful version of the song, then when she's done she leaps up from the piano bench, runs to the front of the stage, and raises her arms to the audience.]

Now, here are Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton performing together. Dolly throws her body up and back from the hips, opening her sternum to the audience, keeping an erect neck and spine while bending and swaying at the knees. It gives her a brittle but ebullient appearance. Her neck and shoulders pull back. I suppose her posture could be the result of decades of filling large venues with her presence; or maybe it's from countering the weight of her considerable tatas. Or it could be her sheer steely perkiness. Miley, on the other hand, hunches forward from her lower shoulders through her neck, holds her face downward, and staggers forward on bent knees, creating the impression of being both closed within her own intense emotions, and reaching forward toward her audience. She sways and holds her joints bent so she always has the appearance of motion, or even a controlled artistic convulsion. She also holds her chin and jaw thrust forward and out, creating a confident and jaunty posture. Miley Cyrus learned to preform in an age of megascreens capturing her in close-up, so she can use this inward, reclusive posture to her advantage to express intensity and vulnerability. And performers her age have been informed by decades of the aggressive forward-hunch stance of shouting punks, metalheads and hip-hop performers. Her hunching posture assumes a boyish, athletic appearance due to her thin square shoulders and a long neck.


[Video description: long-hair family-friendly Miley performs "Jolene" live on an outdoor stage with a fringed, bedazzled Dolly Parton. Both hold personal microphones and sing to each other, taking turns so they play each other's rival, Jolene.]

Now take Don Knotts as Barney Fife. He looks like a turtle, and that's because he rounds forward in his lower-mid back (where a bra would fasten), and his shoulders are narrow and sloped, all creating the illusion of a rounded "shell." His thin neck attaches to the front of this structure rather than sitting tall atop his spine, and his receding chin and high, sloping forehead create a smooth curve from his collar bone to his crown, just as a turtle's head would be lifted forward. The posture allows his characters to appear bedraggled even though he was a very high-energy performer. Without the characteristic way his large ears lead to his tapered neck and thin, hunched shoulders, he wouldn't be Don Knotts.


[Video Description: Barney attempts to recite the Preamble to the Constitution as Andy has to feed him the lines word-by-word.]

Now contrast him with Mick Jagger. The man operates like an open Jack-in-the-box, as if his torso is a spring attached to his hips, full of coiled tension and always ready to snap back the other direction. Though like Barney his shoulders are thin-ish and narrow, he emphasizes his spring-loaded posture with the actual tension of skin-tight clothes, and his small shoulders generally appear square because of this same posture. He also differs from Don Knotts in that his head is extremely large for his shoulders and his big hair exaggerates it. To support his big old noggin, he has a thicker more muscular neck. He isolates his jaw forward and tilted up, as if the bottom of his mouth is filled with liquid he doesn't want to spill. The habitual upward tilt of his chin gives him an insouciant appearance and emphasizes the width and tension of his neck, reminding one of the tense throat of his screaming onstage persona.

Mick Jagger 1972, photo by Bob Gruen
Mick Jagger, 1972, photo by Bob Gruen, via MorrisonHotel, via AnthonyLuke. [Image description: Black & white action shot of Jagger performing live against a black background. His upper torso is shown in profile, leaning forward, arms reaching out to grasp the microphone, his head thrown back and turned toward the camera with his mouth open in mid-song and his eyes cast downward.]

Mick Jagger. Can't find the photographer, via artsmeme.com [Image description: black & white shot of Mick Jagger sitting in a casual suit shown from crotch upward, with one knee up and to the side, one wrist leaning on the knee, the other hand near his hip with his elbow out. A backward C-shaped curve is formed by the fly of his pants, the buttons of his shirt, his open jacket and lapels, his spine and neck, and extending through his head held at an angle. His mouth is open and brow kind of scrunched like he's thinking hard and in mid-speech.]

Ingenious blogger Scott Fertig noticed the similarities between the facial features of Don Knotts and Mick Jagger-- fish lips, pronounced folds at the barrel of the mouth, flat brows over lidded eyes-- and put Don Knotts' face on Mick Jagger's body. It's a perfect example of just how much difference the neck and shoulders make: nearly the same face but with a different neck, shoulders and posture, and he looks like a completely different person.

"Mick Knotts," via ScottFertig. [Image: Black & white photo of Mick Jagger posing with undershirt and low-slung jeans against a brick wall, one hand resting on the opposite shoulder with his arm across his chest. But his face has been replaced with Don Knotts's smirking face under Mick's feathered rock-star hairdo.]

Lest you believe these structures are only noticeable in easily caricatured weirdos like Don Knotts and Mick Jagger, I'll compare two conventionally beautiful Hollywood actresses who both play "every-woman" types in teen movie franchises: Kristen Stewart and Jennifer Lawrence.

Jennifer Lawrence's neck is nearly the same width as her face, and though long, is unusually thick for a Hollywood woman. It also sits squarely atop her shoulders and stretches straight up and down, the kind of posture our moms are always prescribing. Her head is centered atop her neck and her face is usually lifted and facing straight forward, giving her the appearance of a noble cadet. Her thick upright neck and posture are likely what makes her appearance credible as an athletic yet nobly idealistic participant in the Hunger Games. It also likely plays a part in her forthright public persona (people like to say, "she's so real!") The posture of personal integrity, for instance, makes it seem righteous when she flips the bird at a formal event, rather than sleazy.

Jennifer Lawrence gives middle finger at Academy Awards
Jennifer Lawrence flips someone off at the Academy Awards.

Film still of Katniss from The Hunger Games
Film still from The Hunger Games.

Jennifer Lawrence at ComiCon
Jennifer Lawrence's typical posture.
Now, Kristen Stewart. Her neck is shorter but thinner. Her shoulders are also square but slightly narrower, hinting at the overall sporty-but-delicate look of her frame. Most importantly, though, is the way she holds her head forward and tilted. When caught candidly, the line between her shoulders are typically at an opposing angle to her head. She also holds her head forward but tipped back at an angle, as if weighed down by her curtain of hair. Her hair actually plays a part in a habitual Kristen Stewart gesture since she keeps it long and famously flips it all over to one side. Her jaw is sharply delineated from her neck and ends in a pointed chin that appears to jut forward with contrariness because of the forward thrust of her neck. The limp outstretched neck, jutting chin and jaw, and opposing angles give her a lazily rebellious look that, combined with her naturally down-turned mouth, I find appealing (but apparently rubs a lot of people the wrong way). Kristen Stewart, for instance, would come across as sleazy or disrespectful if she flipped the bird on the red carpet.

Kristen Stewart

Kristen Stewart leans forward in conversation
Kristen Stewart [Image Description: Stewart leans forward with her elbows on a table (out of frame), her mouth open mid-speech]

Here she is posing on the red carpet with a very typical posture for her. Notice how her jaw is jutting to the side but her head is upright, as if she is being pulled offstage in one of those old Vaudeville shows with a shepherd's crook around her neck. It is markedly different from any of Jennifer Lawrence's typical red carpet poses. An astute portrait artist would also note that her ears are unusually high up on her head; the size and position of ears help identify a person, too!

Kristen Stewart on the red carpet
Kristen Stewart at some red carpet thing

I find that even when you cannot really see the clear shape of the ears, neck and shoulders, the visual hints are still there:

-What kind of shadows do the chin and jaw cast on the neck? The deep shadow of a jutting shelf-like chin and jaw? or the soft shading and under-lighting of a chin that melts into the throat?

-What kind of shadow is formed at the base of the neck, where it attaches to the collarbone?

-How does the hair fall around the neck and shoulders? If it falls straight down from the head, the place where it lands on the neck and shoulders can help indicate that the head is in front of or straight above the collarbone.

-Do the ears, if covered, affect the structure of the hair in a way that hints at their position? Can you see the earlobes or earrings? How does the jaw attach to the ear? Is there a shadow?

-Where do the shoulders intersect with the neck and jaw (and how far down from the earlobes)? If they're slouching they should intersect close to the ears and jaw and the neck should appear in front of the shoulders. If they are back and down, they'll intersect with the base of the neck.

-Where is the collarbone? Imagine the base of the neck is a flat circular plane from the knob at the spine between neck and shoulders to the collarbone (the clean disc left by a guillotine, maybe?). When slouching, the spine-knob is thrust upward and the sternum down, pitching the imaginary disc forward and vertical. Thus the collarbone will be low and form a down-arrow shape. When sitting upright and level with the viewer, however, the disc is horizontally level and the collar bone is lined up right in front of the neck-knob and only slightly below the intersection of neck and shoulders.

-Do the shadows at the sides of the neck describe its width and breadth? Often hair will dangle around the neck, obscuring the sides. But the shadows it casts can be deep on a thin neck or shallow on a broad neck. Stiff collars can obscure the neck as well, but the way they fit around the neck, snugly or loosely, can be described by the shadows they cast. The degree of forward pitch of the collar can also be very descriptive of posture.

Finally, if you pay attention to the neck and shoulders before you start, you can manipulate the pose and angle so that any personally identifying characteristics of their posture can be highlighted. Take, for instance, the flower-stalk-like neck in the Bust of Nefertiti. Why draw her from this angle, with her hair hanging down in a wig (just imagine it)...

Bust of Nefertiti - front view
Bust of Nefertiti [Image description: a color photograph of the famous ancient Egyptian painted sculpture of Queen Nefertiti viewed from the front, with what appears to be a thin but average length neck and upside-down-trapezoidal hat]

...when you could choose this other angle, with her long neck exposed and a big hat creating a visual X marking the spot of her regal eyes?

Bust of Nefertiti - right side view
Profile view of the Bust of Nefertiti. [Image description: photograph of the same sculpture, taken from the side in profile. Reveals an extremely long neck pitched forward to an upraised jaw and chin. Viewed from the side, the hat extends up and back at an opposing angle to the neck, creating an imaginary intersection right at her eyes and a sense of elegant balance. The trapezoidal tulip shape of the hat contrasting with the long thin neck also creates the illusion of a flower on a stalk.]
And, for a different take, here's 1980s Arnold Swartzenegger. He had a famously thick neck and body-builder muscles; the protruding barrel of his mouth resolutely marked the spot where the wad of muscles stopped being neck and started being face. So why pose him like this...


Arnold Swartzenegger, c. 80's [Image Description: color photo of Arnold's face, shoulders and upper torso at a three-quarter angle facing the viewer. His shoulders are rounded forward and his face lifted and at a bowed angle, obscuring much of his neck.]

...when you could choose this angle and pose?

Film still from or promotional image for The Terminator. [Image Description: color photo of Arnold's face, shoulders and chest in character as the Terminator. He wears sunglasses an holds a gun straight up in front and to the side, echoing the width and position of his neck. He wears a wide-lapel leather coat with a popped collar that sits flush against the back of his neck and skull, creating a visual X at the lumpy barrel of his mouth. The sides of the coat's neck opening extend down over his chest, continuing and emphasizing the line of his neck. Lazers in the background radiate outward from a point visually marking his collar bone.]







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