Human Figures - An Introduction

Human-like figures are amongst the most difficult and challenging motifs to compose, at least to an acceptable degree, and so although ideally a true-to-life figure, wholly in proportion is ideal, some degree of compromise of veracity is usually tacitly accepted. This aspect as regards difficulty is in contrast to the ubiquitous birds and fish, with ambiguous outlines and proportions which at times hardly provide any challenge whatsoever, and so therefore human figures are thus of more interest, and worth, than otherwise. Furthermore, they are obviously more interesting in an anthropomorphic sense. As an indication as to how difficult it is to compose such motifs, even Escher himself only composed four clearly ‘unambiguous' figures (periodic drawings 3, 4, 5, and 21). Furthermore, these are to a certain extent examples of the above discussed ‘compromises', as the figures are in various ways out of proportion, but not to a gross intent that would render them as unacceptable. This thus retorts the question as to why human figures should be so difficult to portray accurately, as birds, fish, and human figures are possessed of essentially the ‘same’ curved lines, and thereby it may be thought that there is no intrinsic difference between them in this aspect. However, as can be seen by observation, there is a distinct dichotomy, with birds and fish predominating, with a decided lack of human figure motifs. The reason for this pertains to the (previously discussed) ambiguity factor. Now, in this particular aspect the outline of a human figure is to be found decidedly limited. For example, any slight deviation from the correct proportion of the body, with say the arms being noticeably longer in proportion to the body, thus results in a ridiculous outcome, of what is self-evidently anatomically incorrect. Such an analogy is also applicable to any other body part. In short, correct proportion is a necessity. In contrast, as birds and fish have an abundance of ambiguity, all whilst remaining in proportion, hence their more frequent occurrences. For examples, contrast the different lengths of birds’ wings that are possible. Therefore, due to the above practical difficulties, the drawing of human-like motifs (if of a decent enough quality) is cause for praise, as it is a strict test of ones tessellation capabilities to compose such figures. Indeed, it is noticeable just how few such quality human figure motifs are to be found. As such, I frequently see so-called human figure examples of ‘gross distortions’ and ‘strange protuberances’ that should be best kept unseen and not displayed in all their supposed glory. As such, the ‘quality question' arises, and on many occasions this aspect is neglected in the attempt for an obviously desirable choice of motif.
    On occasions, the term ‘human figure’ can be extended to include ‘fantasy people', with such examples being angels and devils; and as these only exist in the imagination, there is thus plenty of scope (ambiguity) in this aspect. A frequent device with these is to equip the figure with wings, of which any wing-like outline will be acceptable within reason, as this is a non-critical aspect per se. Therefore, such examples have further ‘ambiguity of outline' and so are thus relatively easy to undertake in the context of human figures, and so should be looked upon as an easier degree of difficulty.

Aspects of ideal human figure

Silhouette and Articulation

The prime concern should be the silhouette and articulation aspect. Simply stated, the silhouette should be instantly recognisable, and with as much articulation as possible, with defining elements such as the head, arms, body and legs unambiguously shown and in proportion. Such matters therefore 'elevate' the tessellation in terms of inherent quality. A lesser quality one would be where the detail is merely surface embellishment, such as the arms folded across the body. Such examples abound in other peoples work!

Human figures are best portrayed ‘full on' i.e. frontal, or in profile, from which such an outline would be obvious as a human figure. From this, its 'elements', of head, body, arms and legs would be immediately identifiable. Upon the basic premise, variations are possible, as ‘action’ poses are equally valid, as the human figure can adopt a myriad of such poses, with the body bent at the waist, arms and legs bent, activities such crawling, running and jumping, to name but a few possibilities, and yet still remain instantly identifiable. In contrast, a non-typical representation would be as seen from above, with only the top of the head and shoulders visible, and so is a ‘weaker’ figure. Another example would be from the ground level up, with an outline that would be not so obvious. (Both of the figures would be seen foreshortened.)

In contrast to other motifs, say, birds or fish, whereby they can naturally be coloured with a single core colour, human figures, with differing aspects such as hair, flesh, and clothing are inherently multicoloured. Consequently, of necessity, more colours for each individual motif must therefore be employed; of which this can thus have implications for colouring contiguous regions. More so than with other motifs, the motif requires a decided borderline.

Of considerable assistance in the composing of human figures will be found to be the hair, despite this not perhaps being what is a ‘fundamental aspect' of the human body, as with, say, arms or legs. Quite simply this aspect has considerable ‘ambiguity of outline', with different hairstyles, along with short or long, flowing hair, of which the latter can frequently be employed to advantage. This is due to the long hair, which in outline is obviously non-critical, as it is not of any great importance per se as to its waves or curls. An example of my own that illustrates this principle is shown with Human Figure No.1, where the hair is adjacent to the leg of a neighbouring figure. This being so, it is obviously of more importance that the leg is anatomically correct than the hair, and so the hair can thus be of the above ambiguity aspect.
    Furthermore, as the female generally has a longer, more flowing hairstyle (in contrast to the generally shorter hair of the male) and so this thus makes a female motif more likely than not.

As arms are of a spindly nature, such aspects are most trying in attempts at adapting for tessellation purposes. (Although different poses can be used, such as these being shown outstretched or bent at the elbow, in general terms these will be found to be somewhat contrived. Consequently, the difficulties in portraying arms are circumnavigated by the possibility offered up by clothing, in which the difficulties of this aspect can effectively be disguised, with the only the hand showing.

As regards legs, these have much in common with arms (along with the same problems), both being of an essentially spindly nature, albeit the leg is slightly more substantial in mass. However, it remains essentially spindly, and so difficult to incorporate in a representational tessellation. Again, as with arms, the legs can be shown bent, but will likewise generally appear to be contrived. Essentially, the same way of circumnavigating the problem as with the arms can be employed, this time ‘obscuring' the legs, either partially with a dress/skirt, or completely, with trousers.

An aspect of composing human figures that is noticeably different from all other life-like motifs is that the human figure is shown clothed, and not in its ‘natural’ state as with other motifs. The clothing of the figure obviously opens up considerable ‘ambiguity of outlines,' with various styles and fashions possible, of which such choice is obviously fertile ground for tessellation purposes. Furthermore, as males and females wear different types of clothes, some gender differences occur, all of which can be used when appropriate. By such additions, this thus adds to the ambiguity factor, of which such matters are a decided assistance in what is a most difficult motif to achieve. Generalising and simplifying, the male wears suits and the female dresses, of which there is an obvious difference in outline between the two garments. In short, the female apparel, with a shorter or longer hemline, along with different possible fashion possibilities, thereby has more variation or ambiguity of outline, whilst in contrast, the males’ clothing, with the angular lines of his suit and trousers, is therefore less variable, and so possesses fewer such possibilities of ambiguity. However, where specifically a ‘geometric’ tessellation is considered, the angular lines are indeed more suitable to the male figure, because of the wearing of the suit and trousers, which can thus be depicted as essentially straight lines. Therefore, although there are various nuances on this matter, the fact remains that as a general principle, a female motif is easier in theory to compose than a male.
When designing the motif, a very common occurrence to be found is that frequently the motifs will be seen to be wearing a hat, of various proportions and styles. As such, this is not due to a fixation in dressing the figure with this apparel, but is instead to do with obtaining a better resembling figure. Typically, but not necessarily, the head will terminate at a vertex, resulting in the figure being somewhat distorted, and so, consequently, the ‘addition' of a hat is thus used to alleviate what would otherwise be an inferior figure. Consequently, this arises to suit the tessellation, and the inclusion is not of any importance per se beyond this. Quite simply, this refers to the previously discussed ‘ambiguity of outline', as by their very nature this can vary, as a specific outline is in general not a necessity for a hat (unless called for) and thereby thus offering up more possibilities of composing a more realistic figure than otherwise. Of Escher's four human figure examples (albeit admittedly a small sample), two of these wore hats, 4 and 21, and two are without, 3 and 5.  3, 4, and 21 terminate at a vertex, with 4 and 21 possessing such hats, of which, although a very small sample to survey, gives some indication of their desirability of inclusion. 3 has the hairstyle ‘adapted' at the vertex. Indeed, such ‘hat wearing' is a device I (and others) frequently use to overcome awkwardness.

Last Updated: 26 May 2010