People often visualize life drawing as it’s seen portrayed in classical paintings…a carefully contrived tableau, the artist fully clothed, a nude model clutching a drape revealing less than more, while the artist’s retinue of friends, family, servants and pets look on.
I’ve described an actual painting, but my experience is of less ‘decorous’ settings. I’m more familiar with an art school or contemporary studio which, in my era, the 60’s and 70’s and later in the 80’s, provided a much more democratic arrangement…with models and students, of both genders, all ages and sizes, lounging, sprawling, climbing, sleeping, reading, chatting, smoking and even nursing their babies.
For a sheltered teenager my first encounter with this experience was eye-popping!
Among the models were pregnant models, older women, younger men…models with extreme postures, excess weight, or very thin. Models with potbellies and hairy legs. Models with muscular tummies and delicate ankles. Models with great abs and tight buns, male and female.
Models, often artists themselves, enjoyed employment that required no equipment beyond a robe and a willingness to stand, sit, lean, and lay down in a myriad of positions while wearing little or nothing.
As students we discussed and rated them based on degree of flexibility, ability to hold a pose, ability to re-enter a pose following a break…their ability to sink into a stance, weight, arm and leg positions exactly as the pose began. They were rated on ability to hold an extreme pose as if running, falling, dancing, boxing…on ability to move through a sequence of related poses in short bursts, ideal for gesture sketches.
We loved models with unusual body shapes whose imperfections offered insight and artistic challenges.
At first the casual nudity was unnerving. When my first model dropped her robe I glanced around restlessly, uncertain where to look. A straight-laced family with little connection to the arts didn’t prepare me for a nude woman, or…lord help us…a man, a man standing within a few feet with nothing to hide any part of his anatomy. I’m actually embarrassed to admit that, at age fifteen, I sharpened several pencils to the nub before I could go back to my easel and draw.
At the easel, all inhibitions fell away. Life drawing revealed life, male and female, tight muscled, flabby breasted, large bellied, tall, slim, grizzled, bearded, crippled, supple, comfortable, awkward, confident, older, younger, pale, ruddy, light and dark.
This intense introduction to the human form started at a night school class at the then Vancouver School of Art in the city’s downtown core. Attending art classes required a bus from my home in south central Vancouver, down Victoria Drive into the under belly of the city along Hasting street to Victory Park. The art school hid just beyond the upper slope of the park, a long block from the bus stop.
In early evening I was often the only person on the street. At other times shadowy figures would loom from the darkness and mumble something about “looking for a girl”, or “needing a drink, my friend”. It all seemed very grim, streetlights casting only a pale glow…until I entered the art school, light full and dazzling, with movement, color, busy hallways, paint splattered floors, large panels of splotches and stripes and dots. Noise, confusion…life.
In this environment I found my home. My whole self welcomed the first command…that we ‘see’! See the muscle under the skin, the bone under the muscle, the bone where it erupts from joints and backs and hips, bruising the skin with sharp shadows.
In a flurry of flying pencils and charcoal, I pressed into the paper, feeling the textured surfaced capture the carbon, leaving bold smears that echoed human form, sometimes with a single line, sometimes with hatching and smudging too.
I learned to “see”.
I learned to “see” weight press down through the spine, through hips, falling in a scientifically predictable arc through knees, shins, ankles and feet, compressing arches and splayed out through toes.
I learned to “see” flesh moving, contracting, flexing, expanding, rigid.
I learned to “see” repose…relaxed, untested, unstressed limbs draped over the arm of chairs, flesh falling away from bone.
I leaned to “see” light, light that reacts to skin in unexpected greens, yellows, mauves, blues and even rich full reds. I learned to see “turning colors,” that amazing phenomena of a third color where light and shadow meet, where chin resolves into the neck, where arm joins shoulder, where bridge of the nose slips away toward cheek, where cheek turns under the jaw.
I learned to “see” the miracle of reflected light, the light and color cast onto an arm, a breast…mauve or sky blue from a window, passing through a turning color of green, into the warm pinks, yellows and gold of indoor light.
I learned to ‘see” that flesh and bone surfaces can turn in more than one direction at the same time, and I carefully studied and drew real bones to follow plane changes.
I learned to “see” foreshortening, that strange quality of an object, a thirty-two inch leg for instance, to appear only twelve inches long when viewed from an oblique angle. That perspective therefore, applies to bodies as much as to buildings.
I learned to “see” that light and shadow define form, that lines exist where sharp light and shadow meet, that line is an arbitrary convention to define shape. I learned to “see” contours, the line that doesn’t exist but which defines the outside extent of the form, from top of the head down around the ear, following the neck to the shoulder, down the arm, over the rise of the hip, zipping gracefully along the thigh, around the knee, down the calf, scooting by the ankle, nipping at the toes, then up the other side again to the head.
I learned to “see” negative and positive space, those magic voids and not voids that define visual relationships, that define flesh against background, that define what is and what is not, what is hip and what is chair.
I learned to “see” the spaces between crossed ankles, the space ‘between’ created by an arm bent at the elbow, hand on hip, the void created by a body in space, the space that is not the body…to see the space that the body occupies, or an arm, or a foot.
I learned to “see” what was there, rather than what I imagined or believed to be there…that an eye is not two half circles enclosing a large round object but a complex of folds and ripples, of concave and convex forms, of indentation and protuberances, of soft surfaces and reflective ones…that no two eyes are alike even on the same face.
I learned that all drawing is life drawing, a sensitive and aware examination, a silent meditation on light falling, forms responding, spaces colliding, weight impressing, colors flowing… whether human form, or leaf, or bird or tree. All drawing is life drawing…all drawing is a meditation on the novelty of physical form and it’s subtle reveal of what lies beneath.