Saturday, 31 March 2012

Life Drawing

I wrote a few posts ago that I had once taken a series of life drawing classes.  The mere mention of this proved to be a magic Proustian key, unlocking a whole series of memories, without a madeleine in sight.  On reflection, those classes may have been one of the most important experiences of my life.

Stop me if you've heard this one before, but it was a major issue for me to be forced at school, aged 13, to choose between continuing with art or to begin the study of German.  Somewhere in this blog I must already have described how, once upon a time, my paintings used to be entered by primary school teachers for national competitions.  I was thought to have some talent.  But, in the context of the British grammar school of the 1960s, "talent" was trumped by "academic ability" (that is, the ability to pass exams) and I also had the latter capacity in generous measure.  Somewhere along the line, the note pinned to my back reading "artist" was plucked off, and replaced with one reading "Oxbridge candidate".

But I never gave up.  I would paint and draw at home, and occasionally exhibited and even sold a few small pieces of work locally.  In the sixth form, having been told firmly that studying Art A Level was completely out of the question, I was given the run of the art room in my free periods as compensation.  The art teacher, Alan Foxley, took pity on me, and invited me to take part in a series of life drawing classes he was running at the local FE college.  When he explained that this involved drawing naked women I had difficulty in feigning a suitable level of cool indifference.

What I hadn't anticipated was that his two models, extraordinarily, were volunteers from another local school.  I was amazed to discover, on successive weeks, as each stepped from behind a screen and removed a dressing gown, that I knew them both.  One of them I had admired from afar for years, and here I was, sat behind a drawing board, studying the gentle curve and dimple of her petite, naked form.  The other girl I only knew by reputation. She was known to her female friends -- unkindly, but I had it on good authority -- as "Sophie Stretchmarks".  Now, awesomely, gloriously, I knew why.

However, the magic of life drawing is that -- in the company of ten or so serious fellow artists -- a naked body ceases to be a naked body after about five minutes of concentration, and becomes something just as interesting: an intriguing 3-D puzzle of shapes, volumes, weights, highlights and shadows.  A life drawing session takes the form of a series of timed poses -- one minute, two minutes, five minutes, ten -- during which time your task is to render the form before you onto paper in a number of challenging ways with a variety of drawing materials.

You might be asked to do a one minute pose with a pointed stick dipped in ink, or to draw a series of imaginary cross sections, like the ones that build up the fuselage of a model aircraft.  At some point, you will certainly be asked to draw the "negative space" around the model.  It's all about turning off your pre-programmed responses, and actually looking, and actually seeing, and letting the fresh perceptions run unimpeded down the nerves in your arm from your eye to your hand.  It's hard work, but sheer joy.

One minute, ink on a stick.

At my first session, we did a final ten minute pose, using a box of stubby remnants of oil pastels.  I had never encountered pastels before, but I had hated crayons as a child. I loathed the waxy, scratchy feel of them, and the unsatisfying blotchy transparency of the colours.  But these oil pastel crayons were like drawing with fragments of expensive cosmetics, rich and smooth and opaque and not at all the anaemic experience that  "pastel-coloured" brings to mind.

"See all the colours," we were told, "Not just the ones you think ought to be there".  I knew exactly what he meant.  I can still remember the experience of gazing at the living, shifting colours on and of the model's body, and making bold marks and hatchings on the paper, rubbing colours into and over each other with a finger.  It was totally exhilarating.

After we had finished, Mr. Foxley saw my drawing, and said, "That's good.  May I take this home to show my wife?"  I walked home that night with a song in my heart.  I knew this was just the start of a life of applause, rich rewards, and the admiration of beautiful, pastel-coloured women.

Unfortunately, the song in my heart turned out to be "The Hedgehog Song".  I'm sure you know the one, by the Incredible String Band -- the chorus goes, "You know all the words, and you've sung all the notes, but you never quite learned the song" ...  I was pretty good for a kid, but I somehow never quite learned the song of making art.  The "Oxbridge candidate" label stayed firmly pinned to my back.  In many ways, I'm glad it did: I'd have made a terrible -- and probably quite reactionary -- artist in the context of the 1970s and 80s.

But the lessons of life drawing are far from wasted in photography, or, indeed, in life.  If you need to be able to see clearly -- let's say, to be able to see both the wood and the trees -- you won't ever regret putting aside your lustful feelings, rejecting all received, cartoonish and clichéd ways of representation, and learning to let yourself see what is truly there, hidden in plain sight.


Mike C. said...

I'm away for a few days. A couple of other posts coming up, c/o my robot assistant, Gogol. Comments fielded on my return (I don't trust Gogol).


Dave Leeke said...

Hmm ... life drawing. I spent my schooldays wishing to be an artist - no academic ability and any interest in science was immediately extinguished by the bully boy science teacher I had at secondary school (let's call him Boris). When I went to College to "do" A level Art at the very same college you mention, I was introduced to life drawing.

As a (very) naive schoolboy of some sixteen summers, they wheeled out a very lovely charcoal haired sized sixteen, I'd now guess, beauty totally naked and expect me to draw her. As with your comments, Mike, I managed, but I'm not sure that I was totally able to ignore the fact that she was naked for the sake of art.

She had been a school friend of a later friend of mine (and yours) - let's call her KP - I forget the model's name. They both went to St Francis school in Letchworth. I became quite friendly with this new model (unfortunately, not THAT friendly) so I learned a bit about her. Even though she was only two years older than me, she had lived an interesting life already. She had live for a while, in between school and nude modelling, with the Incredible String Band in their Scottish retreat for a year or so. It was great to be introduced to, not only nakedness, but some sort of exotic life (a comtemporary to Anne Briggs, perhaps).

Your experience at the school seems so much more positive than mine, I must admit, Mike.

Martyn Cornell said...

The one guy I knew who went to art college had Quentin Crisp as a model in his life drawing classes, so it wasn't all naked teenage girls.

My utter lack of talent at art is something I regret slightly, though not as much as I regret my utter lack of talent at either singing or playing a musical instrument.

Mike C. said...


Interesting... I'll contact you privately about this. My experience at school was smoothed by that label pinned on my back, no doubt.


Yes, I've drawn men, too, in later years -- in some ways, men are more interesting (to draw), especially skinny but well-muscled types -- the shapes they make when lying down are more of a challenge.

Talent, in itself, is a bit of a curse, I think -- you also need application, a big measure of selfishness, and something to say. That "parable of the talents" (Matthew 25:14) is responsible for a lot of unhappiness... Thank you, Jesus.