Friday, 26 June 2009

Life Drawing: Reaching for Inspiration Outside of the Classroom

Study by John Singer Sargent
Actually I'm not quite done pontificating yet, but this time I have some artwork to go along with it. I mentioned earlier that I wanted to do a post about Life Drawing, so here's my first attempt at it. I'll try to keep it as brief as possible, even though there is quite a bit to say on the subject.

I'd first like to preface this whole post by pointing out that I do not consider myself to be a master of Life Drawing by any means. I think that the Life Drawing I've posted on my personal art blog illustrates that I still have a lot to learn about it, as well as practice. I also have no problem admitting that I have some confused and conflicting opinions on the subject too.

I've taken quite a few Life Drawing classes from many and various professional instructors throughout my life, and I consider most of it to be time well spent and a great series of learning experiences. I would not be where I am today without them. I think it can actually be a very valuable thing to take an experienced Life Drawing instructor, especially as a beginner, because they can offer you an approach/method to solving the problem of drawing from the live model, which can be extremely difficult when you are first starting out. So I hope that I have made my feelings on all this very clear before I continue, as I will be critiquing some of what I consider to be the more problematic aspects of Life Drawing Instruction and the environnment that can develop in the classroom.

The main problem I've often found with many Life Drawing Instructors is that most of them consider their own personal style of Life Drawing to be the only way to do it. Alot of these teachers will only be happy with their students if they end up drawing exactly like themselves. So thus begins the quest of the young student to practice earnestly in order to draw exactly like their teacher. At least this is the experience that I've often had and witnessed, maybe it hasn't happened to other people, but it got to the point for me where I actually got derailed from why I was doing Life Drawing in the first place, which was to study how to draw the figure better so that I could tell stories visually and animate characters, not to copy someone's figure drawing style. This is why I found the passage that Chuck Jones wrote about his Life Drawing instructor, Donald Graham, so interesting. He said that Graham did not impose a personal style of drawing on his students, and as Jones says that's a very rare thing.

Many Life Drawing instructors seem to see Life Drawing as a means unto itself, rather than a means to an end. In other words, the pure act of simply achieving a "good" figure drawing is the entire goal. The Instructors will often get the students hooked on solely trying to get a "good" figure drawing, according to the parameters of the style that they are teaching, and convince them that once they accomplish getting that "good" figure drawing, that the students will then be able to animate, storyboard, design characters, or illustrate a scene with ease. But in my opinion, it takes a lot more than just studying a style of Life Drawing to be able to do any of these things really well. Some people who haven't even studied Life Drawing all that much, sometimes actually do these things better than some people that have mastered it. Now, I don't mean to imply that studying Life Drawing isn't important or beneficial, but there's a lot more to do than just drawing the 1-30 minute poses of the model in the classroom.

Another interesting thing that can often happen within the Life Drawing class is that a stock style pervades and is sometimes encouraged, where many students begin to draw in a similar way to each other, imitating themselves as well as the instructor. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and oftentimes it is actually a great/natural way to learn as well as to produce some beautiful results. The problem, however, becomes that the students and the instructors are now only looking at themselves in the classroom as a place for inspiration when there is an entire world of art created during the span of human history to become interested in and learn from. I've also noticed that this narrowed perspective on figure drawing, which tends to develop in the classroom, seems to neglect other important aspects of picture making and the basic design principles of art. Things like directing the viewer's eye on where to look in an image or clearly presenting a narrative idea with a specific character in an emotional state.

I realize this is getting to be very long, but please bear with me.

I put the following drawings together of some professional Life Drawing instructors, labeled with numbers, to discuss some of these concepts here:

I don't think many people can deny the high quality of draftsmanship in these drawings that comes from the hundreds of thousands of hours of experience in drawing from the live model. That's not the issue here, but since I've been in more than my fair share of Life Drawing classes where the teacher has vigorously critiqued some artist, artwork, or art school (and that's putting it mildly), I figure that it's okay, for the sake of discussion, to share some thoughts and maybe even some respectful critiques on these drawings as well.

I'll start with drawing number 6.

Here we see a drawing of a female figure, I'm assuming because of the body type with the larger hips, from a back view, seated on a pillow which is probably on a stool. Now where does your eye go to in this drawing? Mine tends to go towards her bottom pressed against the pillow and to her upper leg/thigh. I think that's mostly because that area is where the most interest, definition, and contrast is in the drawing. The teacher's concern and effort seems to be mostly centered on the forms and flesh of her bottom and the anatomy of her upper leg, even though there is a pretty nice overall flow to the sketch. Maybe that form is what the teacher was lecturing on at the time it was drawn, and even if it's not, it's still a fine approach and a deftly executed drawing. The teacher is obviously illustrating what they are good at teaching, which is anatomy and form. There was probably not enough time to finish off the other parts of the figure either, but this is a drawing that the teacher chose as an example to represent their artwork and instruction, so I think it's fair to offer some thoughts on it.

I think one problem with this drawing, even though it's very well done, is that the overall design is not completely clear, and the heightened concern for anatomy has overtaken the idea of the figure's pose. This a problem I often see in Life Drawing classes. Design principles are not emphasized as much as anatomy is. Drawing number 4 has somewhat of the same problem for me. Even though the overall pose of the figure is a clearer statement, the anatomical rendering is calling more attention to itself than the idea of the overall pose. My eye seems to get hung up in all the anatomical details of the figure, rather than seeing the whole pose. Drawing number 7, while amazing in it's delineation of anatomy, has this issue as well. Especially if you squint your eyes at it, which is sometimes a good way to tell if a drawing is "reading" clearly or not.

Drawings 8 and 9 are obviously showing a method of constructing the figure with simple forms which is great, but I'm also wondering--shouldn't we be able to tell the pose and attitude of the figure clearly from these? I think they both show it to a degree, but number 8 feels a bit strange to me. It's hard to tell what's happening with the feet and what the arm on the left is doing. The absence of the indication of the neck is also confusing the clarity of the drawing a bit too. Number 9, although very solid in the construction of forms--the overall pose is a bit stiff and feels somewhat forced.

Oftentimes Life Drawing Instructors will be looked upon as the ultimate authority on the subject, especially within the microcosm of the classroom. We should definitely learn what we can from them and appreciate that they've taken the time to teach students, but on the other hand we also shouldn't forget the world of art that has come before both us and them. For example I chose a few Life Drawings from John Singer Sargent here:

These are all possibilities of what Life Drawing can be beyond the classroom, and a bar that has been set to reach and hopefully surpass. Maybe you'd like to ignore them completely and do something different, that's fine too. I personally think these are amazing drawings. I also think they show an overall concern and knowledge of good design, storytelling, and character that is lacking in some of the more anatomy based Life Drawing in the modern era.

Maybe it's an unfair comparison, but look at drawings 14, 15, 17, and 18 by Sargent compared to drawings 4, 7, 10, and 11 by the instructors. In Sargent's work there is a definite knowledge of anatomy, but it's subdued to the overall form of the figure and the big impact of the picture. Even in Sargent's quicker and looser sketches, like numbers 12 and 13, you really get a sense of the person and that he's drawing. In 19 the man feels like a living breathing character with an attitude. It's almost as if Sargent is studying the man as a person rather than as a nude figure. In 18 you can feel the power and the weight of the two figures locked together, as well as the emotional statement of it, without a great amount of rendering. The anatomy does not distract the viewer from the idea of the image, and it's arguably more appealing to abstain from drawing every little bump and anatomical detail. I think Sargent is also just as a concerned with the overall design of these drawings as he is with the figures, if you notice how he organizes his values and shapes of light and dark. Also take a moment to compare Sargent's studies of anatomy in drawing 16 compared with the teacher's studies in drawing 5.

I once took an instructor who said, "Sargent can't draw, but he can paint." I couldn't disagree more. Sargent's drawings are the foundation of his painting. Just because Sargent didn't approach his Life Drawing in the same way that teacher did, even he was considered "the wrong approach" in the narrow focus of the Life Drawing classroom. The student can just as easily spend their time studying and emulating Sargent as they can emulating their teacher, if they choose to do so.

A couple more examples of what Life Drawing can be, by one of my favorite artists, Gustav Klimt:

Once again, I think these drawings are amazing, and even though they are a bit unresolved, my eye is still lead to look exactly where it's supposed to be. The patterns of light and dark, as well as the degree of finish on certain parts of the drawing become accents that draw attention to the important areas and strengthen the image's idea. Many of these drawings by both Sargent and Klimt are most likely studies done for larger paintings. They are studies to figure something out or to solve a problem for a bigger concept. In other words, they are a means to end, not a means unto themselves. Even though many of them do stand alone as great pieces of work. Again, there is a quality and knowledge of the fundamentals of design here that you really don't see that much of anymore. Klimt knows what's important, where to spend his time, what to emphasize, and what to leave out. He also has great shapes.

Here's a couple more artists, Ben Shahn and Valentin Serov:

I put these two artists together to show the range that is possible in drawing. I don't know if these Ben Shahn drawings are necessarily Life Drawings, but I felt that they had a great sense of character to them, and they are obviously based on specific people or a situation. They are definitely observed in some sense. It's good to exaggerate/caricature, and the kind of drawing that Shahn does isn't easy to do, try it sometime. Shahn's approach is just as legitimate and awesome as any other great drawing in my opinion.

Serov, on the other hand, has a Sargent kind of quality to his work, but it's more delicate. Again, I think the overall design here is fantastic. Especially in drawing 27 where all the contrast and texture in her hair leads your eye right to her face. Then there's just enough going on with her back and arm to keep it interesting and clear. The use of line quality to indicate the clothing versus her flesh is also amazingly done. There are definitely areas in the drawing that are emphasized and subdued according to the principles of good design. I'd recommend reading "The Practice and Science of Drawing" by Harold Speed, if you'd like to know about how much artists really thought about design and picture making in the past.

Finally, Ramon Casas, a Spanish artist that I discovered quite a while ago:

These move beyond the realm of drawing, and a bit into painting. I wanted to show again though, what's possible in the realm of Life Drawing and studying from the model. Drawing number 30 is something you might attempt in costumed figure session if you wanted to. A great sense of design is also apparent throughout Casas' work as well.

I apologize for the length of this. I hope it all makes some kind of sense. My point is that we should never stop thinking for ourselves. There is no single "right way" to do Life Drawing, and there's a lot more to learn than just anatomy. I hope that I've kind of illustrated that a bit here.

Why not set our sights to the highest levels of art instead of keeping them locked down in the modern day Life Drawing classroom?

There's also nothing wrong with bringing in a copy of a piece of artwork you are particularly inspired by to reference in a Life Drawing class/workshop or bringing it with you to reportage/location sketching as well. It's good to have a goal, and to know what you are aiming for sometimes. Other times, ignoring outside influences and doing some random experimentation can produce some great things too.

I'd like to end with a quote from a great Life Drawing instructor I had, who actually taught a very structured and methodical approach to drawing. One time I asked him while trying to draw something from the model, "Is this okay? What's the correct way to do this?", surprisingly enough he simply said:

"If it looks good, you did it right."