Life Studies: Painting the Nude

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Nude Paintings: Approaches

Life studies or nude paintings? The two are not the same. Nude paintings express the pleasure in seeing the human form unclothed. The depictions may be sensual, or even erotic, but are commonly simply paintings to be appreciated on the same grounds as any other.

Life studies, however, attempt through painting the human form to:

1. Provide a wide range of painting exercises, from suggestions of form in a few bold strokes to the accurate depiction of palpable, breathing flesh.

2. Reduce the body's complex architecture to a succinct rendering of tones, and

3. Train the eye to distinguish the many aspects of color that make up a pleasing depiction of the unclothed body.

4. Recognize how human beings naturally hold themselves: depicting an understanding of the underlying skeleton and muscles is often essential if a figure is to be convincingly represented.

5. Allow the painter to explore and take up a position in a three thousand year old tradition.

Classical Tradition

The antique statues that had come down to Renaissance artists, or were then being dug out of the ground, displayed balanced proportions, beauty, rhythmic vitality and an abounding sense of the joy of life. Gone were the pitiful creatures that the medieval church stigmatized or allowed only as minatory portraits of sinful man. But what were these proportions, and how could this natural exuberance be created? The Florentines made anatomical studies, and the artists of the high Renaissance attempted to combine these studies with more lofty concerns. So was born, or continued, one great tradition, that of beauty in the human body. Later would come the elongations of Mannerism, the decorative fantasies of the Rococo and the cold restraints of Neoclassicism, but the central aim held. The human body — male more often in classical and early Renaissance work, and female thereafter — was a joy to see, containing within it the most pleasing natural proportions, and standing for the inherent dignity and perfectibility of man.


Like all terms, Romanticism is useful at a certain level, but frays into exceptions and complications when we apply it to individual artists. Nevertheless, Romantic artists were fleeing what seemed to them the bloodless generalizations of the Enlightenment, and insisting that art began in individual responses to a world that was anything but tame or ordered. They took an interest in the exotic and faraway, in threatening landscapes, and in the troubled depths of the human psyche. Romantic artists depicted the strangeness of the world, its mystery and imaginative dimensions. In painting the nude (as in the Chassériau detail opposite) they were drawn to fabled settings, either in history or harem scenes of the middle east. Today the taste is for other things, but the Romantic conception is still alive in works of the imagination that depict the make belief of children, the totemic world of native peoples, and the reveries of the psychologically disturbed — in short, that depict a world not as it is but as it perhaps should be.


As any life-class will soon demonstrate, the average human body does not have a particularly pleasing shape, but it can make a superb nude painting or life study.

The body in the Realistic tradition serves to make a statement about the human condition. It may be humility and quiet acceptance (as in the Rembrandt detail above) or shame and indignation (the Soutine detail opposite) or perhaps just preoccupation with mundane concerns (the Bonnard detail below). But the test is authenticity — not a photographically exact replica of the world, but a considered expression on how the world really is in our everyday lives. Realism therefore has a much wider remit than either Romanticism or Classicism, and though its products do not have their immediate appeal, they weather better, and deepen in interest through succeeding changes of fashion and expectation.

Realism also allows the artist to be more adventurous. The artist does not copy what he sees but creates a pictorial reality in which he can visually portray truths and significance that are not given by photography or to our plain eyes. A painting replacing skin colors by flaming vermilion or green passes over into Modernism, of course, and is judged by other standards, but the intention remains. Realism gives up some accomplishments — beauty or an imaginative dimension of the world — in return for greater truths.

Modernism and Contemporary Views

Modernism broke with the Academy schools by preferring experimentation, novelty, individualism and intellectualism to representational and narrative elements. Painter skill was downplayed, and paint handling simplified to the point of crudity, thereby achieving strength and intensity rather than precision or elegance. The Fauves painted in a broadly Impressionist manner but did not mimic the colors of nature. Matisse later deployed color for purely emotive ends. Cezanne flattened the third dimension by trying to model by color graduation alone, and this (not wholly successful) innovation was turned by cubists into assemblages of broken theater flats. To this further release from traditional painting restraints were added influences from Negro, child and lunatic art.

The nude survived, though it became something of a decorative device (Matisse), or an expression of iconoclastic power (Picasso) or frenzied expressionism (deKooning). Recently, in the work of Michael Leonard and Johannes Grützke, there has been a return to figurative painting with the sober exactness of anatomical illustration. Today, almost anything goes, and the painter of the human body has a freedom inconceivable to earlier generations.

Life Studies

Life studies have reappeared in art colleges, but the average oil painter will not have access to these models, or will have to sign up for special classes, which can be expensive. Some suggestions. Persuade your local art club to stage a life study class once a month. Or form a inner group of painters willing to pay the three hours of a model's time once a week. Otherwise you can hire a model yourself, or join with a few local artists to do so — which will split costs and stop tongues wagging. Alternatively, you can get your wife or girlfriend to pose, but that can be a test for all concerned: modeling is very hard work.

Whatever the arrangement, it's common to limber up by spending the first half hour in rapid sketches that seize the essentials of the pose. Each sketch takes only a few minutes to complete, and is afterwards followed by extended sessions working from one or two poses.

Recommended steps:

1. Pose the model where the form is brought out clearly by the lighting.

2. Sketch the outline in a very dilute mixture of umber or sienna in turps.

3. Paint in a dark background, again in dilute umber or sienna wash, perhaps with a touch of blue added.

4. Fill in the interior of the figure with a thin wash of ochre.

5. Paint the shadow areas with a mixture of burnt umber and a dash of red. The medium should still be mostly turps, but can now contain a little linseed oil.

6. Paint in the highlights with a thin mixture (as 5) of ochre and white.

7. Blend highlights and shadows a little.

8. Repaint the darkest shadows with burnt umber and red.

9. Touch up the highlights with ochre, white and red.

10. Model the figure by blending the tones.

11. Leave to dry thoroughly.

12. Repaint in more detail and with paint containing more linseed oil, and/or

13. Modify the underlying colors with glazes.


Life studies may be made with a small number of pigments — the smaller the better, as there is quite enough to control anyway. Umbers, siennas, red and white are all that are needed for basic modeling.

To bring out the full qualities of flesh tones in nude paintings, however, it is usual to employ a richer palette, the choice of which depends not only on the complexion of the model, but the sort of picture being attempted — i.e. setting, genre, lighting, etc. Below is a short list of mixtures. A fuller one can be found on the portrait painting page, but even these mixtures will not serve for all the thumbnail illustrations opposite. You will need to experiment, bearing in mind the color harmonies of the painting as a whole. Abbreviations are as follows:

Titanium White = W Cad. Light Yellow = y Cad. Yellow = Y Cad. Light Red = r Cad. Deep Red = R Cobalt Blue = b Ultramarine = B Viridian = V Raw Sienna = s Burnt Sienna = S Raw Umber = u Burnt Umber = U Light Red = L Yellow Ochre = O Phalo Blue = P Permanent Rose = M Naples Yellow = N Venetian Red = E

General complexions: W + s + L + b b.

Softer general complexions: W + s + V + b c.

Children's complexions: W + N + L + V d.

Medium dark (yellow) complexions: W + O + S + B e.

Medium to dark complexions: W + s + M + b c.

Red hair: W + O + S + M + b d.

Dark brown hair: W + O + U + B e.

Black hair: B + M + U

Gray hair: W + u + b


You'll find these useful:

1. The Diverse Art of Val Moker. A short essay on the human form, illustrated by the author's paintings.

2. Oil painting for Beginners by Francisco Asensio Cerver. Konemann. 1999. A very simple introduction that provides exactly what the title says.

3. The Body: Images of the Nude by Edward Lucie-Smith. Thames and Hudson. 1981. Essentially a coffee-table book of illustrations and connecting essay by the author. No new ground is broken, but the handsome plates cover the western canon effectively, from Egyptian to contemporary American figurative painting.


18a. Bathsheba by Rembrandt van Rijn. 1654. Musée du Louvre. Paris
18b. Venus and Cupid by Giovanni Antonio Pelligrini. c.1710. Private Collection
18c. The Toilet of Esther by Théodore Chassériau. 1841. Musée du Louvre. Paris
18d. Female Nude by Chaim Soutine. c.1933. Private Collection. New York
18e. Nude in Yellow by Pierre Bonnard. c. 1940. Private Collection.
18f. La Hollandaise by Walter Richard Sickert. c.1906. The Tate Gallery. London

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