I’ve named this collection of my recent figure drawing work “Élan Vital” after philosopher Henri Bergson‘s concept of a dynamic impulse manifesting in evolution and creativity.
Figure drawing is the ongoing practice or discipline through which I strive to perceive the world and my fellow beings not as objects, but as patterns of flowing energy. Science, philosophy, and contemplative intuition can lead one to understand the world in this way, but only an active practice can train the senses to experience it directly.
Usually we look at things or people, identify them, and then simply relate to them as objects of utility, threat, pleasure, or whatever role they play in the drama or game of which our ego is the protagonist. To look at things as an artist looks is a kind of meditation, a work of detachment. There can be a lovely pleasure in the activity, and there is surely a goal – the desire to capture something wonderful in a sketch drives our efforts. The intention is focused on the drawing, while the attention is focused on the model.
The eyes naturally move in “saccades“, hopping like a flea from one point of attention to the next. As I study the model’s body, I try to feel these jumps as flowing movements, to imagine that the eye follows the curves I see with a degree of fluid friction, like the oiled hands of a masseur gliding over the rises and hollows of the body. Of course my eyes don’t really move in such a continuous way, but the brush or pencil in my drawing hand does.
The light touches and flows over the body of our model and then arrives through our eyes to tell us what it has learned. Light is ever swifter and more responsive than my fingers, but my practice aims at the impossible – to emulate light with my hands.
A fancy word for drawing is “to limn”. It means to delineate, to describe. The dictionary tells me this word is derived from the medieval word “lymnour”, an illuminator (illustrator) of manuscripts, from the latin “illuminare”, to give light. I had always assumed it was related to the word “liminal”, meaning “on the threshold”, which can refer to sensory thresholds or transitional states, but apparently that word derives from a different Latin root, “limen”. In any case, a contour is a perceived edge or threshold, between foreground and background or between light and dark, so to draw the figure is to illuminate by limning with lines the liminal zones of luminosity of the limbs. “Limb”, by the way, comes from the Latin “limbus”, meaning border or edge, and “line” comes from “linea”, a string or thread (as in linen). Maybe all of these words are related at a deeper or more ancient level of language.
We use a line to describe a shape, but because a line or mark is produced by movement, it also suggests dynamic energy.
Line can suggest the directional flow of light, the impulses of the nerves, the pulsing of blood, and the thrust of muscles.
Line can show connections or divisions, structure or directionality.
In drawing with regularity, it is a challenge to keep it fresh. As in any kind of practice, we’re essentially doing the same kind of thing over and over again. Art is like a sword with many edges. If we use the same edge all the time it will end up going dull.
I try to keep looking in different ways, focusing on different aspects of my subject, always trying to find something special about each pose.
I change media, sometimes using a brush, sometimes a pencil, sometimes crayons. Each tool has its own particular characteristics for me to internalize.
Sometimes I use the edge of the crayon and sometimes the point.
Sometimes I look at light and shadow, sometimes at contour, sometimes at mass and solidity, sometimes at motion or implied motion.
Sometimes I look at the way the parts of the body emanate from the center. Sometimes I look at how the body relates to the environment it occupies.
The subtle qualities, emotion, soul and the like, emerge from the energetic pursuit of more physical aspects of things.
The materialist view of science holds that life and consciousness are emergent properties of matter and energy, arising from the complexity of relationships among simpler things. But does matter give rise to mind, or could it be vice versa? It seems to me that even the most elementary interactions of particles entail an element of communication. Perhaps mind and matter are just two sides of a single coin.
Without matter to perceive, could mind exist? Without mind to experience it, could matter exist? Disembodied mind is a fog at best, it seems to me, mindless matter a “tree falling in the forest” paradox.
I would drive myself crazy speculating about the ultimate nature of reality, but a model is posing for me and the timer is running. Knowing that the end is coming makes me throw myself into the pursuit.
The discourse around contemporary art expects the artist to say something, to make a political statement or to question or unravel or reframe some cultural thing or other. I find I don’t much care about any of that. Here I am in a world of wonders and the clock is running.
Beauty is a subjective thing, in the eye of the beholder, they say. To capture your experience of beauty and share it in such a way that another might experience some echo of what you have felt is a way to propagate beauty in the world.
For any kind of artist, there is so much beauty to see, not just in faces and bodies, but in landscapes and animals, in imagination and feelings, in rhythms and tones, in epics and parables, in bliss and terror – in all the things an artist can illuminate. The timer is running.
Thanks to the models who posed for the pictures in this post: Amy, Andrea, Angela, Bethany, Chuck, Claudia, Emma, Eryn, Joe, Kristin, Kuan, Michael R., Michael W., Pedro, Taylor, Terry, Vadim, Wardell.
Drawings are in various combinations of aquarelle crayon, gouache and watercolor, pencil, ballpoint pen, and brush marker, ranging from 14″ x 17″ (36 x 43 cm) to 38″ x 50″ (97 x 127 cm).