Research point: Bad hair day? How sculptors treated the tricky subject of hair

Greek funerary statue of a woman. Archaeological Museum, Athens: Parva Herculanensis. c. 300 BC. Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto

Each time I do a head in sculpture I am a bit hesitant about the hair. Unless you look at some 60s reincarnation of the big hairdo with plenty of hairspray, chances are that hair is somewhat flimsy, moving thin strings. Not exactly a solid mass that translates easily into sculpture.

So what did sculptors do to make it work? Here are some examples from different cultures spanning more than  2000 years. I don’t think this is an easy subject as I found a whole lot of bad hair sculptures as well, but I tried to pick the ones I feel that have mastered the tricky subject beautifully. There is a large degree of abstraction in all of these attempts to render the hair.

The Greek statue of a woman above is an interesting mix of highly abstracted symmetrical looking grooves, while at the same time adding varied detail of curly defined strands of hair to each groove/hair sausage. Weird but interesting.

Chinese Tang dynasty woman, pottery, Shanghai Museum, should be around 800 AD, photo by Andrew Lih

The ceramic funerary figure of a Tang Dynasty woman above shows a sensational solidity of hair mass. It’s the 60s hairdo of its time. The chignon sits asymmetrically on the woman’s left, and is balanced by a bigger shape of hair on her right, that seems to be painted in a different colour, so maybe refers to a bow or a second chignon. Note that the sculptor really only focused on the distinctions of very clearly separated shapes and treated the rest as a rather washed over bubble shape: The hair above her forehead does not come as a big jump from the forehead, and neither is your hair if you look at it… it’s a smooth transition, a slight wobble but not more. But the chignon on the other hand is much more dramatically curved and distinct from the adjacent shape of the hair tied up. Gorgeous.

German figures of Saints on a reading podest (Lesepult), mid 12th century, willow wood with tempera on chalk ground, 120cm high, Stadtkirche Freudenstadt (city church)

Ok, I cannot quite conceal my love for Gothic shapes.  Above once again the 12th century German reading podest shown in an earlier post. The hair – highly stylised grooves and even some knobbly symmetric curl net pattern. Intriguing, albeit almost on the edge of too symmetric and hence quite stiff for me.

Nicolaus von Leyden (Nikolaus Gerhaert).Man Meditating (Buste d’homme accoudé), an apparent self-portrait, c. 1467. Strasbourg: Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame. Photo by Cancre

Nicolaus Gerhaert was an influential Northern European sculptors of his day. Of Dutch origin, he worked largely in the German speaking regions. He masterly rendered the human figure with very natural facial expressions (look at the eye-lids and the veins on the hand!) and elaborate and vivid folds in his subjects’ garments. The hair here is somewhat abstracted compared to the skin. It falls asymmetrically and Gerhaert tried to express the strand-yness of hair by adding fine lines to the surface. It looks quite modern to me.

Wilhelm Lehmbruck. Head of a Youth. 1913. Source: All-Art

Ah, and Lehmbruck. I just can’t get over him. In his Head of a Youth of 1913 he fleetingly captures the hair with what looks like some roughly applied masses of clay, left unfinished, i.e. not trying to detail anything in the hair that would distract from the furrowed brow of his man. Although it still looks dramatic in its piled up state, if you focus on it. Lehmbruck also doesn’t create a big jump between forehead and hair in his bust but rather a washed out transition with some tiny variation.

IV: Drawing figures – col sleeping

Task: Draw a model in a pose for an hour or so allowing the model to get breaks at least every 20 min. Choose the medium to your liking.

Quick sketch from life. Colin sleeping on sofa. (Sketchbook entry.)

A great holiday nap on an intricately patterned orange red sofa. I started sketching from life first but then Colin moved to an even better position turning his head towards me of which I took a picture just in case.

Colin sleeping on sofa. Pencil drawing.

Then I had to revert to the picture I took as by that stage he had moved. I first made a sketch with a black felt-tip marker, to which I added watercolour. You can see the felt-tip marker is water-soluble, bleeding out a bit. Yet I feel this is probably the best picture I ever made. It is still very free – slightly smudged in parts, but that doesn’t matter here. My drawings are usually rather tight and not focused on the essential bits. But here I managed. It is only there what had to be there.

Colin sleeping on sofa. Ink felt pen with watercolour wash

However then I tried to make another drawing based on this rather quick sketch. And I tried to make it bigger and neat destroying the whole thing. The fluidity is gone and so is the charm. There is certainly more detail (face, background) but that really doesn’t add to the picture.

Colin sleeping on sofa. Watercolour, ink. Roughly A3.


Were you able to maintain a focus on proportion at the same time as creating a sense of weight and three-dimensional form?

I think that was ok. I don’t measure the proportions much though I try to be aware of them, which sometimes creates a problem as the things may in the end not fit on the paper. This time I tried to measure a wee bit with my pencil. But when I did… like in the last big watercolour… it added to my stiffening up. Maybe I should try to go back to the fluidity of the smaller watercolour/felt-tip drawing. There was something there that I am seeking.

Which drawing gives the best sense of the pose and why?

The second pencil sketch and probably the last big watercolour. The latter because everything is spelled out. The former does that too but in a much more economic way. It leaves out much detail from shirt and background focussing on face and hands. The watercolour gives equal weight to every part of the picture and that is simply not attactive. Like a good essay or lecture drawing and painting should stress one or two points well, instead of 20 points poorly.

Was there any movement or gesture away from the model’s central axis? If so did you manage to identify this and put it into your drawing?

I am not sure I understand this question so I just skip it.

Picasso’s Blue Period portraits

Pablo Picasso: Portrait of Jaime Sabartes. 1901, oil on canvas, 46 x 38 cm

I recently read that during Picasso’s long life he made ON AVERAGE (!) 1.5 artworks a day, and there must have been days he didn’t do any – like when he was sick. I am still very impressed by this, as my output is pretty meager, even if I just look at the quantity and I won’t even speak of quality.

I have always loved the Blue and Rose Periods of Picasso, since I saw some of his pictures in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. I am sure the portrait below (The Bock) was there too in 2000, because I remember it was one of the reasons for me to keep coming back there during my semester in Moscow. I find it wonderfully melancholic.

Pablo Picasso: Portrait of Jaime Sabartes (The bock), 1901, 82 x 66 cm

The styles of the 5 pictures here (3 from 1901, one from 1903 and one from 1904) differ a lot.

We got one resembling the flat illustrative style of Toulouse-Lautrec, one flat one with strong outlines, Mateu is painted with lots of colour shading  and outlines – reminiscent of Cezanne – and 3 years later a subtly shaded portrait of Suzanne Bloch has lost all the sharp outlines.

Portrait of Mateu Fernandez de Soto, 1901, 45 x 37 cm

The Absinthe Drinker (Portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto), 1903

Picasso: Portrait of Suzanne Bloch, 1904

IV: Clothed figure: Form and movement

Clothed figure (hatching)

Clothed figure (ink + hatching, ink wash)

Seeing Rembrandt’s self portrait with the strong and vivid hatching on my wall I thought I should try hatching fabric/clothed bodies, since I am really not good at that and I should train more. So this was last night’s training session in front of the telly.

I made this picture from a picture made before 1910 found on Flickr Commons. I have this morbid obsession with old photographs – thinking that all these children and young people depicted in 1910 are long withered and dead now. Some of them look really fresh and alive. My head says “so what” but my heart seems unable to comprehend. I keep stumbling over the fact they are dead and look at us so freshly, preserved for eternity as if my vinyl has a crack. It may have. My favourite of all these old pictures is this one here:

Woman and boy (Portrait de femme assise serrant un enfant dans ses bras, en intérieur) between 1859-1910.

Woman and boy (Portrait de femme assise serrant un enfant dans ses bras, en intérieur) between 1859-1910. Source

It is so delightful and funny, I wonder if they thought they had wasted a precious glass negative for a not-posed picture or if they were equally delighted about this snapshot – and yet – can you actually imagine that they are dead? This little mischievous boy who only just fooled around with his mum there, with her touching his hand ternderly, now long gone?

IV: The clothed figure – my favourite folds


Adolph Menzel. Unmade Bed. ca. 1845. 22.1 x 35.5 cm. Black stone and stump on greenish-gray paper. Credit: Photo: Jörg P. Anders, courtesy Museum of Prints and Drawings, National Museums in Berlin. Source

Imogen Cunningham. The Unmade Bed. 1957. Source MET

Lucian Freud. Standing by the Rags. 1988-9. Oil on canvas. Tate. Source Tate

Good God, the first time I saw Freud’s picture above I just couldn’t turn away. It is mind blowingly beautiful.

IV: Self-portrait: Two self portraits

double self portrait

double self portrait (pencil, colour pencil)

Self portrait 2 (ink)

Self portrait 2 (ink)


Self portrait 3 (ink)

Self portrait 3 (ink)

I quite like the last multi-coloured drawing. It’s so exaggerated in its almost garish colours but I find it very lively. I wanted to use relatively pure ink colours and I only have a pinkish red, yellow and blue. Necessity always seem to breed something good.

IV: Self-portrait: Drawing your face

Task: Draw a minimum of five 5 min sketches of your face describing different angles of your face and head (sketchbook) – first without neck, then just sketch your neck.

Self, 5 min drawings

Self, 5 min drawings

The first sketch is from life, the others with a quick photo booth snapshot for this purpose (so I can sketch my profile for example). Interesting – the one from life is the most striking or individual.
It’s wisdom and fate winking at me and my photo usage I guess.

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