Is "stiffness" actually a thing?

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This topic contains 6 replies, has 5 voices, and was last updated by Wisdomsend 2 years ago.

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    In discussions in this forums and in other creative communities I often hear talk about "stiffness", "fluidity" and "dynamic", and it sometimes makes me cringe a bit. My very sincere impression is, that these terms seem to refer to a wide variety of concepts, and it's rarely clear what they are really meant to express.

    "Stiffness" is often an attribute mentioned in relation to line quality and seems to imply a very timid, overly controlled habit of moving the pen over the paper. But then "stiffness" can also refer to a rather awkward posing of the figure, when the anatomy of limbs seems slightly unnatural, because body parts are all depicted from a simplified perspective, do not match perfectly, and appear more oriented towards the axis of the page, then towards anatomical necessity of a natural body. But that is a different problem, already! Then, stiffness can refer to a lack of expressivity, when the posing of a model is anatomically convincing, but the model just doesn't seem to do a lot.

    It doesn't help that the opposite of stiffness, dynamic (dynamism?), in photography and rendering often refers to a special way of lighting, with stark contrasts between light and dark values, and can although refer to a compositional problem of distributing light and dark values over the entire piece, independent of the contrast between adjacent shapes. Alternatively I heard the word "stiff" used for very clean and stylized depictions, that frankly just lack detail and fail to distinguish between voluminous convex or concave forms on the one side and flat planes on the other side.

    With all the ambiguity in the concept I sometimes feel like the words "stiffness" and "dynamic" are often just stand-ins to refer to the overall quality of a piece, or to the perceived experience, confidence and willingness to experiment of the artist. It also doesn't help a lot to explain the concept by just refering to a beloved artist or artistic piece, that mastered "the problem". There is no guarantee, that two people looking at the same artistic piece will always focus on even the same part of the piece, let alone the same aspects.

    So, how can I approach the idea of "stiffness" in a way that let's me understand faster and less unambiguous what, for example a beginner, that asks me for advice with his "stiff drawing" is actually unhappy with?

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    This is a very interesting topic, and something that I feel has been something I struggled with myself for almost 20 years.

    The more I think about it, the more I feel it boils down to clear communication. A beginning artist will not know the common terminology and will have to learn it to begin with, but perhaps challenging them to analyze and break down their own artwork is a good first step to fostering a better understanding. I think you did a good job of it in this post: is this stiffness related to the fluidity of the lines? Is this stiffness related to capturing the overall pose of the model? Or is this stiffness originating from the model not maintaining a dynamic pose?

    While it's tempting to try and show somebody from the start "This is how you do it", I've found that being being asked to analyze the drawing myself and more pointedly consider what I need help with goes a long way. Some of my biggest learning moments have been when I was asked to stop and think about "What do you find the most challenging? Can you name one concrete part of drawing that you struggle with?" -- or, in this case, "What does 'stiffness' mean to you? For example, does it mean: ... or ... or .... ?"

    Not all useful critique comes in the form of instructions or analyzing drawings ourselves; it can also come in the form of asking the artist themselves to look at it from a different perspective and giving them the words to name what it is they need help with. Stiffness is a useful term that applies to various aspects of art as you've so aptly described, so rather than finding a different way of naming stiffness, maybe the solution is to help artists create the context by teaching them which aspects to look out for.


    Hi Aunt, thought I'd drop a video which explains why figures can seem stiff, and also how you can display movement better.

    Really hope this helps because movement is generally the main focus of figure drawing unless you are specifically studying anatomy. The terms that you say are cringy and confusing are just adjectives that apply to movement in general. Muscles and body parts can stiffen up or loosen in reality. Words can also have multiple meanings, so I am confused about your confusion that the word dynamic can be applied to something other than photography. Forget photography unless it directly applies to whatever you're doing. Just stop thinking so hard about it and have some fun!


    Hi Tanner, thank you for your interest in the topic. Do I think David Finch is a great artist and a good teacher? Yes, I do. Do I think the force method has value? Yes I do. Do I feel this solves the problem I mentioned? No, sorry, not at all.

    My problem is not, that there is no valid meaning for the term "dynamic", my problem is, that there is a whole range of different and distinct meanings, and I regularly encounter beginners, who can't tell them apart and mix it all up. For example David Finch in this video exclusively talks about figures and poses. Note, that he never mentions line quality or pencil control. And if you compare the quality of lines he uses in this video to illustrate his thoughts and explanations with the quality of lines in his finished works, it's clear he doesn't pay much attention to it at all. Not in this video, not when talking about poses and figures.

    Thing is, there are dynamic lines, dynamic shapes, dynamic poses, dynamic shading, dynamic compositions, and these are all quite distinct topics, and the word "dynamic" has quite a variety of meanings, depending on the topic at hand. This page encourages me to give criticisms to other beginners, and a common theme I encounter is a lot of confusion about the importance and meaning of "looseness".

    If someone still struggles with drawing two straight and even parallel lines, that extent the immediate range of their finger joints, without using a ruler, then the "looseness" of their lines is pretty much a first world problem to them, and if they focus all their practice time on such a misunderstood topic, they will make little actual gains in their proficiency and only build up unnecessary frustration.

    This page is designed to be a good support tool for quick sketching. But the idea of 30 sec and 1 minute sketches isn't to practice to become an even hastier, messier and more frantic scribbler. The idea is to force people to simplify their forms, to use fewer lines to express their ideas. If scribbling hastily relaxes someone and is fun to them, all the power to you, bro/sis/x, you do you, go full Jackson Pollock and let the joy and energy of what you do transcend to your spectators, but that is not the way to learn draftsmanship.

    Start out with practicing fundamentals. Knowing about the concept of a straight line doesn't teach your brain to match your observations of what your pen does on the paper to all the fine muscle movements around your various joints to actually control that line. You will feel stiff and tense in the beginning anyway, just because you are entering a very unknown terrain, and utilize some muscles, you didn't even know you had before starting to practice, and feeling "looser" might well be just a result of shunning the hurdle.

    My critic, especially with the Force method: Mike Matessi, it's prime author, is a hell of an artist, and, once someone has their fundamentals mastered, following along with his practical instructions and drawing can absolutely help people achieve the next level. But he is somewhat less stellar in finding the words to describe what he does, which certainly doesn't make him very beginner friendly. If you just read his words or listen to him talk, he has a tendency to talk metaphorically and use quite vague concepts. It makes sense if you actually watch him put these vague concepts on paper, and if you already understand basic forms, shapes and lines, and you built up a sufficient amount of dexterity to follow along, it doesn't take too much guess work to grasp his ideas. As long as your pen still holds surprises for you every time it touches paper, maybe don't start with the Force method right away?

    Some say the road to mastery is a 10.000 hour journey. Worrying about being dynamic enough is a burden people probably better stay away from during their first 500 hours.


    Thank you, it's good to know that I'm (as a complete beginner) not the only one who's confused with all those different things stiffness apparently could refer to. It feels a little bit like for more experience artists it's easier to give critique from their high-level perspective, which is of course useful but can be much more difficult understand unless broken down into more familiar concepts (like "it's stiff" -> "the ankles are not positioned quite right, people don't stand like that").

    And also thank you for confirming that there's no point in thinking too much about stiffness when you're still struggling with basic proportions and dexterity, that completely makes sense and it's almost obvious, except it's like no one says it.

    • Zkbpkp edited this post on June 9, 2021 10:48am.

    Look for the feet, if between them and the groin there is an equilateral triangle, chances are you are not going to end up with a very dynamic pose.

    Dynamics are everywhere, in line use, mass placement, planes and even light. If you have low contrast between these things your drawing will read as stiff, and that's usually because people mess up or leap over altogether the gestural stage and sometimes even the perspective.

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