How do you go about constructing a complex painting with several figures? The answer, which might raise new questions in your mind, is this: think of the figures as characters in a story, and draw the relationships between them. Case in point: my large oil painting Earthquake.
The painting is composed of several characters, some close to you in the foreground, some so far back in the background, or down in the dark corners, that it takes a while to discover them. The woman standing, hand covering her face with a gesture of grief, is based on a live model. In a first quick sketch, her beautiful luminous flesh was too seductive. So I had to create a rough surface over her body to give the impression of having been injured when the earth shifted. Also, I changed her pose so her face is nearly covered by her hand, calling attention to the expression of grief in the contorted lines that remain visible.
Then there is the boy holding up a collapsing bunch of wooden beams. Of all the characters in the painting, he is the only one who looks you directly in the eye. I arranged the beam so it casts a sharp shadow across the face, in effect cutting it off, and darkening one eye; which makes the other eye, the one visible to light, look ever more piercing.
Here is a baby lost in the dark corner of the painting. When you stand in front of the painting, it takes a while to find him.
Throughout the painting, I used distorted views and highlighted the seams between shattered perspectives. The dying man in the center of the painting is the best example to illustrate it. You are viewing him as if you are standing directly above him. But draw your attention to the broken board he tries to support, with the little strength he has left in him. You are standing over him--and at the same time, below that board.
If, with his last gasp of breath, he lets go of it, the entire mess of wooden beams and boards will come crashing over you. Careful, now! Take a step back.