Piero della Francesca, Flagellation of Christ, 1455-1460, Oil and tempera on panel, 23 x 32.1 inches

As an artist who has concentrated on using nude figures as the main design elements in his compositions for the past six decades, I consciously went against the primary stylistic currents of my artist peers. I must admit that this fascination with using the human figure grew out of my desire to make the teaching of figure drawing interesting to myself as well as to the freshman students assigned to my class when I first began teaching at Pratt Institute at the age of 38. I had been hired because I held a Masters Degree in Art History, had published articles, had had several exhibitions of paintings in the abstract expressionist style, and had a background in graphic design. My full schedule of classes included two-dimensional design, a course applying lessons from art history to studio practice, a survey of art history, and figure drawing.

When faced with teaching the figure I decided to emphasize using it as the basis for composition rather than for the study of anatomy, which I was not equipped to do. As a practicing graphic designer I had learned to respect the vertical and horizontal play of subdivisions within the rectangular picture plane in the manner of a Mondrian composition, and I had studied his writings. Also I had made myself very familiar with Henri Matisse’s use of positive cut-out shapes playing against the background shapes they created. And that has remained the basis of my own approach to realist figure paintings as far as the placement of the figures in the rectangle.

As to developing a sense of three dimensions I turned to the art of Piero della Francesca, who had been one of my heroes early on when I had studied the art of the Italian Renaissance.

Piero the painter was an associate of the architect Alberti, who published diagrams of the various standard proportions of rectangles, derived from the known remains of ancient Egyptian and classical Greek architecture. This geometry, as well as diagrams of the “golden section” rectangle, were used by Piero as the basis for all of his painting compositions. Piero published his own drawings of how to apply the rules of two-point perspective, as devised by their contemporary, Brunelleschi, in drawing human and architectural forms.

Putting all of this together in chalk drawings on the slate blackboard in front of my classes at Pratt made me realize that here was one of the great pictorial ideas that had been all but abandoned in 20th century art. Yet it seemed to me to provide a kind of grammar of pictorial invention, parallel to the grammatical constructions of language that adventurous poets play with; and it opened up exciting new areas of exploration for me as a painter and for a few of the students in that classroom as well. I soon realized all these different courses I was teaching had in my mind merged into one. Looking back I think that at that moment I became my own best student.

Philip Pearlstein, Two Models, Rooster Weathervane, Luna Park Lion and Blow-up Dinosaur, 2016, Oil on canvas

Philip Pearlstein is an American figurative painter whose work is in the collections of the Hirschhorn Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, and Whitney Museum, amongst others. His awards include a Fulbright-Hays Scholarship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is President Emeritus of The American Academy of Arts And Letters and a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Brooklyn College, CUNY.