Distortion in figurative art


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Edward Vincent of New South Wales, Australia, wrote, “I’m attracted to a style of painting based on exaggerating elements of the human form. My problem is differentiating between artistic exaggeration of elements (head, eyes, limbs, etc.) and turning it into caricature. Where is the boundary? The Australian painter Brett Whiteley was known and respected for this effect. Where does serious artistic insight cross over to comical distortion?”


“Self-Portrait in the Studio”
oil, collage and hair on canvas
by Brett Whiteley

Thanks, Edward. There are folks who think Whiteley’s work slipped long ago into ridiculous caricature, but his international sales in the millions might refute that notion. Caricature is in the eye of the beholder.

It’s a good question. If art is what is to be seen, rather than what is seen, and standard ideas of taste are of little concern, then any amount of distortion should be okay. Realists might argue distortion is a safe harbour for folks who know they couldn’t get it right if they tried. On the other hand, getting it right is no trouble for many of us, but we still prefer to redesign things as we see fit. Doubters might be suspicious of the truth in that last sentence.


“Portrait of Wendy”
oil, material, pencil, charcoal, pen and ink on paper
by Brett Whiteley

The question is — How does distortion suit my purpose? Are distorted bodies and contorted faces going to advance the composition or the creative statement, or is it just a freakish, secondhand device to titillate the artistically confused?
Minor modification has always been with us. A good example is the lengthening of fingers and necks in the work of John Singer Sargent. Another is the Alfred Munnings convention of lengthening horses’ legs. The purpose of these two and many others is simply to add a bit of elegance. When the purpose is simply shock and awe, one might consider running up the red flags.

I’m a believer in moderation in all things, including moderation. This means weighing in on the side of taste, whatever that is. There is really good distortion and there is really bad distortion, and less is often more. These are my principles, and if you don’t like them, I’m willing to change.


“Washing the Salt Off”
oil painting on canvas
by Brett Whiteley

Best regards,


PS: “Art should astonish, transmute, transfix. One must work at the tissue between truth and paranoia.” (Brett Whiteley 1939-1999) “Believe it or not, I can actually draw.” (Jean-Michel Basquiat 1960-1988)

Esoterica: Apart from the “can’t draw properly” type of distortion, there are many ways the human figure can be purposely distorted. Here are a few: Wide angle lens (e.g., long legs, small head); Telephoto lens (foreshortening — see Sistine Chapel ceiling); Beautification (see beauty); Plumpification (outsized cooks standing in a bathtub); Anorexization (see Giocometti); Enlargement, reduction or extension of physical features (eyes, glutes, musculature, etc.); Uglification (see ugly). Some distortions are well-understood illusions, while others require a kind of creative surgery. It’s a free world.


Continue the same
by John F. Burk, Timonium, MD, USA


“Hannah’s New Gloves”
acrylic 19 x 28 inches
by John F. Burk

Please do not change your principles. I have been watchful now for years and find you consistent and reliable in your views and opinions. Add to that helpful and encouraging, and you begin to see the heights of my regard for you and your twice-weekly letters. Carry on with your skill, your wisdom and your humility.






A longer look
by Veronica Stensby, Los Angeles, CA, USA

Distortion in figurative art; I found the work delightful. Art functions on so many levels and the human figure has always provoked the greatest response, positive and negative. I applaud these wonderful paintings. Some art is always a challenge and the best deserves more than a glancing look. An element of mystery, the terror in one’s soul, the unanswered question only provides more reason to look longer. Francis Bacon has been recognized as a fine artist, but his work is very challenging to look at. The beauty is there, nonetheless.


Can’t conceal an inept hand
by Pete Gerard, Thousand Oaks, CA, USA

Whiteley is no Francis Bacon, but one can see at a glance the man can draw with some confidence. His compositions are of interest too, and in my view that’s just as important as draftsmanship, if not more so. I feel that a person who does not draw well is inevitably revealed by weak line-work. I can spot it from a distance, and neither distortion nor exaggeration can conceal an inept hand.


Spectrums of distortion
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA


“Lion’s Den #1”
acrylic painting, 8 x 26 inches
by Tiit Raid

There is a huge difference between believable distortion and contrivance. How does one develop the skills to know the difference? One way of course would be to study a wide variety of images where distortion and exaggeration are a major part of the work; after a time the difference between the trite and the convincing will become evident. Very few artists are good at distorting and making it believable. One of the best is the British artist Francis Bacon; and from the distant past, Hieronymus Bosch has some rather convincing distortions. On the opposite end would be Leonardo Neirman, famous for his images of athletes; and Margaret Keane, the lady who painted the big-eye boys and girls that were so popular many years ago.


Everything is distorted
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France


“The Air of September”
original painting, 59 x 59 inches
by Jeffrey Hessing

I am seriously myopic — 8 and 12 — which is legally blind in one eye. I see things differently. We all do. That is the whole point. To show people a specific and different perception which, if effective, becomes a reference point. A painter friend told me years ago that he always is off the mark when he tries “to get it right.” I found this to be excellent advice and remind myself of it often. There is no “right.” The validity of a particular distortion comes from the level of expression. Is it deep, personal, honest or is it superficial or contrived. The list of artists who notably distorted the figure is too long to be complete. It is worth mentioning a few, Goya, Velàsquez, Breugel, Francis Bacon, Alice Neal, Oscar Kokoshka, Matisse, Chagall, Roualt, Rodin. I imagine you will hear from plenty of others with more examples. An excellent example of one who could unquestionably draw with great skill and elegance and chose to distort is Picasso. As we are reducing a three dimensional image to two dimensions, everything we do is a distortion, some more noticeable than others.

There is 1 comment for Everything is distorted by Jeffrey Hessing

From: #darkmeh — Jun 29, 2013

i was amazed by what you draw.,, it fits my mind into it.. my mind is distorted like that also.. :)


Artistic devices
by Ellen McCord, Grass Valley, CA, USA


“For Matisse”
original painting
by Ellen McCord

Figurative work is my passion. I strive for some measure of distortion to enhance a piece’s composition or to reflect emotional content or narrative. After drawing and studying the figure for many years, I find distorting or abstracting the human form is a challenge. Matisse, Giacometti, Moore and even Rodin created powerful expressions, especially in their sculptures, by intentional distortion. Since capturing a caricature is possible in representational work through color emphasis, facial expression, and choice of other compositional elements, I believe distortion is only one means to that end. I don’t believe they should be thought of as a continuum, only as different artistic devices to achieve different effects.



Doubting distortion
by Jennifer Weber, Comox Valley, BC, Canada


mixed media, 24 x 24 inches
by Jennifer Weber

I have just finished a piece that is the human figure, morphed. I was thrilled with the results, but now that I will inevitably ‘put her out there,’ I’m filled with fear. My baseline to the value of a piece has almost always come down to whether the work of art moves someone. I love the art of the human body, in many forms, but believe that if one chooses to simplify the complex they must retain the essence, or ‘life,’ for it to be successful. I just haven’t figured out if I’ve achieved that or not. I must sit with it longer I suppose; what a timely letter! This painting isn’t even dry yet!

There are 2 comments for Doubting distortion by Jennifer Weber

From: Ron Elstad — Jul 15, 2009

I love this piece, and I’m a representational artist. You should know I’m very moved.

From: Jennifer — Jul 25, 2009

this comments thrills me. thank you for taking time to respond!


Something for the imagination
by Jenifer Crowell, Beaufort, NC, USA


“Seas of green”
acrylic painting, 36 x 36 inches
by Jenifer Crowell

I sometimes like looking at distortion, to see it and to fall into it when painting. It is often just a form of simplification and a furtherance of imagination. Why does everything have to be completely photographic? I mean, can’t we leave some imagination providing mystery for the viewer? And can’t that image change, even for us, the artist? Isn’t that LIFE? I appreciate both the intricate detailed reality — and the mesmerized reality that shifts with the winds, tides and seasons.


There is 1 comment for Something for the imagination by Jenifer Crowell

From: Dayle Ann Stratton — Jul 14, 2009


Inside Christie’s head
by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA


“Foreclosure Distress”
pastel painting, 24 x 18 inches
by Angela Treat Lyon

I think distortion like his makes for a more interesting portrait — the one of Christie made me wonder what kind of thoughts the man had, how he saw things, what kind of touch he had (has!) on the world. A ‘straight’ portrait would have been boring next to this one. And I loved how the third one made such commonly seen forms into such a beautiful landscape of abstract shape and color. For really fabulous distortion, check out the work done by two artists who stand side by side and do the most amazing, brilliantly colored figurative pieces together, Ric Hall and Ron Schmitt. They’ve been ‘painting’ this way for years, and always come up with (what I feel) are the most incredibly compelling images — none of which is ‘realistic,’ yet deeply emotionally intense.

There are 2 comments for Inside Christie’s head by Angela Treat Lyon

From: Bill Hibberd — Jul 14, 2009

Great painting, Angela. Should be hanging in every bankers office.

From: John Boeckeler — Jul 16, 2009

And it ought to be given to every prospective borrower/mortgagee with the loan application forms. It’s a striking image.


Perception of the masses
by Margaret Stone, Panama City Beach, FL, USA


acrylic painint, 32 x 60 inches
by Margaret Stone

Considering that the painted image, among other related venues, is an illusion of reality and not reality itself, we have the creative freedom to use the figure or other elements in a way that enhances the message in our work. Is figure distortion the result of the artist being unable to represent the figure as it actually is? I attended weekly life-drawing workshops and painted portraits for years. I say it is the other way around. In order to distort or change a figure successfully within a work, it helps to have an excellent working knowledge of the human form.

Does everyone’s water look exactly like water, trees like trees, rocks like rocks, pastures like pastures, skies like skies, etc? And then what makes representing the figure more sacred than those elements? The changed or enhanced figure can be a design element creating suggested meaning that leads the viewer through an open-ended story of form and color and content.

There is 1 comment for Perception of the masses by Margaret Stone

From: Susan-Rose Slatkoff — Jul 14, 2009

I think you have hit the nail on the head. What artist, painting a bowl or a tree hasn’t decided that they want it larger, wider, longer, etc? Why is it any different with the figure or the face? Let’s keep thinking outside of the box — isn’t that what artist’s do?

P.S. Yummy painting! Brava.


The Demiurge
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA


“Nude Descending a Staircase”
mixed media, 30 x 24 inches
by Warren Criswell

What about El Greco? Pontormo? Modigliani? Could they not draw? Were they caricaturists? And Matisse, Picasso, Francis Bacon (by whom Brett Whiteley seems to have been strongly influenced), and R. Crumb? — Oh yeah, he IS a caricaturist! And yet some of his drawings have the transcendent power of great art. Setting boundaries is a dangerous thing for an art. They are necessary of course, but they have to be set by us, by the artist, not accepted as given or as inherited wisdom. We are explorers, and the explorer never knows what he or she is going to discover. These artists use distortion as way to reveal truth. Look at this passage from Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles. I read it as a description of the experience of making art.

“‘The Demiurge,’ said my father ‘has had no monopoly of creation, for creation is the privilege of all spirits. Matter has been given infinite fertility, inexhaustible vitality, and, at the same time, a seductive power of temptation which invites us to create as well. In the depth of matter, indistinct smiles are shaped, tensions build up, attempts at form appear, and the whole of matter pulsates with infinite possibilities that send dull shivers through it. Waiting for the life-giving breath of the spirit, it is endlessly in motion. It entices us with a thousand sweet, soft, round shapes which it blindly dreams up within itself.'”




Lone beauty
acrylic painting 8 x 10 inches
by L. Diane Johnson, Cary, NC, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Tim Tyler who wrote, “Distortion in drawing figures is not unlike bad spelling. It’s easier to declare it as a purposeful act than to do it correctly.”

And also Peter Wong of Beijing, China who wrote, “Artists are desperate to do something different that doesn’t exist in reality. I do ‘wong-ki’ buildings, distortions that people seem to like.”

And also Diane Rabideau-Wise of Jacksonville, FL, USA who wrote, “I have been having a ball drawing distorted faces. My goal was “do” something different; in a media you are not noted for and just have fun with it. I see myself in some of these faces, either by attitude or appearance: long neck, searching eyes, and the ever present impostor.”


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Distortion in figurative art



From: Debbi Baker — Jul 10, 2009

I always enjoy your writing but this week was made totally worthwhile just by that gorgeous sentence “I’m a believer in moderation in all things, including moderation”! I need to make that into a badge!

From: Dan (the elder) — Jul 10, 2009

No one seems to care how I title my landscapes, but when it comes to portraits they seem to like to avoid confusion.

From: Darla — Jul 11, 2009

I agree completely — distortion is just one of the factors that go into your picture. If any of those elements does not improve the picture and advance what you are trying to convey, leave it out!

As you can tell, I’m not a fan of “paint exactly what you see” OR “stylization/abstraction for its own sake”! Simpler is usually more effective.

From: Dena — Jul 11, 2009

I remember learning about Mannerism in art history. While they were not my favorite paintings (strange, elongated necks, hands, etc.), I can appreciate the attempt to be original and make a different type of artistic statement, especially during a more “conservative” time for fine artists. I agree with the idea of doing it to improve a composition or as part of your visual approach.

From: Rick Rotante — Jul 11, 2009

Painting in general is a distortion…of the actual truth. The painting becomes or has its own truth. I don’t want to get too esoteric here and I understand the original question but, we all distort to one degree or another. As stated above, some lengthen the fingers or limps. How much is up to the artist and what he/she is trying to say with the piece. I distort when the models nose doesn’t match my idea of a nose or the color of a garment isn’t suitable to the color scheme I’m working in. As for true distorters like Bacon, Freud et al, they did it to make what point they were making. It’s all good.

Caricature is taking a segment of someone notable and distorting it. Caricature is a horse of different color as far as I’m concerned and not really distortion in the fine art sense, at least to me. El Greco, as an example, distorted but didn’t ‘caricature’ his figures.

I believe distortion is good. It shows a creative side that artists need to show. Copying what you see is boring and very uncreative from the standpoint of saying something new about something old.

The only time an artist should copy anything is as an exercise to learn something about the original. After that it shows your weakness as an artist. Take what you’ve learned and say in your language, in your handwriting.

Too many of us are painting what has already been painted. I too am guilty of this. I do it for many reasons, acceptance, sales and gallery representation. In truth, if you go too far left or right with your work, no one will A- understand your work and B- no one will handle it in their gallery and finally C- no one will buy it. I just saw a work in a gallery that stood out from a sea of redundant landscapes because it is daring and untraditional in its subject and handling. I asked the gallery owner why he was exhibiting such a contradictory work with all the “regular” stuff. He told me he felt it was real artwork, gave his gallery more class and most probably would not sell it because anyone who would buy it, had to be brave, had to be savvy and know about art and willing to put money on the line for a work that was not easily acceptable to many.

I applaud the gallery owner.

From: Russ Hogger — Jul 13, 2009

Fancis Bacon said that distortion brings us closer to reality. Bacon allowed his models to move while he kept on painting. This is no different than a photographer taking multiple exposures of a moving figure with out winding the film on. Bacon also said that there should be some mystery in art and that every viewer would interpret it differently.

From: James Von — Jul 13, 2009

As far as Getting it right, the Human figure. There is far more distortion in the human body by way of natural and artificial effects of nature. You don’t really have to distort it, you just have to observe it.

The reality is that people are distorted by nature and by them selfs.

From: Catherine Robertson — Jul 14, 2009

As human-being/artist, I adore my “aloneness” ! I seek it out and covet it like a favourite pet. As Rachel Carson pointed out, and I’m paraphrasing her, its difficult to be lonely amongst all of nature. I find it’s in these times I really get to “know me”. Friends and family are as necessary as morning coffee but so many times, “loneness” shrieks for address. Perhaps that is part of what artists are, be they painters, dancers, writers etc. Maybe its nature’s way of allowing time, golden time, for the brain, heart and soul to “do their best” ! Anyway, different strokes etc. but when you feel lonely, maybe think on the treasures that we share with this great, big, beautiful world, walk around in it, smell the flowers, hear the birdsong, watch the seas roll in, hunt tiny violets in the woodlands etc. and loneliness just flies out the window ! Great stimulus for drawings and paintings too ! Good luck !

From: Pete Gerard — Jul 28, 2009

Whiteley is no Francis Bacon, but one can see at a glance the man can draw with some confidence. His compositions are of interest too, and in my view that’s just as important as draftsmanship, if not more so.

I feel that a person who does not draw well is inevitably revealed by weak line-work..I can spot it from a distance, and neither distortion nor exaggeration can conceal an inept hand.

From: Laurie — Jul 28, 2009

It was so funny to read your remark, “If you don’t like it, I’m willing to change.” I don’t remember ever consciously “choosing”” my basic nature. I can’t explain, take credit, or apologize for a lot of me. My point is, rather than being able to “change” me, I could maybe improve or make a slightly better me (only being realistic here). But where do I start? I really like who I am, and likewise, I’m content to let others be who they are, it’s such an adventure to find the best in everyone. It’s good to be 62.

From: Rosemarie Manson — Jul 28, 2009

I’ve developed a way of representing people that is rather strange. The process developed accidentally, yet I’ve stuck with it . Some observers LOVE the style, others say the people look like they’re on chemo.

Nevertheless, they’re MY peeps!!!

From: Clare Carver — Jul 28, 2009

In your letter you say “Realists might argue distortion is a safe harbour for folks who know they couldn’t get it right if they tried.” and it’s left me wondering: do you have to be a good draftsman to be considered a good artist and if so, why?? Is art about drawing correctly or about creating a pleasing or interesting image/impression/interpretation of reality? I’m wondering….

From: Edna Hildebrandt — Jul 28, 2009

I enjoy reading them including the feed backs. I am not well versed on the idea of distortion but when you look at a painting specially the a portrait of an actual model you know, would it not be disrespecting the person or should you inform him or her what you are doing?

From: jmt&@golden.net — Aug 08, 2009

I think to reference a piece of art that has distorted image as hyper realism is misleading to the viewer.

From: zambra andoy — Nov 16, 2009

i really appreciate the paintings,very exotic and enough for me to amaze.while im looking for the paintings i was relating myself to the artist of those impressive creation of them,such a good point of view and dedication.and shows that life must also be an art.

From: meme — Dec 02, 2009

i am not an artist but i really appreciate the work of art especially in painting…

From: Mama Jay — Jun 27, 2010

What you do boy is what chu do ( yeah). They ain’t nothing dat you can’t do (yeah). What I see is what I is. What I do is how I feel. When I eat my Creole shrimp and rice I – Don’t For- Get The Veal BECAUSE I’m BLACK I’m BLACK ( He’s really really black ). You know I’m OOOOH I’m Black ( He’s really really black).

From: arah — Jan 13, 2012

ahhhhhhhhhmmmmmmp why i couldnt find the origin of the distortion




  1. Pingback: The Way you Do It – Peeping Girls

Leave A Reply

No Featured Workshop
No Featured Workshop

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.