On Planar Analysis

People draw for many reasons, to communicate ideas, to brainstorm, design, create characters , express emotions, observe the world, to name a few. In drawing, like in many other artistic disciplines, it is important to build on fundamental concepts and processes in order to give free rein to your creativity. When it comes to the study three-dimensional form through drawing, understanding planes is very important. There is a process many artists utilize to break down form called planar analysis.

Planar Analysis is the break down of a complex form into flat planes. It is very helpful when trying to achieve volume in drawings of irregular non-geometric forms. Applying planar analysis goes hand in hand with a structural or constructive approach to drawing and it is beneficial when working from direct observation and when inventing. When drawing from direct observation the artist is responding to the subject observed and re-interpreting the form. When working  from memory or the imagination an understanding of planes can help in the construction of a believable volumetric image.

Above, is a detail image of one of my drawings from the toy series at the planar stage. This post focuses mainly on the drawing process, but I will take this opportunity to write a little bit about how this body of work originated. At the time, as a mother of young children, toys were scattered all over the house and were part of my every day life. As a college art professor, teaching observational drawing inspired me to get back into drawing from life myself, and I found toys to be a great subject due to their interesting forms and the potential for the exploration of metaphor through the still life. For that series, I worked both on toys of organic and geometric form and thoroughly enjoyed the process. This dinosaur is of organic form since it is made to look life like. Below are the steps I took to get to the planar stage of the drawing.


First I mapped a light intuitive gesture with vine charcoal which allowed me to see the composition on the page.  Vine charcoal comes off easily so I could make adjustments to the over all design  just a few minutes into the work.

Sighting the gesture

I kept refining the drawing by analyzing proportions, angles and alignment, which are all aspects of sighting and measuring. Some of you may be familiar with the process. As you can see, this next image shows further development. The horizontal and vertical lines surrounding the figure show the study of placement of the different parts to the whole. For example, where does the top of the back line up to the tail? Where does the top of the head line up to the legs? Where does the hind leg on the floor line up to the tail or other leg?. This is typically done after checking key measurements. I also observed the changes in direction of the curves by checking angles.

Analysis of planes

In this stage, you can see the break down of the object into planes. To break down the form into planes, an artist drafts a line at the edge where the surface changes direction showing that there is a turn. It is important to keep in mind that planes are always connected to one another and that perspective has an influence on the shape of the plane. When working with planar analysis, it helps to think as a sculptor and imagine that you are creating a three dimensional model of the subject with paper or cardboard. Ask yourself where you would fold the cardboard to turn the form and that would be where you draw the line that defines the plane change. Going from big to small planes is the most effective. It is important to practice the process over and over to fully understand it.

Value block-in

Planar analysis helps with the development of lights and darks (value) in a drawing. This image shows the initial stages of value development. I was aiming for simple patterns of light and dark shapes (three to four tones). This simplicity reinforces unity in a composition.

Finished piece

In the finished piece, you can see a wider range of lights and darks as well as mark-making that follows the form. In this particular drawing I had a lot of fun developing the surface of the surrounding space and using color emotionally. I found working on the toy series enriching and appreciated the narrative potential in the subjects I was using. It was also good practice to work from toy animals, fun and challenging at the same time. This led me to create a major assignment in which students draw animals from life-like toys for my Drawing II class. Teaching and learning to draw analytically is not necessarily easy. It takes transforming the way you see and understand form which is not always comfortable, but allows for growth.

More examples of planar analysis in drawing

A planar approach is widely used when drawing subjects such as the human form, animals, bones, drapery, fruits, vegetables, shoes and plaster casts are some great subjects to draw from when practicing planar analysis. Below are samples from one of my Life Drawing  class demos showing the progression of the structural study of a skull. The first image shows the intuitive gesture, this takes about one minute. Then comes the analysis of proportions angles and alignment, which can take about 20 minutes and finally the analysis of the planes. I consider each stage a layer in the drawing process.

The study from a life-like toy gator below shows the planar process as well. Many artists and designers construct their drawings this way; animators, concept artists, sculptors, industrial designers, painters  to name a few.  One important artist who relied on planar structure to create compositions was Luca Cambiaso click here to see one of his drawings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/335650. Alberto Giacometti, one of my personal favorites created some wonderful planar studies as you can see in this group of drawings http://thefuturelab.org/2011/02/01/716/.

Keep in mind that planar analysis is a helpful approach in the study of volume through drawing, but not the only one. Many artists will use cross-contour or chiaroscuro to study the three-dimensional quality of a subject. Personally I am a big fan of constructive drawing and find that it helps me when drawing from observation, photo references and memory. To many this process may seem overly analytical at first but it can give you the freedom to develop your drawings loosely with a lot of expression yet maintaining clarity.  I hope you found this helpful. Come back and visit for future instructional material.


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