Posing:  A Leg to Stand On

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Contrapposto In Classic Art

There is the need to pose.  So there is the need to learn to pose, or at least to think about posing.  Unfortunately, while there is an abundance of organized material about technical topics, such as lighting, there really isn't that much about the less technical topic of posing.  To counter that, I decided that I would try to organize what I can find or deduce into some kind of technical reference for myself.  And this leads me to the most basic of all posing concepts.

Contrapposto.  The first concept for posing is so important in art and art history that it has a name.

Contrapposto is a posture or pose, originated by the ancient Greeks, in which the standing human figure is posed such that the weight rests on one leg (called the engaged leg), freeing the other leg, which is bent at the knee.  With the weight shift, the hips, shoulders, and head tilt, suggesting relaxation and the subtle movement that denotes life. 

In the two images of classical art here, notice the almost identical position of the feet and legs.  The first image is Bertel Thorvaldsen's Venus and the second is from Leonardo da Vinci's Leda and the Swan.  There is no doubt about which leg is the engaged leg.

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This may not be the perfect example.  Notice how the model has unweighted her right (our left) foot.

We are so used to contrapposto in images that we usually dismiss a non-contrapposto image as being amateur or even comic.  (There are exceptions, of course.)

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The simplest explanation for the effectiveness of a contrapposto pose is that the subject looks capable of normal, fluid human movement, and may even seem about to actually move. 

A more complex explanation for the effectiveness of the pose is that it throws the body into a slight "S", giving the image some aesthetic interest.  Note, the tilt of the shoulders and hips in the marked image, and note, too, how the there is no direct vertical line from top to bottom.

The S Curve is also a traditional art concept in Ancient Greek and Roman sculpture where the figure's body and posture is depicted like a sinuous or serpentine "S".  It is an extension of contrapposto

It's not necessary to always use the same posture, of course.  The key detail is that the weight rests on the one leg.  Often, if the knee is bent at all, it is only subtly bent.

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When I am thinking about guiding the subject into a contrapposto posture, I usually check to see if I can see at least one heel.  Notice how the subject is showing heel in every picture on this page.

An awareness of this basic artistic concept will change the quality of your images.  Even when your family is standing in front of that museum or cathedral, the shot will become more compelling if you introduce this small touch of artistic fluidity.

If you would like to download more richly illustrated .pdf on this topic, you can find it here:

Download Contrapposto Article

Posted September 14, 2010 at 4:55 pm.