Looking at a figure drawing by Edmund F. Ward
by Jerry Weiss | February 9, 2022
According to the registration records of the Art Students League of New York, Edmund F. Ward, Jr. was enrolled in several classes from 1911-1912. He studied illustration with Thomas Fogarty, drawing from the antique with Edward Dufner and figure drawing with George Bridgman. A drawing by Ward in the League’s permanent collection is inscribed “aft. life,” meaning it was done in the afternoon life drawing class taught by Bridgman. At one side are two demonstrations of the right wrist and hand, rapidly drawn by Bridgman as he made his way around the crowded studio. The drawing is a high-level student example, though it carries a trademark of much classroom work: the upper half of the figure is more complete than the lower.
A similar process can be seen in a more complete drawing by Ward, also done in Bridgman’s class. First, some background, from an article on Bridgman I wrote in 2020.
During my first year of study at the League, my father and I paid a visit to Edmund F. Ward at his home in White Plains. Mr. Ward, once a prolific illustrator, was then well into his eighties and working on a very large canvas for his own pleasure. He had studied with Bridgman around 1911, and recalled that each week a numerical order was awarded to the best drawings. Ward said that he was hard pressed to finish better than second place, because the artist with whom he shared a studio always received top honors from Bridgman; we’ll return to that momentarily. Mr. Ward’s drawing belongs to the academic conventions of the era, a highly naturalistic study with a fully resolved value range.
The friend with whom Ward shared a studio was Norman Rockwell. I remember several stories from our visit of October 21, 1978, including Ward’s recollection of a League model who held difficult standing poses with a determination to outlast the students who drew him. Perhaps the model for this drawing, whose gesture simulates the action of walking, was the aforementioned ironman.
Ward’s drawing shows how well he understood the gesture, which can be charted through the placement of major anatomical landmarks. We can follow the tilt of the head to the pit of the neck, continue along the center line of the torso to the navel and then to the pubic point—in total, the upper body forms an unbroken arc. A wonderful transition happens at the pelvis, for the weight-bearing anatomical right leg must counterbalance in the other direction. Ward understood these two big movements—one long, reverse “s” curve, really, since the thorax and legs move in unison—and the harmonious effect of the whole. This is important because students tend to see and draw the figure as a collection of separate and not necessarily interdependent parts. The body’s gesture can only be comprehended when the parts are seen as connected.
Looking laterally, Ward found the angle across the eye sockets that helps establish the tilt of the head, and the angle from one shoulder to the other, which provides an initial clue on the whereabouts of the torso. At the hips the angle is reversed, creating the contrapposto so dear to artists. Ward would have checked other bilateral coordinates, like the relative positions of one knee to the other, ankle to ankle and foot to foot. For good measure, he could have used a straight edge to confirm the position of the feet in relation to, say, the head or shoulders, vertical coordinates that assist the draftsman in establishing a center of gravity. Otherwise the figure will topple one way or the other. At first, remembering to use anatomical landmarks to orient the figure seems complicated, but it’s a tremendously helpful aid in drawing, and with practice eventually becomes second nature. By the age of twenty, Ward had about mastered the process. Though not entirely, as we’ll see. Let’s look at a few details.
The naturalism of the head is powerful (detail 1). The strength of the features depends on Ward’s knowledge of their structure; the eyes, nose, mouth and ear are drawn with an understanding of their construction, how they appear in perspective, and the way in which they’re revealed by—or obscured from—the light. Impressive as this attention to detail is, I’m just as taken with the drawing of the neck, shoulders and clavicle. It’s common for students to focus on the portrait at the exclusion of all else, but Ward knew that every component of the figure is worthy of study. His articulation of forms at the very top of the sternum, where the clavicle and sternocleidomastoid meet, is simply and sculpturally drawn.
I’ve already noted the movement of the torso; detail 2 focuses on the direction of the centerline running from the pit of the neck to the navel, which is paralleled by the left and right contours of the abdomen. Incidentally, the correct placement of the centerline is critical in a figure drawing, for it indicates precisely which way the torso is turned. Here, the rib cage nearly faces the viewer directly, rotating ever so slightly to our right.
The suggestion of three-dimensional form is facilitated by a single, strong source of illumination falling from our left. For all the complexity of the torso—the rib cage and the pectoral and abdominal muscles laid over it—Ward retained the integrity of the large mass of the thorax. Light models it as it would a broad cylinder, with highlights occurring left of center, particularly at the front plane of rectus abdominis. The edge of the shadow is observed with clarity, its subtle transition indicating that the light source is natural rather than artificial. Despite the subtlety of transitional planes, the lights are unequivocally light and the shadows are resolutely dark. Ward excelled at portraying sculptural form because he had studied the underlying anatomy and understood the application of light and shadow—value structure. The academic practice of the era necessitated that students achieve these effects with charcoal, and apply gradations by blending with a chamois cloth. Ward’s control of the medium is impressive.
Students are sometimes intimidated by the complexity of the hand. Ward realized that a serious draftsman won’t avoid the subject, but welcomes the chance for intense study. Hands are a distinctly expressive component of the figure; in detail 3, Ward observed the shape of the anatomical right hand, upturned as if summoning a question. The outstretched thumb offers counterpoint to the other fingers, folding in sequence from the index finger to the pinkie. The impression of the hand’s bony structure is convincing. By getting the shapes right and emphasizing value contrast, the hand seems to project toward us.
Just below the hand is a schematic drawing of the lower arm, done rapidly to demonstrate the abstract cylindrical form, as well as the rhythm of the mass between the wrist and elbow. This was most likely added by Bridgman as he made his way around the room, offering individual counsel to dozens of students. The line he drew through the center of the form designates the shadow edge, which is uncertain in Ward’s drawing. Even though it’s a summary treatment, Bridgman’s drawing captures the essentials of the form better than does Ward’s highly finished and naturalistic version. That’s not surprising; even advanced students tend to be overly descriptive. Effective abbreviation comes with experience. The desire for verisimilitude seems to be part of the learning process. What may be a surprise to the uninitiated is that Bridgman, a master of artistic anatomy, prioritized basic abstract shapes before moving to elaboration. That’s what great draftsmen do.
The last detail is especially fascinating because it’s unfinished, and allows a window into the draftsman’s process. We can see how Ward constructed the planes of the patella, lower leg and foot, starting with a schematic linear ‘map’ that was then filled in with value. The foreshortened toes—another bane of art students—engaged his attention as fully as did every other aspect of the figure. The feet are well grounded, with most of the weight borne by the anatomical right foot, the left poised on the ball of the foot and toes as if pushing forward in stride (what a difficult pose this must have been for the model to hold for five afternoons). Most interesting is the persistent redrawing of the model’s right leg. Ward drew the leg eight or ten times; we can still see the erased ghost contours left behind as he sought the figure’s center of balance. If he’d used a plumb line, he could have quickly found vertical coordinates with which to align the foot. Instead he did it the hard way; in the end the artist found the right placement, and perhaps the struggle of this drawing provided a lesson Ward remembered whenever he drew the standing figure thereafter.
I’ve looked at this drawing many times since Mr. Ward gifted it to me in 1978. It signifies the waning influence of the nineteenth-century academic approach; soon Bridgman’s particular stylization would supplant the previous ideology. Generally, the nineteenth-century academic paradigm isn’t my favorite type of figure drawing—though it’s made a comeback through atelier study, the dark earnestness and generic approach often appear less inspired than stultifying. But I love this drawing, because it depicts a real person rather than a philosophical ideal. It conceives of the figure as solid of form and fluid in movement, its realism animated by the enthusiasm of a young student draftsman.
JERRY WEISS (@jerrynweiss) teaches two classes in drawing and painting at the Art Students League of New York.