DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Try, Try Again

Filed under: Figure Drawing: Practice — Tags: , , , , , , — fred @ 23:28

Marilyn 1, June, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Last week I posted about the master of the “naked portrait”, Lucian Freud, who often spent hundreds of hours over a period of many months on a single painting.  Naked portraits are also among my practices, but I lack the patience to spend so much time laboring over a single image.  I feel my best work arises more from spontaneity than from perseverance, and so I just churn ’em out and hope a few are worth saving.

I run a weekly session at New York’s Spring Studio featuring a nude “long pose” – long by sketch standards, not by oil painting standards.  My class lasts three hours and starts with a set of two-minute warm-up poses; subtracting that set and breaks, the amount of time allotted for drawing the pose amounts to two hours.

Most artists work on a single drawing or painting during the session.  So do I, sometimes, but I also frequently decide to start over again one or more times.  In this post I’ll share recent examples of multiple tries at the same pose from the same viewing angle.  I’m sharing some of my failures, work I wouldn’t normally exhibit, because of what they reveal about my process.

The sketch that opens this post shows how I begin analyzing the angles of a pose.  You can see how I use a combination of triangulation and rhythmic curves to find the tension and structural energy of the pose.  In my second attempt, below, I’m building on that analysis, but drawing closer.  I often use lines to indicate the contours between shadows and highlights.

Marilyn 2, June, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Finally, I decide that all the magnificent arches and cantilevers of this pose are distilled in Marilyn’s face, with its pointed eyebrows and lips, and the lovely taut bow of the collarbone.

Marilyn 3, June, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Christophe is a model with an acting background, and his specialty is facial expressions.  Here he gave us anguish, leaning to one side.

Christophe 1, June, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Here I spent most of the session developing the drawing above.  At some point near the end of the session I decided I’d best stop working on it. lest I overwork it and destroy its power, a mistake I still sometimes make.  So I spent the last half hour or so simplifying what  I’d learned from the previous hours of study of Christophe’s expression into a linear abstraction of emotion, below.  Even though this drawing is an afterthought, I think it’s stronger than the one I spent more time on.  I wouldn’t have been able to do something like this from the start – its simplicity only arises from the experience of prolonged looking.

Christophe 2, June, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Here’s one of my favorite models, Betty.  I think I began drawing using the yellow crayon sideways to indicate the highlights of the body, then used white and black lines to delineate details and the contours between highlight and shadow areas.  Proportions are wildly off here, with the head half the size of the torso.

Betty 1, July, 2011, by Fred Hatt

So I started again and developed this figure in relation to the elements around it.  The head may still be a little too big, but that’s my strongest distortive tendency.  The face has so much structural complexity and carries so much expressive power, it needs as much space in the drawing as it needs!

Betty 2, July, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Below is another example where I managed to come up with a representation of the model’s face, body and expression that was pretty satisfactory, overall, but a bit dull, perhaps.

Mitchell 1, July, 2011, by Fred Hatt

So I moved in on the face and tried to summarize its specificity in line.

Mitchell 2, July, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Here’s stage one of a look at Luke’s seated pose.  All the drawings in this post were made during the summer.  In the hot months, the aquarelle crayons I use are softer and lay down a thicker layer of wax than they do in the cooler months.  Once there’s a certain density of wax on the paper, revision is hopeless.

Luke 1, July, 2011, by Fred Hatt

A second attempt shows my understanding of the figure sharpening.  Here I’m using a lot of cross-contours.

Luke 2, July, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Finally, again, I move in closer.  Here the style I”m using is like carving with a chisel.  I’m trying to approximate colors by the method of optical mixing.

Luke 3, July, 2011, by Fred Hatt

The final series of drawings in this post is from this past Monday.  This was my first shot at drawing Leah, a model that has inspired several lovely paintings by Daniel Maidman.  I started out measuring the pose by head-lengths.

Leah 1, August, 2011, by Fred Hatt

In the second attempt, the head was oversized – my usual tendency.  The pose has subtly changed since the first set, with the left knee and arm covering less of the torso.  Most of the artists were clustered to the model’s right side during this pose, and probably didn’t even notice the change in the pose.  I took advantage of it to study the structure of the chest and abdomen.

Leah 2, August, 2011, by Fred Hatt

My third try at this pose finds me moving closer, to allow a more detailed treatment of the face.  Still not quite right, though.

Leah 3, August, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Here’s the final try, developed during the last third of the session.  I still haven’t really captured Leah’s face, but I’m happy with the color and the challenging dangling hand in front of the thigh.  It can be hard to really get the essence of a model in the first session of studying her or him – you get what you can, and then time’s up!

Leah 4, August, 2011, by Fred Hatt

All the drawings in this post are aquarelle crayon on paper, 19 1/2″ x 25 1/2″ (50 cm x 65 cm).  Similar previous posts showing multiple attempts at the same pose include Variations and Redrawing.



Filed under: Figure Drawing: Practice — Tags: , , , , , — fred @ 11:08

Opposite Sides, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Life drawing as a practice involves a tension between habit and novelty.  Everyone I know who attends open figure drawing sessions has their favorite places to set up, their usual distance and scale, their familiar materials and techniques.  Anything unfamiliar, even a model you aren’t used to, is likely to make the quality of your work suffer.  Naturally, most artists are happy when they’re drawing or painting fluently, and unhappy when they’re struggling and stumbling, and they find that cleaving to habitual ways helps a lot.  This is as true for me as it is for any artist.

On the other hand, constantly working a well-worn rut will never get you anywhere new.  It’s exercise, but not the kind of exercise that builds strength or expands capacity.  It’s boring, and often the artwork that comes out of it is well-controlled but boring.  I believe most artists are far too sensitive to doing bad or awkward work, and far too insensitive to the hazards of the rut.

Boredom is a regular aspect of life drawing sessions.  Even when you love drawing and love looking at naked bodies, and often feel excitement and flow in your work, there are times when you’re looking at the same model in the same pose you’ve seen a hundred times, when your angle of view obscures the most dynamic part of the pose, or when your energy level flags.

My strategy is to introduce controlled variations, to break one part of the set of habits at a time.  I might try changing my scale of drawing, moving away from my habitual spot, or focusing on a particular aspect of the pose or scene that’s different from my usual approach.  When the model takes the pose, I’ll often make a choice at that moment:  Which element of my work should depart from the norm?

The drawing at the top of the post is from the Monday morning long pose class I supervise at Spring Studio.  After a set of quick poses for warm-up, the model takes a single pose for the rest of the session.  Subtracting the breaks, we have about two hours of drawing time for the long pose.  I’m quick, so my greatest hazard is to overwork drawings, a mistake I still find myself making sometimes.

Kuan, the model for the above drawing, has a beautifully toned and well-defined body.  She took a sideways seated pose, looking towards the center of the room.  I took the opportunity to go to the left side of the room and study her back.  But I thought I’d be likely to overwork just the back, so I used half the sheet of paper, saving the other half for a study of the same pose from the opposite side of the room.  Besides going beyond the one-sided view to which two-dimensional artists usually confine themselves, this turned out to be a fascinating study in proportional and structural relationships.

Absence, 2011, by Fred Hatt

The 20-minute drawing above was done at Figureworks, where the models pose in an archway between two rooms.  I was at an angle where this reclining pose was highly foreshortened and partially blocked by the edge of the arch on the left.  I could have moved to a different spot, to see an unobstructed view, or a more straight-on angle.  Instead, I chose to let the left edge of the paper be the edge of the arch, centering the composition on the empty part of the blanket on which the model was lying.

Floor Cloth, 2010, by Fred Hatt

In this reclining pose, I also focused on the floor and the blanket, leaving the body as a silhouette with some cross-contour shading.  Here the shape formed by the body is defined by its negative space.  The folds of the fabric even help give a sense of the weight and solidity of the body.

Framing, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Here’s another pose defined largely by coloring in the negative spaces.  The colors used for walls, floor and fabric have nothing to do with the actual hues of the scene.  They’re chosen to enhance the form of the pose.  I particularly like the diamond-shaped space between the arms, chest and thigh, that takes on the appearance of a tetrahedron with yellow and green faces.

Contour, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Here’s another archway pose, with the model turned away from me and the edge on the right blocked.  I started drawing in red, just the front contour of the body from shoulder to knee, but then I decided I wanted to include the foot and the hair, so I flipped the paper upside down and drew again, at a smaller scale, on the opposite side of the page.  I left the upside-down red contour, making an interesting river of negative space between the two views of the pose.

Right Triangles, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Side views of the body are particularly challenging, especially when none of the landmark features are visible.  Here my attention was captured by the squareness of the seated pose and the angularity of the model’s face.  The colored areas in the background are pure invention, to emphasize this contrast between right angles and diagonals.

Cluster of Fingers, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Here is yet another seated pose, viewed from the side.  I could find no dynamism in the pose or composition, and couldn’t see the model’s face, but the hands were clasped together in a way that was highly complex, and I was close enough to see them pretty well, so I took the opportunity to practice hands, widely considered the most difficult part of the body to capture in drawing.

Nazarene, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Like complicated hand positions, the face at an unusual angle is very challenging to draw, so I try to practice it when the opportunity arises.  These attempts often turn out with distortions, and this drawing does have certain distortions, but I think it succeeds in capturing a sense of aliveness, not only through the facial expression, but also through the angles and composition.

Sketcher and Poser, 2011, by Fred Hatt

This portrait from a Figureworks life drawing session needed one more element, so I included a sketch of Randall, Firgureworks’ proprietor, with his sketchbook on the other side of the room.  I made him much smaller in relation to the main figure than he actually appeared from my angle of view, which makes the main figure appear to be seen from very close.  This is the same effect you get with a photo taken from close to the subject with a wide-angle lens, with the perspective differences between foreground and background exaggerated.

Facing Light, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Here’s a back view with the shape of the figure highlighted by the window she’s facing and the light from the window reflecting off the polished hardwood floor.  Sometimes a very simple treatment of the background greatly enhances the sense of real presence of a figure by creating a space for it to occupy.

In a Room, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Here’s a more complex variation on the same idea.  The space is simplified into areas of differing value and color, just enough to make the figure a solid reality in a world of air and light.

Many of these poses could have been boring drawings had I not made choices to do something different from my habitual approach.  These experiments aren’t always successful – in fact they increase my chances of making terrible, embarrassing drawings.  But without the unusual choices, the results might have been competent but rather dull.

All the drawings in this post are aquarelle crayon on paper, approximately 18″ x 24″.


Academic Figure Studies

Ali, 2010, by Fred Hatt

The term “figure study” seems calculated to evoke pedagogical sobriety absent any whiff of lasciviousness.  Even the word “figure” suggests cogitation rather than concupiscence.  Representational artists have long found contemplation and analysis of the human body to be both an invaluable skill-building practice and a source of inspiration, but in the imagination of the general public all artists are roués and their models are not simply “undraped” but downright nekkid.

Those who are actually familiar with the practice drawing from life know that a room full of artists focused on the model is often suffused with a meditative intensity more like the atmosphere of a monastery than that of a brothel.  For fifteen years I have served as the monitor (supervisor) of a three-hour weekly class at New York’s Spring Studio.  We do a set of quick poses to get the energy flowing for both model and artists, and then a single long pose for the rest of the session.  Minus the breaks, we have about two solid hours to study and draw a single pose.

I’ve featured many drawings from those sessions in various posts on this blog.  Sometimes I work on the portrait, other times I concern myself with the subtleties of color and light or the complexities of foreshortening.  In this post I’ll feature drawings from the Spring Studio long pose sessions that come as close as I ever come to the ideals of traditional academic figure drawing practice.

Betty, 2009, by Fred Hatt

The academic approach to figure drawing generally demands that the entire figure be scaled to fit the page.  Artists may use a variety of measuring aids, such as a plumb line or a viewing grid, and use special techniques to establish accurate relationships, often spending more time in measuring and mapping than they do in actually drawing.  Some artists who work this way attend the long pose classes at spring studio.  They usually use graphite sharpened to a needle-fine point and work very carefully.  They’ve often been schooled in the techniques taught by Charles Bargue and Jean-Léon Gérôme, where students start their studies drawing from plaster casts of classical sculpture before graduating to the live figure.  Some of Bargue’s own drawings are particularly beautiful, and many other artists use these techniques to wonderful effect, although the danger always seems to be that the live model comes out in the drawings looking like a plaster cast.

Marilyn, 2009, by Fred Hatt

If you’re familiar with my work, you’ll know that this traditional academic method is quite far from my way of working.  For me it would be painfully slow and timid.  I do some measuring when I’m drawing, but more for checking and correcting rather than initial construction.  As a self-taught artist, I prefer to work as quickly,  spontaneously, and boldly as possible.  It’s certainly not the appropriate way for everyone to draw, but for me it’s how I get the feeling of aliveness into the work.

James, 2010, by Fred Hatt

So these aren’t really “academic figure studies” at all.  They are, however, drawings in which I have striven to depict, as accurately as I can, the reality of the model on the posing stand.  This includes the individual characteristics of the models and the way their bodies rest on or around the various boxes and bits of furniture and fabric that make up the completely artificial environment in which they are placed for our observation.

Emma & Maria, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Two models posing together lets us see the body in relation to another body, with all its differences and similarities.  The models for the drawing above were a mother and daughter.

Jeremiah, 2010, by Fred Hatt

It is rare in the open drawing long pose sessions that we get to study the back.  The back is just as complex as the front of the torso, but its defining points are much more subtle and therefore more challenging to draw.

Claudia, 2010, by Fred Hatt

The drawing above is of Claudia, the great model-blogger behind Museworthy.

Elizabeth, 2010, by Fred Hatt

For the drawing above, I was sitting on one side of the model’s platform in Spring Studio’s horseshoe-shaped arrangement.  I’ve included a very rough representation of the other artists on the opposite side of the room.

Jiri, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Standing poses are often considered the simplest and most basic poses for drawing, because they generally lack foreshortening and tricky juxtapositions.  I find them challenging, though, first because the tall and narrow standing body doesn’t fit well within the moderate rectangle of the drawing paper.  I find it hard to make myself draw so small, and I have a tendency to make the head too big because it’s hard to get the needed detail in such a small area.

Jennie, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Seated and reclining poses come more naturally to me, but every pose presents its own special challenges.

Maria, 2011, by Fred Hatt

The boxes and fabrics and objects around the model become part of the composition, but they also create a set of geometrical relationships that can help the artist to analyze the scene and establish proportions.

Yisroel, 2011, by Fred Hatt

For me, the reason to understand the anatomical structure of the body is not to be able to alter the figure to more closely resemble an ideal, but to better appreciate the range of variations on every part of the form that makes each figure unique.

Jun, 2011, by Fred Hatt

On most of the drawings featured in this post I’ve remained fairly faithful to the actual background objects on the model’s platform, though I’ve often simplified them and altered the colors to please my own sense of composition and color harmony.

Kuan, 2011, by Fred Hatt

I’ll close with another dual-model pose.  These men are not related as were the mother and daughter seen in the other two-model drawing here, but they had a great rapport.  Both of them look like they belong in the 19th century!  The younger model is the same James seen in the fourth image in this post.

James & Tram, 2011, by Fred Hatt

All of these drawings are 18″ x 24″ or close to that size, aquarelle crayon on paper.  All were drawn at Spring Studio’s Monday morning long pose sessions.


The Secret of Practice

Marina, December, 1994, by Fred Hatt

Practice itself is no secret. Everybody knows you have to practice to be good at anything athletic or artistic. Talk to anyone who has brilliant skills, whether with a fiddle or a basketball or a theatrical role, and you can bet you’ll hear they spend a lot of time practicing.

Shifra, December, 1995, by Fred Hatt

I’m a big believer in practice. As a young self-taught artist I had no consistent and regular practice, and it soon became clear that the occasional flashes of brilliance I perceived in my own work weren’t going to turn into any steady flame without a more disciplined approach. In 1994 I began a regular practice of attending timed life drawing sessions. I’ve continued to this day and will do so as long as I live.

Arthur, December, 1996, by Fred Hatt

The point about practice that I intend to make in this post can’t really be illustrated.  I thought maybe looking at my sketchbooks over the years would reveal something about the effects of sustained practice on my work, but it’s not perfectly clear.  The drawings show a great deal of variability due to changes of media, different models, or my own energetic state on a given day.  Of course it’s a bit overwhelming to look at thousands of sketchbook pages over sixteen years.  What I have chosen to intersperse with these paragraphs is simply sketchbook pages (or double pages) of quick poses (one or two minutes), one each from the month of December of each year since my practice began in December 1994.  These are all practice drawings.  None were made with the intention to exhibit them.  There’s no direct relation between the images and the adjacent paragraphs.

Bruno, December, 1997, by Fred Hatt

Now when I look back at my work from 1994 and my work from today, I can see a lot of development. The quick sketches have become bolder and surer.  The long drawings have gotten looser and lighter.  The biggest improvement of all came in the first months of regular practice.  The long-term gains are subtler, but deep.

Rae, December, 1998, by Fred Hatt

The life drawing sessions I attend are filled with people who believe in practice. There are a lot of regulars there who have been pursuing the practice much longer than I have. Why, I wondered, do some of these devoted practicers not seem to show any improvement in their skill? (I won’t name names!)

Estella & Rudy, December, 1999, by Fred Hatt

The artists who show no growth aren’t challenging themselves. They tread the same well-worn path over and over again. They started out challenging themselves, but as soon as they found an approach that pleased them or earned praise from others, they stopped right there and went into endless repeat mode.

Daniel, December, 2000, by Fred Hatt

If you are an artist, you may have had the experience of being encouraged to maintain the rut. When a dealer finds work that sells, they want more of the same, not more experimentation.

Nora, December, 2001, by Fred Hatt

Many of the artists at the studio only want to do what they’re good at. A typical class starts with quick poses and increases the length, finishing with longer poses. Artists that excel with long poses but deal awkwardly with quick poses often come late to avoid the quick poses at the beginning of the class. Artists that do well with quick poses and tend to bog down on the long poses often leave early. They may be avoiding the experience of producing “bad drawings”, but they’re not doing their craft any favors.

Maryam, December, 2002, by Fred Hatt

This week I was reading, in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, a review by Annie Murphy Paul of a book I haven’t read, The Genius in All of Us, by David Shenk. I came across this sentence: “Whatever you wish to do well, Shenk writes, you must do over and over again, in a manner involving, as [Anders] Ericsson put it, ‘repeated attempts to reach beyond one’s current level,’ which results in ‘frequent failures.’ This is known as ‘deliberate practice,’ and over time it can actually produce changes in the brain, making new heights of achievement possible.”

Maggie, December, 2003, by Fred Hatt

I couldn’t have put it better. Bodybuilders use the term “training to failure“, and many of them believe pushing the muscles to the point of failure is essential to increasing strength and bulk. I believe an artist should also train to failure.

Christophe, December, 2004, by Fred Hatt

In art, when you start a practice, you’re failing every time. This is why beginner’s practice shows such amazing gains. When you finally reach a level that pleases you, you can easily stay at that level without continuing to experience failure. Of course, you will not experience any further growth either.

Carlos, December, 2005, by Fred Hatt

Artists at the open studio drawing sessions often say they’re having a “good day”, meaning they’re happy with their work, or a “bad day”, meaning they’re unhappy with what they’re getting. But if you want to expand beyond your limitations, you should view every drawing as a failure. After all, there’s no end point of perfection where a work of art is all it can possibly be. If you are trying to depict what you perceive, keep looking – you’re not quite getting it all yet. If you are trying to be as expressive as possible, keep trying – there is still more that you feel, that is not yet making it into your work.

Alley, December, 2006, by Fred Hatt

Once you get pretty good at something, you should be constantly on guard against settling into the comfortable rut. Keep challenging yourself. Try changing your media or the scale of your drawing or your position in relation to the model. Try using your non-dominant hand. Keep varying little things. Whether you have a minute or several hours to capture a pose, always consider that amount of time not quite enough, so that you must work furiously against the relentless clock. These are the small everyday ways of challenging yourself that can hone your craft.

Stephanie, December, 2007, by Fred Hatt

Bigger challenges can actually deepen your art. That’s harder to talk about because those bigger challenges are much more idiosyncratic and uncommon. Often, the great challenges come from outside, rather than being self-imposed. But by constantly challenging your craft in small ways, you are also developing flexibility and an orientation towards responding to problems by growth and adaptation rather than by denial and resistance.

Jaece, December, 2008, by Fred Hatt

In small things, strive beyond your ability. In large things, aspire to the impossible. Welcome failure, as often as possible. Failure is your friend!  That’s the secret!

Betty, December, 2009, by Fred Hatt

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