Claudia posted some of my quick sketches of her on her blog, Museworthy. Check ’em out!
Quick poses are the very essence of life drawing practice. The word “quick” originally means simply “alive” as in the quick of the fingernails or the phrase about judging “the quick and the dead” from the Apostles’ Creed. Abruptness and rapidity are the qualities that exemplify aliveness. So life drawing is quick drawing, and capturing the life force of the subject is done only with speedy, efficient marks. When a model holds a pose for a period of time, the energy and intensity, inevitably, gradually drain from the pose. Capturing the energy depends on immediate response and a complete lack of hesitation or dithering, even in cases where the artist has hours to study the model. In this post I’ll share some recent speedy sketches made sometimes under difficult conditions.
Classical academic drawing techniques, like those taught in Bargue and Gérôme’s Cours de dessin are analytical and methodical. They provide ways to achieve rigorous observation and accurate rendering of objects and figures. These techniques, though, are quite useless in capturing a pose a model can only hold for a brief interval, and they do nothing to teach an artist to work with flow and rhythm to get the feeling of energy and liveliness into the work.
When the drawing has to be quick, I prefer an approach in which the marking is a direct response to the act of perception. A glance of the eyes picks up the curve of an arm, for instance, and within a fraction of a second the hand holding the pen or brush or charcoal is imitating that curve. The eye falls upon the subject and the marker lands upon the page, cascading with a swerving dash that closely follows the swoop of seeing. The resulting sketches are rough and highly approximate in proportion, but they are lively and full of verve.
Since May of this year, Minerva Durham, the founder and director of NYC’s 7-days-a-week figure drawing center, Spring Studio, has been holding outdoor life drawing sessions with clothed models in Petrosino Square, just around the corner from the studio, in protest of an art installation area in the park being converted to a corporate-branded bike sharing station. I made these drawings in the park with a great dancer/model called Magic, in a session shown in this video. I think these are one minute poses.
It was cold, the wind was blowing the paper, and my pen was running out of ink, but I was trying to capture the energy of Magic’s poses with rapid marks. I tried using a fine-point sharpie (above) and a brush and black gouache paint, without any water to smooth the application (below).
I try to simplify what I see into directions and angles, but always keeping an eye on full shapes, never just lines. I don’t worry about the finished product, just the immediate process of transforming perceptions into marks.
In July, at the Sirius Rising festival in Chautauqua County, New York, I attended a life drawing class led by Bellavia, the artist whose sculpture was featured in this recent post. The workshop was held in an open-sided pavilion and, as with the Petrosino Square session, there was a constant struggle to hold the drawing paper flat in the gusty wind.
To encourage the artists to let go of tentativeness and draw boldly, Bellavia had the model do a lot of ten and fifteen second poses, and encouraged the artists to draw with the flat edge, not the point, of the charcoal. Any hesitation at all would make it impossible to draw anything. I practice quick drawing a lot, but usually the quickest poses I draw are one or two minutes. Ten seconds is just a blip in drawing time! Some of the drawings from that session have an almost cubist abstraction.
Last May, the ADaPT (A Dance and Physical Theater) Festival, based in California, came to my neighborhood in Brooklyn, with performances at CPR (Center for Performance Research). Festival director, dancer and artist Misa Kelly asked me to help organize a life drawing session in the performance space preceding the dance performances, an event described in this blog post. The models were Misa and Nushka. Since we were working in the very large performing space at the center, I took the opportunity to work in a large scale. I had five sheets of 38″ x 50″ (97 x 132 cm) paper, using one for each 20-30 minute drawing segment, drawing flat on the floor with brushes and sumi ink. I planned the session in correspondence with Misa and monitored (supervised and timed) the session, with a selection of invited artists drawing.
The first set was ten one-minute poses, three three-minute poses and one five minute pose. Of course when there are two models and you try to draw both of them, one minute is just thirty seconds per pose!
The second set consisted of two five-minute poses and an eight-minute pose,
followed by four three-minute “moving poses”, in which the models performed a simple movement phrase repeatedly for three minutes. This was real movement drawing – the eye had to take in a shape and then draw it from memory, because even a second later, the body position had already changed.
Then there was an eighteen minute pose (the back-to-back pose at the top of the drawing below), and then ten one-minute and five two-minute poses, on the lower part of the drawing below and the one below that.
Working with very quick poses or models in motion, I like to use a brush and ink. The brush flows with less friction than dry sticks and there’s no time to fiddle around with re-assessing and correcting things anyway, so there’s no reason not to use an indelible medium. As in the asian art of calligraphy, the essence of the act is completely in the moment, in the freedom and intuitive engagement of the slippery brush.
In the ancient Latin philosophical poem De rerum natura (“On the Nature of Things”), Lucretius proposes an atomic theory of the universe in which unpredictable deviations (swerves, or “clinamen“) in the motion of particles cause convergences and separations that give rise to the living physical universe, and allow for the existence of free will. Clinamen is basically what contemporary scientists would describe as quantum indeterminacy. Lucretius says:
When atoms move straight down through the void by their own weight, they deflect a bit in space at a quite uncertain time and in uncertain places, just enough that you could say that their motion has changed. But if they were not in the habit of swerving, they would all fall straight down through the depths of the void, like drops of rain, and no collision would occur, nor would any blow be produced among the atoms. In that case, nature would never have produced anything.
The “swerve” of the drawn line is what makes it expressive, and what makes it a recognizable analog of the subject being depicted. Physics may involve a lot of straight lines, but biology is all curves. To study biological forms through drawing is to work with curves in all their varieties.
Quick drawing is like skiing the slalom, sliding with maximum speed, swerving with maximum responsiveness. When it works, a few simple strokes of ink can suggest the propulsive or serene energy of the living body.
The sketchbook pages shown in this post are 14″ x 17″ per page, usually shown as double pages. The “AdAPT Festival” drawings are 38″ x 50″. The drawing at the top of the post is aquarelle crayon on black paper, 19″ x 25″.
As the 2012 Olympic Games get underway in London, we’ll have an opportunity to observe the elegance and power of the human body in action, diverse kinds of bodies honed through intensive training for different skills. Here I salute the occasion with my own studies of the body from figure drawing sessions at Figureworks Gallery in Brooklyn and Spring Studio in Manhattan. All of these sketches are made with watercolor and brush during sequences of two-minute poses. The illustrations are presented in random order, and the interspersed text is not specifically related to the adjacent images, but generally to the whole collection.
A sequence of quick poses is a kind of dance, as the model moves from one position to another to reveal the anatomical structure and the expressive range of the body. The artist has only a moment to capture whatever can be captured. I am fascinated by the variety and dynamism of quick poses – the models can do all sorts of things that would be impossible or painful to hold for even a five or ten minute pose. Knowing that the timer is relentlessly counting down, I enter into a mode of hyperfocused flow, my eyes and my brush both in constant and coordinated motion. The only way to get anything interesting is to work with swift efficiency.
Here I’m posting complete sequences, so you’ll see some awkward passages as well as some lovely bits of brushwork that reveal something true of the model’s aliveness or individuality. Every real brushstroke is a rough approximation of the ideal brushstroke into which the visual cortex is translating the forms it perceives. I’ve been practicing this for many years, so my approximations are pretty good when my focus is on. It’s more important that the lines be confident and expressive than that they be accurate. If I were to stop to measure or take a moment to step back and look critically at the sketch, I would hardly be able to get anything at all in two minutes. I have to go unhesitatingly with the flow, and trust the flow.
I look for curves – the curve of the spine, of the hip, of the neck, of the knee, and make each curve a stroke of the brush. I try to emphasize what makes each individual body unique, not to genericize the anatomy. That uniqueness is in the curves. The curve of one person’s hip is quite different from that of another’s hip. I always look for the physical idiosyncracies.
I generally omit or radically simplify faces, hair, hands and feet. Those parts of the body are detail traps, best saved for more leisurely studies. But they are also often key to the particular expression of a pose or model, so I try to get some indication of their angles. The direction of a gaze, the splay or curl of the fingers, the twist of an instep can be the detail that makes the pose come alive in the sketch. For me, angles and curves are practically the whole of quick drawing.
Quick poses are a special exchange of energy between model and artist. A set of quick poses gives the model an opportunity to perform, to stretch out, to test their limits, to offer contrasts of feeling or form. As the artist, I cannot let such a gift go unappreciated. When a model is really giving the energy, drawing is like dancing with a fantastically graceful or dynamic partner – complete abandon is the only appropriate response.
A kind of time dilation can occur during quick poses. From my own experience as a model, I can tell you that holding a challenging pose can make two minutes seem like an eon. For the artist, a pose that’s complicated to draw can make two minutes feel like a few seconds.
Observing angles is a quick way to see how one thing relates to another thing in space. When I’m doing quick sketches, I’m making lots of lines that I don’t draw. In my mind, I make lines between points to see how they relate in space. I check the angle going from nipple to nose, or from fold of elbow to bulge of heel, or from where the arm meets the leg to the pubic ridge. When all of those parts are in the right angular relations to each other in space, proportions will be a fair approximation of the reality.
Sometimes it’s easier to see curves and shapes and angles by looking at the negative spaces, the places where the body is not, and how those places relate to each other. Or the angles of the body may become clearer by seeing them in relation to straight lines such as a wall or surface, the pole the model holds or the wall on which he leans.
I’ve pored over anatomy books, assimilating as much structural understanding of the body as I can, but I depict only details I can see. The knowledge helps me to grasp these features of the body, but I can’t get lost in an analytical breakdown of the body. I try to get as many anatomical details into the sketches as I can, because these details individualize the body.
Curves and angles, negative spaces, spatial relationships, anatomical details, flow and rhythm – it’s a lot to see and a lot to try to depict in two minutes. The only way to do it is to merge perceiving and drawing into a unified process. This is achieved by trying and trying and refining through hundreds of hours of practice.
When you watch an Olympic gymnast, you are seeing someone who has developed a perfect unity of perception and action through relentless practice. Drawing is more subjective, but the learning process is similar. All the details have to come together, to become one act.
All of the original sketches in this post are made with watercolor and a brush in 18″ x 24″ sketchbooks. Multiple pages have been stacked vertically in the illustrations so a whole series of quick poses appear in a single image, as though the drawings were made on a scroll. Action sketches actually made on scrolls, drawn by me more than a decade ago, can be seen in this post. I have also written previously about the similarities between life drawing practice and athletic practice, here.
I fill up a sketchbook every couple of months with the quick (one minute to five minute) poses from the life drawing sessions I attend regularly. I almost never exhibit or sell these pieces. The sketchbook is a practice space. I try different media, experiment with things like varying the scale or drawing shadows as contours, and I really don’t worry that some of the drawings fall flat or even crash and burn. Sometimes I use a big sketchbook and sometimes a smaller one. In the fall of 2010, I filled up two 18″ x 24″ (45.7 x 61 cm) spiral-bound sketch pads. More recently, I’ve been using a smaller sketchbook, but when I looked back at the bigger ones I felt the fact that I could get multiple figures on a single page conveyed a sense of movement, of one pose flowing into the next, much more effectively than the smaller sketchbooks, where most of the poses are isolated one to a page.
In this post I’ll share some of those fall 2010 sketchbook pages. Rather than discussing them individually, I’ll give the images in random order, with my thoughts interspersed. Most of the words relate to the whole set of sketches, not just those directly above or below.
For me, a drawing can reproduce the form and structure of the body, the light and shadow, space and weight, with precision, and that can be beautiful. But if a drawing captures the feeling of living energy or movement, now that’s exciting. So I like to view a series of quick poses as a kind of dance performance.
Most, maybe all, of the sketches in this post are from two-minute poses. In a typical quick pose set, a model will perform ten two-minute poses of their own choosing. Usually the monitor or supervisor of the session will call “Change,” at two minute intervals. It’s like a dance, but instead of being performed in flowing movement, it’s composed of a series of held positions.
Many of the models are dancers or actors. Others are visual artists themselves, or writers, musicians, athletes, bodyworkers, yogis. Some of them have a deeper working knowledge of anatomy than do most of the figurative artists drawing them.
Some models want to express emotion, others want to show energy, to reveal structure, or to explore grounding and focus.
I don’t just look at the pose. I watch the transitions even more intently. In the way the model moves from one pose to the next you can see where in the body the energy is concentrated, where there is a push or a pull into the next pose. The contours that express that impulse or that tension are the lines that make the drawing dynamic.
At the two drawing venues I attend regularly, Spring Studio and Figureworks Gallery, we’re fortunate to have a great variety of models, ranging in age from 18 to 90 or so, and in body type from emaciated to corpulent. Our models also vary greatly in their personality and their approach to the job of modeling.
I look for the characteristics that make each model unique. This means focusing on specific curves and angles. Some teachers of drawing urge an approach that simplifies and abstracts the body structures, but too much abstraction makes all the figures generic. It’s much more interesting to be as specific as possible.
Each model has particular qualities. The model above has long, angular limbs and a face that reaches forward with intensity. The one below has an elegant torso that is all parabolic curves, with a beautiful bowlike collarbone.
In The Natural Way to Draw, Kimon Nicolaides teaches a method of learning figure drawing that starts from two seemingly opposite exercises – scribbly, spontaneous “gesture” drawing, and slow, painstaking “contour” drawing. When you get more practiced, you begin to understand that every contour has a gestural expressive aspect, and every gestural marking has its own contour, so these extremes meet and merge.
I often let the figures spill off the edges of the page. The sketches can look more dynamic that way, and it is often more interesting to capture more detail in the most dynamic part of the pose than to spend that time dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, so to speak. But the direction of the head, and of the hands and feet, can be an important part of what makes the pose expressive.
Some models like to act out scenes or perform actions, either everyday ones or dramatic ones.
Some models come out of one pose completely and then go into a completely different next pose, while others treat the transition from one pose to the next as a flow, perhaps keeping part of the body anchored while another part changes direction.
Some models are students of the history of figurative art, and derive their poses from what they’ve seen in the work of Caravaggio, Rubens, or Rodin.
Some models take casual poses, varying attitudes or presentations of the balanced body.
Other models like to use quick poses to explore their limits of stretching or balancing, taking poses that are highly challenging to hold even for one or two minutes.
Poses that twist or reach into open space tend to untwist or droop a bit, even in just a minute or two. Many of the classic poses involve bracing one part of the body against another or against a wall or support, to ensure stability.
Most models have a repertory of poses that they use frequently. Most have a consistent style or feeling that is maintained through a whole set of long poses. When the feeling or type of pose changes radically from one to the next, a multi-pose page looks less like a record of the flow of movement, and more like a scene with more than one character.
A set of quick poses usually reveals more of the particular character of a model than a long pose does. It’s not possible for a model to really push limits or put intense energy into a long pose. Quick poses are a performance, a gift of energy to the artist. I always feel that I must give total focus and intensity to this exercise. Like most of the good things in life, a quick pose must be savored in the moment, because it can’t last long!
All of these sketchbook pages are 18″ x 24″, and all were made between September and December of 2010. All are done in pencil unless otherwise noted.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!