Book Review: Figurative Artist’s Handbook

written by Sophie | Books

Figurative Artist’s Handbook by Robert Zeller: I found out about this brand new publication via social media. I follow many American figurative artists on social media, including Robert Zeller, and admire much of their work. I like to explore books on drawing and painting not only for my own work, but also to find new ways to help me teach my workshops. This book looked promising!

First Impressions

My first impressions of the book was that it is a beautiful publication. The images are true to colour, beautiful and plenty, the pages well laid out, no over-facing blocks of text, or difficult looking diagrams to be found. The contents showed a well thought out structure, starting with some art history, moving on to drawing lessons, and an extensive part on contemporary figurative artists. I was keen to dive in!

Art History

Apollonian and Dionysian

Unfortunately the first part of the book on art history let me down big time. In his overview of figurative art throughout history (he starts with the Egyptians and ends in contemporary America), Zeller makes the odd choice of describing art history in terms of its ‘Apollonian’ and ‘Dionysian’ values. These terms have a huge and complex history (and a strong connection with 19th century German philosopher Nietsche) but for Zeller they seem to just mean ‘rational’ and ’emotional’ respectively. The use of these loaded words is unnecessary and misplaced and you won’t find them in most (or any?) books on art history.


He defines “figurative realism”, which is the main topic of this book, as “anatomically correct realism”. He mentions the term ‘classical’ a lot more throughout the book. Apparently its “conventions were ‘Apollonian’, built on reason and careful study of the human form”, which sounds more like a medical illustration than art.

Missed Opportunity

Zeller’s description of the history of figurative art fails on too many levels. He slips in many small mistakes, and skips other important developments. Egyptian and Gothic art is brushed off as uniform and ‘not classical’. The ‘unified aesthetic’ of the Gothic even lasted until the mid 17th century, according to him, although he fails to describe this aesthetic in any detail and disregards the rather large differences between 17th and 15th century art.The Italian Renaissance clearly takes precedent over any other art period for Zeller, as all of a sudden all the artists are ‘classical’ and ‘brilliant’. These artists are apparently emulating Greek classical art but Zeller completely fails to integrate them into their own time and place.

​Baroque art is simplified into a direct result of the Council of Trent (held between 1545 and 1563 in Italy). This event was much bigger and more encompassing and was not the sole or even the main cause for the emergence of Baroque art. Zeller erroneously states the dramatic lighting effects of Baroque art were designed to impress the common man. Elsewhere chiaroscuro is wrongly defined at ‘theatrical lighting’ although theatrical lighting is later named as ‘tenebrism’. Other strange statements like “in order to be an interesting painter, you had to be an interesting person” open up more questions than answers.

After the Baroque Zeller describes various movements in art history in terms of their respective ‘Apollonian’ and ‘Dionysian’ traits. Rococo is ‘frivolous’ and neoclassicism ‘Apollonian’ etc etc. He goes on to describe the American figurative art and sees an “odd thing” happening after the second world war, when figurative realism fell out of favour. Within art history there is actually not that much oddness about it.

His chapter on art history, although admirable in intent, fails on too many points. There are too many factual mistakes, strange choices, and a general lack of knowledge to make it worth-wile for a student of figurative art.

Can the book redeem itself? yes, it can and it does.

Drawing Lessons

Although I find the choice of structuring the lessons in this book a little repetitive, I do think it is full of useful advice, examples and tips. Zeller shows how he goes about drawing a figure in 5 steps:

  • Finding the Gesture
  • Establishing the basic proportions
  • Blocking in with anatomy, light, and shadow.
  • Modelling the form
  • Adding the finishing touches and refinements.

​With the help of these 5 steps he describes how to draw a frontal view of a figure. The next chapter describes a back view, then a horizontal/diagonal pose where he goes through the same 5 steps.

​The overall descriptions of the steps is clear and helpful. Zeller is nicely loose in his approach and not too stuck on method and measurements. I like that. He describes how to see gesture, 3-d blocks and shapes and how they help you see the figure’s pose and shape. He is less expansive on shading, mark-making techniques or how to measure proportions. He describes the anatomical structure of limbs without showing them and for someone with little or no knowledge of anatomy (guilty as charged!)  these terms are completely meaningless. Overall it is packed full of good advice and helpful and inspirational drawings.

A chapter on the value of keeping sketchbooks made me feel guilty but determined to sketch more and gives lots of nice examples of various artists’ sketchbooks.

He moves on to portrait drawing and sketching and although again there is a little on proportions or measuring (one of the hardest things is to figure out where to place the features) there is plenty of good advice.

​Best Bit

The most valuable part of the book is the chapter ‘The Creative Process’ where we can see preliminary studies and sketches next to finished paintings by various contemporary artists. The choice of artists here is vital and I am inspired to see so many of my (mostly American) heroes, such as Wyeth, Brad Kunkle, Aleah Chapin, Patricia Watwood, Nelson Shanks, Julio Reynes. To see the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures really does show that each artists has their own approach and there is no set way of doing things, which is an important message to take back into the studio.


The quality of the reproductions is truly excellent, and since the book is packed full of images this book is inspirational and beautiful for that alone. When I finished reading this book I was inspired to get going, to find beauty and grab a pencil. Just skip the art history bits.

Published: April 20, 2017

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  1. Thank you for this review. I agree that the use of Apollonian and Dionysian is reckless but ever since my studies at NYAA I have been in a community of figurative painters that use it often. Im almost certain I’m the only one among my painting colleagues who has read The Birth of Tragedy so I understand that many artists might not be clear on what these terms mean as intended by Noetzche. Then again Noetzche himself called the book “image mad and image confused” so he might have been vague on the concept too.

    I do wish artists looked more into the original concept so they see that this isn’t an either or duality but that a work of art can try to hold both together in a single artwork. This balancing, although rarely referred to as Apollonian/Dionysian, was often discussed by the community of abstract painters I was raised in, particularly my father Bill Fisher who would say “every artist has a classicist and a romantic fighting inside of them and the goal is to find harmony between the two.”

    While Zeller’s opening text does not serve as good art history or philosophy, it does provide an accurate view into how many figurative artists see their craft. It is an insiders view and gives an honest starting point.

    I hope more people read this review and are inspired to think critically about the use of Apollonian/Dionysian. The discourse in figurative art could use more rigor.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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