When I tell people I do life drawing, men generally smirk and women seem to want to move to another topic. There’s an implication that somehow life drawing is not ‘nice’, it is somehow dirty, like a peep show I suppose. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I’ve been doing life drawing for about 3 years now. Life drawing is a strange term. For those who don’t know, ‘life’ is a person, usually a model, who poses without clothes in a fixed position for a stated amount of time, while the artists draw them or part of them. Vases of flowers are called ‘still life’. Like the bunch of flowers, the person has to remain perfectly still so the artists can draw them. No photos are allowed of course, thanks to the internet. So you have to draw quickly. Typically you only have 10 or 20 minutes to do the whole drawing. My wife, who does botanical art, can spend days on drawing a single flower or leaf, but we only get 20 minutes to draw a whole person.
Isn’t it sexy? Voyeuristic?
And no, it’s definitely not sexy, despite what you may think! Once the model adopts the pose, it becomes a mechanical task as much as an artistic expression. What is the essence of the pose? Do I want to draw the whole pose, or just a part? Which line goes where? Which line connects to which? What is in line with what? Which part is in shadow, which in light? And how can I quickly draw the face, the hands, the feet, all of which are so complicated, without them distracting the eye from the pose itself?
There’s definitely no time for voyeurism. The joy of the time is not admiring any beautiful body you may have in front of you (and many of the models are not photo-beautiful), but of capturing the character, the pose, the beauty of that body in that position in the drawing.
So why do it?
So why is a professor of business – with no background in art or drawing – doing life drawing classes? It took me a while to answer this myself! I like taking pictures, but mainly landscapes. But I do like observing people, how they sit, stand, run, think, watch, talk, sleep. I find bodies interesting and beautiful. I particularly like the lines, the contours, the shapes that the body creates in different positions, different lights. And there is something honest about a body with no clothes. We all have one. The clothes are often what makes a body sexy – it’s what you can’t see that makes it sexy.
Collaboration, competition, performance
At the end of the pose time, the artists look at each others’ work, generally pointing out things they like. Strangely (to someone coming from a competitive world, where people who achieve know they have done well and accept accolades for that), artists themselves never seem to think they have done a good piece:
‘Oh, I’m not happy with the shoulder’.
‘I’ve mucked up the light’.
‘The eyes aren’t symmetrical’.
‘The hand is distracting’.
Never: ‘Yes, I really like it. I think I’ve really captured the essence of the pose. It is one of the best drawings I’ve done’.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I was at the bottom of the class when I started! I don’t recall ever being bottom of the class ever, before. This has been a big revelation for me, the feeling that everyone else is superior, has superior skills. I hated it. I was embarrassed, but I understood that that was where I was, where I ought to be, because I had no background in art and was jumping in head first. But I didn’t want to draw still life or circles, or play with different media. I just wanted to draw unclothed bodies. That’s what drew me in.
Being competitive and embarrassed by being bottom, I’ve worked hard to move up. At least now, after 3 years, yes 3 years, I’m not embarrassed by my efforts compared to some of the others in my classes, but I know I’ll never be ‘good’.
But I love going. I love working on a drawing at home. I love looking at what I’ve done and I’ve put some up around the house. I look at them critically: What’s wrong with this one? How can I improve it? It’s a very different world and it’s brought me a much better appreciation of aspects of the world that I knew nothing about.
Isn’t it strange how you can go through life being totally unaware of what is going on in so many parts of it, even when they are occurring right under your nose? For me, life drawing captures my attention in the way skiing does. You enter a completely different world and, at the end of the time, you return to the ordinary world, refreshed, brighter, happier…but eager to get back to it as soon as you can. It makes me see the world differently.