Rob Zeller, The Figurative Artist’s Handbook

If you are an artist who works with the human figure, there’s a good chance that your bookshelf includes a dog-eared copy of Andrew Loomis’s classic Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth. Originally written in the 1930s as a reference for illustrators, Loomis’s book has been an essential and deeply practical resource for decades, full of proportions, skeletons, poses, and diagrams. It’s the rare art student who hasn’t, at some point, copied one of its clear, earnest, perfectly proportioned figures.

Kurt Kauper, “Bobby #3” (2007), oil on birch panel, 91 x 49 inches (all images courtesy of Monacelli Press)

Rob Zeller, a Brooklyn-based artist and teacher who founded and runs The Teaching Studios of Art in Oyster Bay, came to the conclusion a few years ago that a similar but more comprehensive and contemporary replacement was needed. As a result, he has assembled and written The Figurative Artist’s Handbook, which has something of the Loomis approach at its core, augmented by a far greater sense of context and contemporaneity.

Zeller’s ambitious new book consists of three distinctive sections. The first, “The Great Movements in Figurative Art,” is an art-historical breviary that highlights key developments in the use of the figure in Western art from Ancient Egypt to the present. It is, in Zeller’s words, “a cursory, yet precise overview.” A student who peruses this section will come away with some vital context and an understanding that the figure is a vehicle for themes, not just a set of forms to be mastered.

The second section, which consists of seven chapters, is the book’s heart: lessons, examples, proportions, and practical advice. For example, “Standing Figure, Back View” is a full chapter that walks readers through Zeller’s step-by-step rendering of a male figure, followed by examples of male and female figures by other contemporary artists. There are essential steps suitable for students — “Blocking in with Anatomy”; “Light and Shadow” — and also aesthetic concerns such as “Observed versus Conceptual Structure.”

Brad Kunkle, “The Proposition” (2009), oil with gold and silver leaf on linen, 50 x 31 inches

The third section, “The Creative Process,” contains both sketches and finished paintings by a stellar cross-section of current artists. Zeller has an eye for the very best in contemporary “Figurative Realism” (his preferred term for figurative art that displays an understanding of anatomy and form). For that reason, his book’s final chapter is especially inspiring, filled with varied, skillful, and thematically challenging works. Looking over the contemporary images, the book’s earlier content comes alive as compellingly relevant and urgent.

The Figurative Artist’s Handbook, which Zeller hopes will be a kind of “bible” for the next generation of artists, is a very beautiful book to look through, so it may be challenging for those who use it as a handbook to let it get dirty and dog-eared, just like the previous generation did with their Loomis books. But used as intended — both for reference and for inspiration — it will achieve its purpose. As its gorgeous plates tell us, there is a rising group of figurative artists who know the importance of learning “the rules” before they break them, which is precisely the opportunity this book intends to offer its most ambitious readers.

Ann Gale, “Peter with Striped Kimono” (2014), oil on canvas, 50 x 44 inches

Michelle Doll, “Couple, JTCR3” (2015), oil on canvas, 14 x 18 inches

The Figurative Artist’s Handbook is now available from Monacelli Press.

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John Seed

John Seed is a professor of art and art history at Mt. San Jacinto College in Southern California. Seed has written about art and artists for Arts of Asia, Art Ltd., Catamaran, Harvard Magazine, International...