Claudia posted some of my quick sketches of her on her blog, Museworthy. Check ‘em out!
Every body is unique. There is a strain of figure drawing study that aims to modulate every model toward a Platonic ideal anatomy. There are valid reasons for such an approach, and it’s a necessary phase in learning anatomy to comprehend the universal underlying structural patterns of the body and the norms around which the variations vary. Most artists pursuing the practice of life drawing, though, notice that the diversity of individual bodies and faces is a far more compelling focus for ongoing study than abstract archetypes of male and female anatomy.
Something I love about the culture of life drawing studios as I have encountered them is the appreciation they show for models of all ages, colors, shapes, sizes and types. Contrast the majority of most “fine art nude photography” you’ll find on the web or in print, where both male and female models conform to a narrow range of age and body type, or even worse, the commercial glamour industry’s images of models and celebrities Photoshopped into an utterly unnatural simulacrum of perfection. (Check this link for a revealing example of the latter.)
There are types of figurative visual art that are centered around abstract musical or mathematical qualities like harmony and repetition, and idealized figures are part of the vocabulary of such art. There is narrative art, often religious or civic political art, that deals in archetypal figures such as saints and heroes, abstracted characters that represent values and virtues – it wouldn’t do for such figures to have flawed, complicated individual bodies.
I have no interest in creating perfect harmonies, and yet I think my work has musical qualities. I have no interest in distilling ideals into bodily form, and yet I think some of my drawings convey a strong sense of character.
This exercise of sustained looking at naked strangers who are paid to hold still while we study them is more an art of responsiveness than of composition. Our drawings are portraits, but often we don’t know much about the models as people in the world. Our drawings are anatomy studies, but no surgeon could use them to plot her cuts.
How much can you get, just by looking? Every model has differences in bone structure, muscularity, skin, energy, and expresssion. It is the individual qualities that fascinate.
A clothed model portrays a social role and a historical and cultural milieu. A nude model expresses more essential, timeless qualities of a human: physical/animal nature, spiritual life force, and the utterly particular combination of qualities that gives each one a singular identity.
I find it amazing and wonderful that out of hundreds or thousands or millions of people we see, we rarely mistake one for another, particularly among those familiar to us. If we know them well, even identical twins can be told apart. This shows the power of Nature’s principle of variation, and also the importance the human mind gives to observing individual difference.
I want the viewer of my drawings to confront the living reality of my models. It is not necessary to know the back stories, why this or that model has a certain facial expression or a certain scar. I want the viewer to feel what it felt like for me to encounter this person in the studio.
A photograph of a person is evidence that that person exists. A drawing of a person is an artifact of an individual encounter with that person, scratched out on paper through the struggle and experience of the artist.
I try to follow the forms of the body as one part flows into another, to keep my marks responsive to the energy that the model manifests while holding the pose. In stillness there is great movement!
The model is paid to pose for the artists in a class. He gives us his image to study and to use as the subject of our art. This image should not be confused with the identity of the model himself, which contains complexities the artist will never know. The titles I have given to the drawings in this post should not be seen as descriptions of the models, but only of some qualities I have found in the drawings.
Thanks to the professional artists’ models who posed for the drawings in this post, Donna, Eryn, Esteban, Fly, James, Kuan, Leticia, Marisol, Marlo, Pedro, Rebecca, Regina, Terry, and Vadim. All drawings were made in the second half of 2013, most at the Monday morning long pose session at Spring Studio in New York, of which I am the moderator (supervisor). All are drawn with aquarelle crayon on paper, approximately 19 3/4″ x 25 1/2″ (50 x 65 cm).
(By the way, the term “naked singularity“, which I have used as the title of this post, comes from the field of astrophysics, where it is used to describe a theoretical point in space where gravity becomes infinite, yet without the light-swallowing “event horizon” of a black hole. Even physicists can’t say for sure whether it’s a real thing or not.)
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″.
On the scale of galaxies and bodies, the universe embodies the elegant equations of Einstein and Newton, but at the subatomic scale, it’s all quantum weirdness, a foamy chaos of particles popping in and out of existence. Processes of evolution have generated the great panoply of Gaian life, but to the individual creature it’s just an ongoing struggle to survive and thrive. A human life viewed in retrospect by a biographer can have the structural inevitability of an epic novel, but that same life lived day-by-day may be experienced as a jumble of more-or-less random encounters and issues.
I aspire to reflect this dichotomy of scale in my drawings: on the big scale, elegant form, while on the small scale, chaos. From a distance, I would like my drawings to appear realistic, even classical, while a closer approach reveals an underlying turbulence of colors and markings. I avoid blending and smoothing, as I feel the energy of the marks captures something of the living energy of my subjects. Vivid hues blend in the eye to give the impression of subtly variegated tones.
This scribbly way of rendering values and volumes takes some time, but a relatively limited ten- or twenty-minute sketch shows it in its roughest and perhaps clearest form. When I am working this way, I generally try to do so right from the start of sketching, not to draw in a more formal way and then add a layer of chaos as a veneer. The drawing holds together because it’s craziness all the way down.
In the early stages of drawing, value (lightness/darkness) is the most important consideration in choosing a color to draw with, while hue is a secondary concern. As the drawing develops and the values from shadow to highlight becomes well established, the relative lightness of additional marks has a diminished effect, and color becomes the primary reason to choose one crayon over another.
The following drawings are mostly longer, more developed pieces made using this technique of building a larger order out of small passages of chaos.
Human skin is never a flat surface color that can be matched the way a decorator might mix pigments to replicate a paint swatch. Skin is translucent, exhibiting properties of specular reflection and subsurface light scattering. Its coloration comes not only from melanin and other pigments inside the skin, but from the colors of blood and muscle and connective tissue showing through it. It has constant subtle variations. Figurative artists have all sorts of esoteric methods and theories for capturing skin tones. The one that works best for me is additive color mixing with scribbly strokes.
The great magic of figurative art is to capture the sense of aliveness of the subject. By expressing energy in the vigorous markings at the smaller scale of the drawing, I hope to convey the feeling that this person I am showing you is alive, is full of breath and blood and might potentially move or speak at any moment. I put as much of my own energy as possible into the work of drawing, and I want to preserve the record of that kinetic energy in the markings that compose the image.
The model expresses her or his energy through the body, the pose and expression. The process of seeing and drawing is necessarily a process of abstraction, as this living being is translated into perceptions of angles and curves, contours and volumes. The magic of capturing aliveness depends on not letting the subtler aspects of the subject get lost in that translation. I try to achieve it by approaching everything as energy. Life is energy, the body is energy, perception is energy, mark-making is energy, a completed drawing is energy. Energy is the aspect that unifies every stage of the process.
If, while drawing, even one thing you see or do is dead, the drawing dies. All of it, every object, every mark, every thought, every moment, is alive. In this way, the drawing is full of life.
All of these drawings are roughly 19 1/2? x 25 1/2? (50 cm x 65 cm), aquarelle crayon on gray or black paper. “Curled Back” is done in a combination of aquarelle crayon and gouache.
Artists who work from direct observation have a special way of looking at their subjects, a darting glance that picks up impressions the way a janitor’s litter spike snags trash. Nearly every action that builds up the drawing or painting follows from one of those quick looks. You look and make a mark, look again to refine the mark, look again to find the spatial relation of this to that, look for angles, look for curves, look for shades and colors, look to compare, look to correct. You’re constantly comparing your sketch to your model, translating perceptions into marks, trying to see better and capture better all the time, and racing the clock. In a classroom full of artists of mixed levels of experience, you can pick out the ones that know what they’re doing by watching how they look: how efficient and focused is their glance, and how frequently they look between their paper and the model.
My friend and fellow figurative artist Karen Miles made a little film about this (email subscribers will need to follow this link to view the film on YouTube):
These artists are drawing at Minerva Durham’s Spring Studio in New York, a drawing studio that attracts the most dedicated practitioners of drawing from the live model. If you were to observe a drawing session at Spring Studio, you’d probably be struck first by the quiet intensity of the whole group of artists. There is no music, no talking, just the single-minded focus on seeing and drawing.
In quick poses my glances are looking for overall forms, trying to see the figure as an arrangement of curves in space.
In the crayon drawing above, I made a first rough pass in magenta, then refined my contours in a bolder blue. There was probably a glance for nearly every separate stroke in the drawing. The sketch below is done with a brush and black watercolor. The individual strokes are easier to distinguish here. I see the curve of the shoulder and that becomes a brush stroke, then glance at the breast and make that curve, then at the belly and make that curve, and so on. Each marking has a certain rhythm and motion that reflect a quick tracing of that particular contour in my perceptual system.
Quite apart from the act of drawing, the normal visual process works by assembling impressions picked up by quick movements of the eyes called saccades. The eyes only see clearly over a narrow angle; the overall sharp photographic image we think we see is constructed in the brain as the fragmentary impressions of the saccades are knitted together. (Here’s a more detailed blog post about how that works.)
Constant practice improves the speed by which we receive such perceptions. Each moment of seeing is translated into a movement of the hand. The resulting marks reflect the quality of these movements, and thereby trace a record of the act of vision, a series of impressions made as the artist experiences them.
Drawing is not simply a copying of contours, but a trail left in permanent marks as the mind examines a scene over a particular period of time. Seen this way, it is clear that drawing captures something that photography does not. A camera, like an NSA surveillance program, indiscriminately vacuums up every detail of light information in its range. A drawing artist is more like a murder-mystery detective, following all the trails, picking up clues, details, impressions, until a coherent picture emerges from the process. Photography is a mechanical scan, while drawing is an active, responsive exploration of a scene. The distinction is between intelligence gathering and intelligent gathering.
The drawing medium affects how I see. When I am holding a pencil, as in the sketch above, I see the scene in terms of lines. When I use a fan brush, as below, I see broader strokes of light and shadow revealing the form in space.
I look for curves, and I look for angles. The form is constructed of flowing, rhythmic curves. The spatial arrangement of those curves is defined by angular connections.
In drawing with a linear medium such as crayon or pencil, light, shade and color must all be translated into line. I imagine that I am drawing, not on flat paper, but directly on the body itself, so that every line follows the three-dimensional shape of the body. Notice the white serpentine line running from armpit to hip in the torso study below. It represents the center of a highlighted area, but its meandering reveals the subtle irregularities imparted to the surface of the skin by underlying layers of bone and muscle, as a raindrop snaking down a windshield shows the hidden undulations in seemingly smooth glass.
Every glance is a fragment of perceiving. Every glance becomes a stroke in the drawing. It is a living process to record the phenomenon of life.
When there is more time to develop a drawing, additional layers of perceptions build up as the artist looks at the subject again and again. Light, shade, color, reflection, absorption, space, energy, temperature, texture, gravity, vibration, growth and decay – all the phenomena of matter and of life can be found by looking and looking some more.
Color and light in the real world are complex and slippery. Capturing such things is not a matter of simply duplicating a surface hue and value. Everything is relative, so everything must be seen relative to other things in the scene. As the work develops, the glances are comparative. What areas are redder than their neighboring areas? What areas are greener?
A body exists in space, and the image in the drawing becomes more real as it develops a sense of space. Further glances look at the parts of the body as they intersect with elements of the background.
I keep glancing, looking at light that reflects into shadows and light that penetrates the translucent skin and emerges tinged and diffused, looking at creases that swallow light and bulges that create specular highlights and gradients.
To draw is to see seeing, that is, to experience in action all the processes that go into visual perception.