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Why Do I go to Life Drawing Weekly?

First published Thursday, 3 March 2016

Following from last week’s no 1 way of thwarting creative block two conversations have made me think more about life drawing this week. As some of you know I maintain a more-or-less-weekly life drawing habit and attend a drop-in class with York based, Argentinian portrait artist Andres Jaroslavsky. The class is an all-level mix from complete beginners to people like me who work as artists full-time and is structured with set exercises in the first half, then a do-what-you-want long pose after a short break. Over a while it has become known in the class that I paint for a living and that I paint horses. Recently another attendee asked me if that was the case and then asked “so why are you here then?” Good question. The other conversation was at an Art Group demonstration where I was showing how to work on a ‘subtractive’ drawing. Subtractive drawing is traditionally a life drawing technique, where the whole paper is covered in (usually) charcoal and then the drawing is made by picking out the lights and highlights with an eraser. I have done several drawings of horses using this technique and was talking as I was working, mentioning life drawing as I seem to be northern sales rep for promoting life drawing classes. One of the group asked me why life drawing was seen as the best form of observational drawing rather than, for example, still life. I don’t think this was her intention, but I have seen the same question before framed with a snigger of smut: why draw a nude when you could equally draw a clothed figure, the implication being that there is something slightly voyeuristic about it.

I will answer the second conversation first, and this was an answer given off the top of my head, though informed by things told to me in my teens by working artists. The observational drawing of the human form is unique. You are looking at and interpreting three structures in one: the skeletal structure, the musculature and the structural form. The latter’s texture, capture and reflection of light and ultimate form is influenced and shaped by what is underneath. For example, colour (especially when seen in natural light). Where the skeleton comes closest to the skin eg a collarbone, there will be a greyish cast to the skin colour, especially on a caucasian model, or, for example, the wrist where the blood vessels and bones come close to the skin will have a blueish cast. Where there are fat deposits under the skin, eg the belly, there will often be a yellow cast and where there is muscle directly underneath there will be a reddish cast. Similarly the different underlying structures will give different edges. The bone hitting under the skin surface can give a hard edge that might suggest a strong or hard line eg a shoulder, or a lighter line may help describe the softer curve of the belly. The tone of the muscle of the model will also direct the choice of line thoughout the drawing. The same goes for definitions of tones and shadows. This observation and use of different qualities and edges of line and tone gives an expression and movement to the drawing which s good practice to then apply to other subjects.

You might say that is not unique. A horse, dog or other animal may offer those same structures and variations. What is unique though is that the life model can be instructed or hold a certain pose without moving. A talented model can hold that pose for a considerable period of time. Other animals don’t tend to be so biddable or obliging. I will go and draw them from life again too, once I can get outside without my fingers and toes freezing even through fur lined boots. That is another skill in itself: how to draw something that is constantly moving (unless it is asleep).

The question then follows “but surely those same structures can be seen in just the face? Why not just do portraits?” Portrait is another important skill, but there is only so much movement in a head or face (or none if you look at certain actors). The whole body lends itself to drawing with long lines and lines of movement rather than pure outline and a skilled model can create truly amazing shapes . . . and hold them. You could just draw dead bodies – I have done that too: while at University we were sent to draw in the dissection rooms at the teaching hospital, but while a good lesson in observation and anatomy they were, well . . . dead. No muscle tone, not as much colour, no movement and, although Stubbs and Da Vinci did it with horses, I think it would have been frowned on as insensitive to start attaching strings and wires to ‘pose’ the bodies.

As to the suggestion of impropriety or smut. Anyone who seriously attends a Life Drawing class or session will tell you that you that they very quickly get over any inhibition or titillation. You are too busy focusing on seeing and drawing - and in a 3 minute drawing of a full body you certainly don't have time to think about anything else. Life Drawing models are serious about what they do too, and although they are paid a decent hourly rate, a normal class or session is only a couple of hours so they are not raking it in. The attitude is more like any other professional that sees people nude or semi-nude: medical staff, chiropractors, photographers, film camera operators etc. To do a decent drawing or learn from drawing you have to achieve a sense of detachment from, and objectivity toward the subject. Once the robe comes off this is work. A friend told me about a model that insisted on wandering around during breaks without bothering to cover up and how, while they had spent the drawing time looking at the model, out of that time they became embarrassed and didn't know where to look. My partner is a camera operator who has worked on closed-sets and his advice: only look at their eyes and never drop or avert your gaze. Some people find it hard to talk to a model even when they have put the robe back on, but the models are people too, and often very interesting people. I have even found that I draw a model differently once I get to know them as their personality starts to influence how I present them. Life models come in all shapes and sizes and again the serious Life Drawing practitioners that I know tend to say that they prefer to draw 'real people' rather than the 'perfect people' that celebrity, fashion and beauty magazines show us. Almost any famous artist in the past will have nudes featured somewhere in their body of work, but have a look at some of paintings of celebrations of nudes by Lucien Freud, Gustav Klimpt, Edgar Degas, Michael Alford, Sergei Gusev or Saburosuke Okada, to see the beauty in what they see, or the more brutal glory and honesty depicted by Egon Schiele or Kent Williams as opposed to the media's very narrow definition of the 'appealing' nude.

So back to the first question - why am I there? As a working artist surely I know what I am doing and don’t need to learn how to draw? I refer you back to my first post of 2016 ‘Ever the learner’. I want to improve my observational drawing and my mark-making. Always. I want to experiment and play without it being my ‘job’. I want to push and challenge my ideas, understanding and preconceptions of drawing and painting, and by doing so learn, whether by design or by happy accident. I want to have at least one time in a busy week when I just sit and lose myself in drawing for 2 hours for no more purpose than itself. It has become my meditation and it's just for me. Process not Product.

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The contents of this article or blog are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this article or blog. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this article or blog. Ruth Buchanan disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this article or blog.

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