MOTION SPEAKS | Wings of Paint

I stripped off my shirt and dipped a string in black paint. Jane, an artist and friend stood ready with my camera. When I held the string out to her, she took it and carefully tied it around the center of my back. Slowly, I raised my right shoulder as high as possible. Hearing Jane click photos of the new paint smears on my back, I lowered my shoulder. Next, I moved the left shoulder up and down while Jane photographed the growing design. I hunched my shoulders forward, then arched my back. I bent my whole body to and fro. At the end, all the marks of paint coalesced into a final design shown in the upper right-hand corner of the photo above – a wing-like shape which surprised and thrilled me, the most beautiful image I’d ever created. I vowed to explore every part of the human form using this same technique.

Six years before that moment, this artistic adventure began in yoga. One day in class, I held a Tree pose. I stood on my right leg, left foot balanced on my right thigh while both arms twisted around each other with palms together in front of my face. I studied yoga with an ulterior motive. As an artist, I wanted to observe the odd angles and shapes of other students’ bodies.

Leonardo da Vinci taught beginning artists to draw from memory, a technique that modern brain research revealed to be a powerful way to engage the creative right brain. I burned the bodily contours into my memory cells: the rounded back of a student in front of me, the differing bulges of the buttocks – one slightly tilted and the other bunched solid as it held the whole frame upright, the indentation where a heel gouged the opposite thigh. The poses created fascinating shapes. I could feel similar contours within my own muscles, giving the visual experience added meaning, and helping me to memorize the images.

After yoga, I hurried home, grabbed charcoal and swooped it over paper, recording the fascinating shapes I had memorized. As I drew, I became lost in a timeless world, a profoundly joyful state.  Sometimes, I took the time to assume the pose I drew, allowing muscle memory to aid my vision.

The next yoga class, I repeated the exercise, feeling secretive and almost sinful in my deep pleasure of observing and later drawing the students. Yoga class offered a bountiful garden of exaggerated body shapes. The teacher encouraged us to hold the strange poses as long as possible, unknowingly providing me with luxuriant time to fix images in my mind.

In class, yoga students wore shorts or skin-tight capris, but when I memorized their essential shapes and drew them later, the joy of drawing took over as I experimented in a variety of drawing styles. Clothes played no part. I kept my observations and drawings private. Most artists, no matter how experienced (myself included), felt self-conscious about how “well” they drew the human form. From the Renaissance onward, accurate perspective in figure drawing has been a sign of a “true” artist. I kept faces generic to preserve the yoga students’ anonymity.

I continued this practice for six years, an ongoing yoga/drawing meditation. Over time, my yoga drawings grew larger, becoming life-sized. On the figure, I emphasized areas where I felt the most tension in my body when I had held the pose. In those spots, I changed my drawing style from a minimalist contour line to agitated gesture sweeps of charcoal and again to realistic modelled drawing.

Charcoal, Ink, Conte crayon, Oil

One day, while I held a coiled yoga pose and memorized the other students’ outlines, my perception changed. All at once, I realized I’d observed and drawn what I could see on the surface. I watched muscles contract and loosen, but more went on than I could see. Muscles interacted with each other. Invisibly, one muscle moved on top of another, such as the calf muscle grazing the thigh when the knee bent. What kind of impression did it make on the skin and what would it look like? In all these years, I had not seen the actual trajectory of movement. I wanted to see the invisible. Being a painter, I naturally thought of allowing muscles to push wet paint in different directions depending on how the model moved. All those years of staring at the yoga students spawned the desire to see what movement looked like on my back.

When this idea ripened in my mind, I visited Jane and gave her my camera. I couldn’t explain what I wanted; I had to enact it and let her photograph the results. Jane found the experience of tying strings of wet paint around my back to be a lark. I had to force myself to stop laughing so I didn’t jiggle the lines of paint on my back.

After seeing Jane’s photographs, I felt exhilarated. Examining the wing-like forms on my back, I realized joints operated as the nexus of movement. Filled with purpose, I became determined to find out what movement of muscles in the area each joint looked like. Now I had a concept and a technique I could explain to a model.

When Jane photographed my scapular area, I’d been frustrated that I couldn’t see the images as they evolved and hadn’t been able to choose the best camera angle to capture the designs. I needed to control the camera and I required a model, one who would allow black, greasy paint on her body.

At this point, much to my surprise and for no apparent reason, I became blocked. I shelved the project, the most fascinating concept I’d ever had. But the idea wouldn’t go away. Every yoga class, I pondered what movement might look like, and wondered why I didn’t pursue this rich project. When I planned the next step in the process, searching for a model, I drew a blank. I couldn’t imagine asking someone to let me apply wet paint on her skin. I felt like I would be asking her to get dirty for me, a big mental taboo. I remembered that in childhood Mom punished me when I asked for help, especially in any messy situation. She expected perfection and cleanliness at all times. Apparently, the lesson stuck.      

I continued to study and teach anatomy for artists and drew the figure every day, life-sized and larger, mostly female. Eventually, I became an art professor, braving classrooms filled with the dedicated, the sleepy, the talented and the belligerent. I taught life drawing and painting and hired more models than I could count. 

Although I thought about it frequently, my plans to study muscles and make renditions of their image on the skin remained on the shelf.  I couldn’t bring myself to ask a big favor of a model, to smear herself with wet paint just for my project. 

Ten years from my project’s inception, I found myself happily raising a son. When Jon turned nine years old, my artist’s mind suddenly understood the significance of the fact that boys loved a mess. A peaceful boy, Jon had good muscle control and didn’t twitch. I needed a hairless body for the images to be clear. Once I explained my needs to him and promised to pay an adult model’s wages if he would work as hard as needed, we reached a deal. I hired my son and began where I had left off years ago, making the interaction of back muscles visible.

Jon said, “Hey, cool” when I applied wet paint to his armpit. He didn’t mind when I painted his hands with black body paint. He led me gently into the land of asking for help. Luckily, he proved to be a good worker, earning his wages and loving his weekly paycheck, a good deal for both of us.

At an art opening a year later, I met Maile, a dancer in a contemporary dance troupe. She routinely wore greasepaint in her performances. By now, my blockage had evaporated, thanks to Jon’s tutoring. With confidence, I explained my concept and technique and asked for her help. She seemed fascinated and readily agreed. We began a long working relationship. She didn’t mind when I painted her body black or blue or purple. Patient, flexible and strong, she became my ideal model. We completed most joints: the fingers, wrists, elbows, neck, waist, knees, and even the toes. The designs made by the movement of the muscles around each of these joints held me enraptured by their biological poetry, with beauty as deep as the first study of my back.

After two years of working with Maile, I’d collected images of what movement looked like everywhere on the body, except the pelvic area. Genitals constituted a powerful visual distraction. I doubted a viewer would notice nearby movement designs. 

But I wanted more variety in body types. I became brave enough to ask my athletic Aunt Marj, eighty-nine years old, to pose for me. “Oh boy, I used to work as an artist’s model in college,” she said, much to my surprise. With the intrepid Aunt Marj, I studied range of motion in aged joints: the back, neck, elbow, wrist and knees. Aunt Marj loved outdoor sports: skiing, swimming, hiking and golf. Her skin reflected decades in the sun and created riveting images.

White tempera paint & grease paint

On the twenty-nine year old dancer’s elbow on the right, the large smears on the lower image depict a wide range of movement. Aunt Marj’s smaller bit of paint shows her more limited abilities to move her elbow. However, in all other joints, my aunt maintained a remarkable similarity to the younger model’s smudges of paint.

With a splendid array of movement surrounding me, I prepared the photographs for exhibitions. Each completed art piece consisted of four to six photographs, showing the range of motion process from start to finish. My attitude had been scientific – to visually document motion. The work traveled to national and international exhibits. 

I became fascinated by the wide variety of viewers’ responses: some thought the abstract marks on the skin were scars, burn marks, evidence of torture, tattoos. Some people, including family members, thought I’d “gone over to the dark side,” become sadistic. At an art opening in New York City, a young man said, “I’m shocked that a woman would do this work.”

“Oh, really? Why?” I didn’t know if he knew that he spoke with the artist, but I didn’t care because I felt such curiosity about his answer.

“It’s so violent,” he said. “Women wouldn’t carve up someone like this.” Apparently, he interpreted the designs on the skin as gore: slashes and gouges. 

I saw validity in his reaction, for some people saw the body as sinful. Others exhibited terrible conflicts with their flesh as seen in our current epidemic of obesity, anorexia, cutting and addiction. I felt stunned at pessimistic interpretations to what I saw as pure beauty. However, I accepted, with resignation, that once my art left my studio, it had a life of its own. I remained intrigued by viewers and critics’ interpretations, both positive and negative. 

Art historian Irina Costache, Ph.D. remarked:

Rejecting the archetypical objectified representation of women and the privileged role of the male gaze, Kauffman exposes the body not as a source of desire but as the originating point of empowerment….The body [is] a metaphor of self-reliance…Details of the muscles project a dimension of power and confidence.  Reminiscent of Michelangelo’s anatomical sketches, these studies of movements are defined by traces of ink.  Their presence originated as a performative act and articulate a visual vocabulary in which the represented, the woman, is no longer supplemental to the narrative, but, by aggressively taking charge, becomes a forceful participant in the production of meanings.

Costache understood and took my work to another level of meaning, as if she’d perceived my deeper intention. She expanded upon the fact that I’d eliminated all references to the female sexual organs which, in art history, were traditionally a reflection of male desire. I felt references to sexuality would’ve distracted from the essential beauty of the abstract images the body emanated. Costache opened my eyes to the fact that movement constituted an essential source of power within the self. What a thrill and validation to be understood at a deep level. 

I’d fulfilled my dream of thoroughly studying the sources of movement in a variety of figures from child to young woman to old woman. Much to my surprise, the work continued to expand into new offshoots, providing unexpected rewards. This series had only just begun as I’ll explain in a new forthcoming essay.


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