What a 3D Animator learned by recreating this old oil painting
This week I was at the Louvre and happened upon Eustache Le Sueuer’s ‘Saint Bruno at the feet of Pope Urban II’, an oil painting from 1645. I liked the composition, colours and gestures used in the painting, so I took a photo of it. Later on I decided I’d like to study the painting some more to discover why it works so well. Usually I’d do this by drawing over the top of the image or sketching it. This time I decided to try doing it with 3D characters.
My goal here wasn’t to make an exact or pretty representation in 3D Art. As a 3D Animator, I wanted to try to achieve the same sort of feeling of composition and posing with the characters.
Analysing the basic poses and situation
We have Saint Bruno bowing to the pope, who considers Bruno too important to be showing such humility. The two guys in blue to the left of the pope seem surprised with the situation. The man nearest the pope is looking at Saint Bruno. He doesn’t have much of an expression or gesture but I assume he is surprised. The man in blue with his arm stretched out is looking at the pope and seems stunned that Urban is telling Bruno that bowing isn’t necessary. The people in the background don’t have much to add to the story, I think they are there for composition purposes, as well as to make the world of the painting seem as though it is filled with real people.
I’m going to keep the posing as close to the original as I can, so no super cartoony exaggeration. I like the subtle posing of Saint Bruno and Urban. I dislike the pose of the man in blue most close to the pope. It is very unclear as we can’t see where his arms are or what emotion he is feeling. I’ll keep him the same but try to add a little something to make him clearer. The other man who is looking at the pope is a bit too exaggerated maybe but I’ll keep his pose roughly the same. I’m going to keep the four crowd characters in the background as they are.
The reasons this is a master work
When I took a photo of this painting, I didn’t analyse it at all. I just liked it and wanted to remember it. On closer scrutiny, we can see why this painting works so well. To learn from this painting it is essential I observe it and note all of the important features that make it great.
Composition and flow
One of the first things I noticed about the painting is the flow of lines that direct us to the main subject, Bruno. Almost everything in this painting draws us towards him, even the drapery behind the Pope. The line of people behind the two main characters follow a line that leads to the Pope’s head. The pope’s spine and arms draw a line to Bruno. Even the folds in the Pope’s robes draw lines that lead us to Bruno.
This is no accidental feature either. I found a drawing or etching of this same image and we can see that it was planned from the start. In the drawing we can see that he had a pillar at the far right of the scene. It leads down to the crowd character’s arm and again draws another line to Saint Bruno. This particular detail is lost in the painting because of the dark lighting, although we can still see it subtly.
Use of colour
By heavily simplifying the colours, we can also see that Le Sueuer used three main colours to define the important elements of the scene. Blue for the two secondary characters and brown for the background and crowd characters. Saint Bruno and the Pope are in white. An interesting detail is that the white of Saint Bruno’s robe is more similar to the big drapery behind the pope. Another subtle feature that makes the scene about him.
I won’t be able to use the same colours in my reproduction due to the characters I’m using. However I thought it was interesting to talk about the colours at least.
Lastly the concept us animators will be most familiar with is silhouette. Le Sueuer used this theory to define the different characters in his painting and make every one of them clear.
What is going to be difficult for me is the fact that my characters won’t be wearing robes. The robes play an important part in Le Sueuer’s painting because they create big blocks of colour that he has placed other silhouette’s within. Take the Pope’s screen right hand for instance, which is placed inside the white colour of his robes.
One important thing I’ll need to do is use the secondary character’s blue colour to set the Pope’s left hand against. With so many characters together in one place it can be difficult to get clear silhouettes. The way Le Sueuer achieved this was by using the different blocks of colours.
My 3D version
I chose some characters from Long Winter Member’s archive to pose out this scene. Obviously my version of the scene is far less beautiful than the original, however I learned a lot from doing it. I discovered all of the different ‘Reasons why…’ by constructing this scene rather than just looking at the painting itself. As I copied the painting, these compositional choices and their reasons revealed themselves to me.
For example the use of colour to define the silhouettes of the Popes hands. In my version I had to pose the characters very carefully to achieve this, as I didn’t have the benefit of the big robes. This resulted in pose changes, such as with my king character’s arms.
I was going to leave out the big drapery in the background originally, however I had to put something there when I realised how much those curves in the folds add to the composition and flow.
One choice I regret slightly is the green goblin character I used instead of Saint Bruno. Adding this green colour isn’t very appealing and it loses some of the colour theory I was talking about above. Yet I liked the story idea of a tribesman bowing to some sort of king. I also wish that ‘the King’ had long sleeves and skin coloured hands, like the Pope did. These are challenges we will always face in 3D animation though, so we often have to make do with what we are given.
A change I’m more happy with is in the posing and emotion of the first secondary character (most near to ‘the king’). I tried to make his arm positions clearer, without making them too distracting. I also added some slight surprise on his face, to match his blue counterpart.
The more like a painting a photograph is, the more appealing it becomes. I think the same is true for 3D animation. By understanding traditional art more, we can learn something to take into the 3D world.
I highly recommend you try this out if you’re a 3D Animator or layout person. It’s surprisingly challenging and you will gain a lot of insight into a piece of art by trying to reproduce it.
It’s also an opportunity to work outside of the feature animation bubble and try some new ideas. One nice thing about this painting is that all of the characters have their own story going on. In a feature animation, every crowd character would be turned to the main action and have the same emotion on their faces. All their eyes would be pointing in exactly the same direction. Doing this in feature film is clear and we understand why in animation that’s necessary. However this painting’s approach is more real. It’s nice to have something different going on with the secondary and crowd characters.
The main characters are also treated differently here to how they would in a cartoon. In a cartoon or feature film their gestures would be far more exaggerated. The faces would be even more exaggerated. I enjoyed toning it down in my poses.