Monday, September 29, 2014

Acanthus Leaf #2- How to: Forming the leaf shape

As I said in the last post, the acanthus leaf is a mix of natural and artificial; evocative of plants in its details, but grounded by a geometric regularity expressed through its form and construction. As with any artifice, it is helpful when a form is quickly comprehensible (what draws the eye in) and then detailed to the artists' abilities (what makes us keep looking.)

So how do you make an acanthus leaf? What follows is a basic primer in the form and features of the acanthus leaf. As with any primer, this is not the only way of doing it- in fact you will find very few examples that would follow this exact pattern- but it is a solid starting point that includes all of the basic features found in more complex examples, which we will look at later.

Here's my method, adapted from a 19th century book by James Page called, (appropriately,) Guide for Drawing the Acanthus, and Every Description of Ornamental Foliage (London, 1840).  This book was directed at tradespeople who wished to learn the methods for drawing ornamental foliage that looked good and would translate to three dimensional work, which is where the majority would be found, decorating architecture, furniture, and trade goods.

For your first attempt, I would recommend working on a standard sketch or drawing paper, at least a 9"x12" pad,  something that you can erase without tearing, and see through a little if you hold it up to the light. Architectural vellum (heavy weight tracing paper) also works very well. Use a medium pencil (HB) and have a good eraser on hand. Many of the steps are there only as guides, and will be erased later. You can use a ruler for some of the steps, but always draw lightly with it, as none of the ruled lines will show when you are done.

Step one: Let's start with a vertical rectangle that is 5 inches wide by 10 inches tall (about 12.5cm by 25 cm for our metric friends). Construct a grid that is 2 units by 5 units by dividing it in half horizontally and every two inches (or 5 cm) vertically. As you will see, many of these steps will only be temporary, so draw lightly. This one, in fact, will completely disappear by the end, and is only intended to show the proportions of the overall shape of the leaf.

Step Two: [Each new step will be drawn in red]. Divide the bottom edge into 3 equal sections and LIGHTLY draw the diagonal lines that connect the center of the top with the two divisions of the bottom, as seen in the illustration.

Step Three: Starting from the outside bottom corners, draw diagonal lines that are approximately parallel to the inner diagonals, stopping at the first division of the grid from the top.

Step Four: Connect the two diagonal lines you just drew to the top center point, as seen in the illustration. Check your curve against the one I have drawn here- you can use the straight diagonal I drew on the left side as a further guide to your curve. Notice how it forms a bow shape with the curve. Again, these lines are just guides for your overall shape and will disappear before you are finished, so draw them lightly, but try to make sure they are symmetrical (you can check this by folding your paper on the vertical center line to see if they overlap when you look at them through the folded paper.)

Step Five: OK, let's get rid of some of the lines now so it doesn't become too confusing. You can erase everything except the outline of the leaf and the two vertical diagonals that define the center rib of the leaf. It should look like this;

Step Six: Now we start the more artistic part of the process- less geometry and more eyeballing. We need to divide the central diagonals into intervals that get smaller as they get towards the top. I could try to give you some kind of formula for that (6, 5, 4.5, etc.) but it's really better to just look at the model below and give it your best shot. I've drawn the dotted lines so that you can better compare the intervals between the dots, but you can just draw the dots on your own sheet- that makes it easier to adjust as you go. Notice also how the very bottom interval is a bit smaller than the one just above it, but then they each get smaller as they go upwards.

Step Seven: The dots, or "eyelets" are a very important aspect of the acanthus leaf ornament. They give it rhythm and they also allow the eye to position the leaf in space. In a dimensional ornament (stone, plaster or wood) they are the registration marks that make reference points for the planes of the leaf that come later. They are derived from the natural shape of the divisions of the lobes on the leaf, but they also have a number of artificial aspects that I will show. 

If you look right in the center of the above photo you will see what the shape comes from. It is the place where one lobe ends and the next begins. It forms this little teardrop shape that is the basis for the artificial shape seen below. 

As you can see, the eye is formed by the overlap of each lower leaf over the next leaf, which is the convention when drawing acanthus for decorative purposes. It's not a bad idea to practice drawing the shape several times until you become familiar with it. It's formed like a "b" and a "d" in pairs, with the line of the lower leaf forming the part that continues upwards, covering some of the lobe above it. 

Once you've gotten comfortable with it, you can make the mark (just the eyelet- don't fill in the lobe yet) at each of the intersections that you made in step seven. These are the first marks you've made that will not be erased in the end! 

Next up: creating the lobes and the subdivision of the leaf edges. 

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