Figure Painting ~ Add Scale & Life

Cortona, Italy

The human element speaks volumes in a painting. With all the games of warm and cool colors, symbolism of buildings, stairs, windows and doorways ~ figures add life to a painting.

Figure Painting

This painting began and ended as a figure painting. Though I would not consider myself a figure painter, the five figures in the foreground are what attracted me to paint this view of the square in Cortona.

The inspiration also followed previous street scenes from Assisi, Volterra and Cortona. The play of warm and cool neutral tones is certainly part of the game here. However, inspiration is the figure painting. The rest is about creating a stage for five people and their shadows.

figure painting
Cortona Square, oil, 16 x 20

Capturing their movement with light and shadow in a gestural way, gives the viewer a feeling of being there. The sensation that these people are moving and talking is palpable. These are not idealized figures. They are like us, changeable moment to moment.

We feel as though we are there on the rooftop, peering into a moment in the square.

How I did this without having them look over-worked is a simple process. When I started the block-in for the painting, I laid in thin, loose shadow shapes for the figures on the central stage of the canvas. Then I painted the buildings around them. When I felt satisfied with most of the structures, I went back to the figures and painted them in.

These are not really people! They are shadow shapes and highlight shapes. Shadow shapes are cool. Highlight shapes are warm. Does this sound like the way the buildings were painted? Yes.

The trick with making the people feel authentic is making one stroke at the shadow and being satisfied with it. And one stroke for the highlight. Corrections are not allowed. “Just do it and accept what you get,” is rule of thumb here. None of the people on the square would think of correcting their arm’s movement in conversation, erasing a moment and doing it over!

The suggestion that there are two others beyond them in the shadow is a mystery that adds another layer of reality to this painting. And what of the two intense red shapes on the right side?

With the presence of their suggestion, the third point in a triangle is created. This triangle establishes a horizontal perspective. This depth of field gives scale to the buildings towering above. Somehow the old structures appear more ancient with the movement and life of people.

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Author: Dorothy Fagan

Experimenter, gardener, grandmother ... Dorothy Fagan plays with creativity, dreams, and paint every day.