Dissecting Elvgren Pt. 1 - "Inside Story"

So begins what promises to be a chain of studies of Gil Elvgren's definitive work in the genre. Babe Lab Disclaimer : Non-proprietary photos and illustrations featured on Babe Lab appear for the sole purpose of review.

We open with this piece, also titled "Over Exposure." Elvgren's narratives are simple. "Inside Story" features a scantily-clad girl sitting on an x-ray table presenting an x-ray of herself. We take everything in at a glance, our eye darting from the girl's quizzical face to her clutched garment, to the x-ray, then finally down to the table.

There's no question that Elvgren's handling of color in the oil medium (dubbed "the mayonnaise school" for its creamy quality) is a key factor in his images' liveliness and appeal, but on this first outing, let's examine the underpinning elements.

-Overlaps sell the dimensionality of the subject before any tone or color is applied. Notice the fun "pooch" of leg where it hangs off the table. This is a delightful use of overlap that simultaneously informs us of the girl's softness.
-There are tactile "contact points" at her chest, the x-ray, the table and her legs.
-Elvgren gave his models props to help tell his stories. The "stage" is set/opened for the prop being displayed, in this case the x-ray. Elvgren has even splashed a spotlight on the prop, further popping it from the backdrop.
-The contrastiest, info-rich areas in the illustration are saved for the focal points.
-The background and the less important props, in this case the x-ray table, are neutral. Detail in these areas is sparse to non-existent. To render the mechanism under the table would have been wasted effort, as the viewer is meant to be looking elsewhere.
-Cast shadows always define -- never flatten -- form.
-We see warm bounced light in the shadows, and a subtle reflection of her body on the side of the x-ray table. It's likely a stroke of Elvgren's genius that this reflection draws our eye to the explanatory text stenciled there. With this seemingly redundant detail in place, there's literally no way to misinterpret this piece.
-We are given a variety of fun angles to look at. Her ribcage and head are facing in opposing directions. Even the x-ray is tilted so that we're not looking at it straight-on.
-The graphic "stamp" of the silhouette reads even without interior details.
-"Holes" in the silhouette are low-contrast, so as not to distract.
-Drapery is treated fairly geometrically, to contrast with the roundness of the girl's features.

-Hair and eyes present opportunities for "lost edges."
-Darks of the eyebrow, eyelashes and pupil are very close in range.
-Overall hair shape is geometric, like foliage on a tree. (Squint at a tree from a distance and you'll see it.)

Here are some drawings done prior to the breakdowns above. Such "master study" reproductions (even when linear or crude) help in digesting an artist's thought process. The more faithful you are, the more you're likely to learn. A color study would have been just as informative, but in totally different ways. Next time...

It should come as no surprise that Gil Elvgren, also a skilled photographer in his day, often employed live models to aid him in his work. Though the models were naturally gorgeous, it was Elvgren's sense of humor and knack for storytelling that made his depictions of them truly beautiful. Once a pinup artist develops their concept and carefully designs their composition, then and only then do they have licence to enlist the service of a model. Elvgren didn't copy; he planned with the intent to communicate and judiciously edited reality in his pursuit of the ideal.