A dozen teenagers hover around easels, taping up cartridge paper, fumbling sticks of charcoal, blethering. A teacher—me, as it happens—directs two heaters towards an empty stool at the centre of the studio in opposition to the Winter chill. A small woman with long hair enters, naked beneath a dressing gown. She confers with me, strips off her gown, arranges her limbs and stands motionless, contrapposto, one hand on an angled, jutting hip, eyes fixed on a distant point.
And so the class begins. Two hours of intense looking, seeing, drawing, mark-making and detailing. The students draw with simple tools: charcoal, chalk, pencil. These materials hold no technical secrets: press them against paper and they do their work, which means the students are free to concentrate on the form of their subject, rather than on the intricacies of their medium. Through poses long and short, they work on line, tone, angles and curves. They consider the relation of one piece of anatomy to another; the fall of light across a clavicle or breast, making fast, gestural marks across the paper.
The purpose of life drawing is twofold. Firstly, there is the desire to learn to draw the figure. This is useful in itself, though there is also a belief that if you can draw the human body you can draw anything. The truth in this lies in the fact that in learning to draw the human body you learn how to see, which is the fundamental basis of good drawing. This is the second, but most important, purpose of life drawing.
A human figure offers everything in terms of drawing challenges; from proportion and perspective, to texture and tone. To draw it well involves seeing and understanding a great variety of facets, planes, contours and lines, and then working out how to relate them to each other as they are translated to paper.
We could draw a chair and learn plenty about looking and drawing but a living subject offers another, more elusive, element – vitality. We relish the task of scrutinising figures and are instinctively critical of the results. We know when a drawing has captured life, which is why copying people from photographs seldom works. The result is usually, at best, a decent drawing of a photo, but it is often flat and dead. A good drawing of a person made from direct observation, on the other hand, might move, twist, leap. A drawing from life takes the viewer around corners.
This desire to represent the human figure has been central to art since our ancestors first smeared pigment into walls, thirty thousand years ago. Although documentary evidence for it as a studio process remains thin, it is evident that by the 5th Century BC and throughout the Classical and Hellenistic periods drawing from direct observation of the figure must have been commonplace.
But, curiously, by the Middle Ages the vitality found in classical statues and figurated vases had vanished. Instead we find uniform static poses – the awkward inheritance of the ‘pattern book’ or ‘model book’. These were the standard artistic reference points of the time, repositories of expressions, positions and gestures from which artists would copy.
Life drawing changed this and brought art back to the anatomical realism of the ancients, and back to nature. During the 15th and 16th Centuries, artists began to look to real models for inspiration. We know that Pisanello was drawing direct from life in the early 1400s and that this approach was embraced and developed later in the century by Leonardo and Durer. Drawing from life was becoming the accepted approach. The establishment of the Accademia del Disegno in Florence in 1563 began a tradition of formalised study of the figure drawing process that continues in most, if not all, art colleges to this day.
In A Note on Drawing that great master of the figure, Augustus John, wrote of his debt to the teachers he studied under at the Slade School of Art.
‘Professor Brown’s method of rendering the human figure by a succession of rhythmical lines following the surface and explaining its structure… was admirable and eye-opening. Tonks insistence on the contour was equally sound… bringing with it the essence of linear expression and of all the grandeur of Design.’
The fortunate among today’s students may still find tutors like Brown and Tonks, but it seems they’re thinning out. I know of a student at one major art school who had to organise her own life drawing classes as none were provided. Some art schools, it seems, are abandoning five hundred years of academic tradition in favour of a nebulous embrace of ‘creative thinking’ and ‘visual exploration’. Happily, this is not the case everywhere, and even Glasgow School of Art, now as famous for its production line of Turner Prize contenders as for its Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed studios, maintains life drawing as an obligatory element of the painting course.
Life drawing remains popular and is currently undergoing its own Renaissance outwith the art schools, with groups materialising to satisfy the considerable demand for sessions. These classes take place in studios, galleries and in more surprising venues. A group called ‘All the Young Nudes’ offers weekly life drawing sessions in bars in Glasgow and Edinburgh. These are not classes as such, as there’s no tutor. They respond to a demand from both artists and non-artists to indulge in an evening of drawing (eased along, in this case, by music and beer). Life drawing is not only instructive and enlightening, but also fun and, it seems, pretty cool.
There is a Chinese saying, ‘Let the object draw the picture using the ink brush as a tool.’ This means that the key to good drawing is to be found within the subject, and that it is only by really looking that the artist will come to understand and so be able to draw it. More than anything, this is what life drawing teaches: the art of how to see.
Drawing by Michelle White of Glenalmond College