Having a grasp of general principles of balance allows an artist to draw figures better; to create a sense of stability, dynamic stability or a sense of someone about to fall over. Those are created by how the body’s position relates to the frame of balance. Poses can be classified in their relation to balance as: passive stable, active stable (holding an arabesque), dynamic unstable (mid-motion), passive and dynamic (you’ve fainted and your body is falling through Alice’s rabbit hole).
Considering different poses got me thinking about balance from a predominantly mechanical point of view rather than an artistic one and that’s the thinking that I’m detailing in this post.
The first principle to consider about active, stable poses is that our two feet (or whatever other body part touching the ground) create a stable structure, much like a table’s legs, on which the rest of the body can move and shift.
The metaphor of the table still holds true on one foot, because each of our feet is like a small tripod with three points of contact.
This is important because a table can balance weight in different distributions, like so:
And a human being balances different weight distributions on top of our legs in the same way:
The center of gravity of the stick figure on the right is further shifted to the right, but the two legs are able to carry the same weight just the same.
Legs can carry unequally distributed weight up to a certain point. Put the ball too far on the edge of the table and the table will fall sideways. Place your center of gravity too far extended in relation to your legs and you’ll fall.
But within a certain range, a variety of poses are possible with the same leg position.
It also works while standing on one foot because each foot is like a small tripod. A small tripod can balance a small area of weight distribution over it (or a small surface on which objects can be safely placed without toppling the table over to use that metaphor).
The bigger the surface area in contact with the ground the more stability is created and more room is created for “imbalance” on the table’s surface. A more elaborate base can be created by kneeling, standing on the hands, laying, sitting etc’. The more surface is in contact with the ground the more stable the base of the table is and the more room there is for shifting weight on the surface.
That means that there is no single “solution”, no single way in which the body must be positioned in order to be stable, given a certain placement of your two feet. You can balance a variety of positions with the same feet placement, similar to how you can place a heavy ball on the surface of a table in different distances from the center and it still remains steady.
To illustrate; imagine this dancer, who is leaning back, slowly straightening out her torso and then leaning it forward with her arms reaching forward. She will still stay stable, with her legs in the same position as she does this, until the point when her base will no longer be able to support the strain of the imbalanced weight. (Little note: This sculpture is decor art sold by a manufacturer called bronze dancer figurine)
So far so good, but this completely neglects to mention that dynamic, stable poses are usually comfortably balanced. Stable poses on the verge of collapse are pretty unusual in art or in life drawing sessions, even though they are physically possible.
In a more classical figure drawing approach Ballance is carefully sought. The wise reasoning Andrew Loomis provides is:
“Balance is a physical attribute each of us must possess. If a figure is drawn without balance, it irritates us subconsciously. Our instinct is to set firmly on its base anything that is wobbling and likely to fall. Watch how quickly a mother’s hand grasps the teetering child. The observer recognizes quickly that a drawing is out of balance, and his inability to do anything about it sets up a negative response. Balance is an equalized distribution of weight in the figure as in anything else. If we lean over to one side, an arm or a leg is extended on the opposite side to compensate for the unequal distribution of weight over the foot or two feet that are the central point of division for the line of balance. If we stand on one foot, the weight must be distributed much as it is in a spinning top.”
Our body will naturally seek to minimize effort and that’s why balance is usually maximized in static poses. However, one foot is not exactly like a spinning top. It is a bit more like the 3 legs of a table; not by much, but by a little, perhaps barely enough to see difference, but a difference is there which is why we can create poses that are on the verge of being unstable but can still be held statically.
You may have heard it many times before that the way a contrapposto pose is balanced is by having different body parts lean in opposite directions to balance out the center of gravity and that the resulting center of gravity is placed above the weight bearing leg. So you may ask yourself; “if our feet can balance a variety of poses is it necessary for the different body parts to move opposite to one another or for the center of gravity to be placed above the weight bearing leg/ center of stability?” In my opinion the answer is no, they don’t 100% have to, but usually they will and it will happen naturally. For example, you think of extending your arms and torso forward and immediately your pelvis and legs will move in the opposite direction over your center of stability to balance the weight.
This is the case in these beautiful illustrations by George Bridgman:
This allows you to extend further sideways than if your legs and pelvis remained straight, and it reduces the load on your muscles. This compensation happens naturally. That leads the discussion to the last and important piece of the puzzle; the muscles.
Our muscles kick into action whenever we wish to hold a body part against gravity. lean forward and your back muscles have to work to keep you from falling forward. Lean backwards and your abdomen muscles have to work to keep you from falling backwards.
They operate in a more complex way than that, but in basic terms, your muscles kick in when you wish to hold a pose against gravity. They are there to serve as a glue that keeps your body parts from falling over. The more unstable the pose, the harder your muscles have to work to maintain it.
Dynamic stable poses can require a lot of muscle activity. Imagine a dancer’s arabesque, for example; Lots of muscle groups work to keep different body parts mid-air against gravity. So long as the muscle are able to keep working, the pose remains stable.
So to conclude, to think of figure drawing in terms of balance is to first get a grasp of the base of stability of a pose, and try to imagine what sort of range of imbalance it can hold over it (what size of “table surface” can such a base hold). Then, figure out how far out the “ball is placed on the surface of the table” in that pose. Is it an extreme pose on the verge of imbalance? Maybe it is a classically balanced dynamic pose (which it almost always will be).
Some poses are like moving a weight to the edge of the table, instead of comfortably placing it in the center of the table. It is fun to think of poses primarily in terms of their balance and thinking about it in those terms might help get the mood of a pose across.