Drawing the nude
Life drawing has always been seen as a terribly important part of an art training, and when a friend raised her eyebrows when I said I was going back to life drawing (as I do periodically) I tried to explain why I think it’s important.
Of course if you are a conceptualist or abstract artist, it probably isn’t important because being able to draw competently may not be relevant (I do love abstraction though!) But if you are developing and honing drawing skills – well, when you draw the nude, there is no place to hide.
The embarrassment bit? Well, it’s about as clinical as a doctor’s examination (from the doctor’s point of view); and the models can be as varied as patients. You become so absorbed in getting it right, that there is no time to be coy. Okay that bit is out of the way!
If you draw an apple or a rock a bit of wonky drawing is part of the ‘organic nature’ of the apple or the rock.
When you draw a person, you strive to ‘get it right’ or to convey an image that looks ‘fluent and expressive’. This is what I meant by ‘nowhere to hide’. In fact, it’s easier to do the ‘fluent and expressive’ part if you are first able to get it right and are familiar with the structure of the human body, and how the body fits together. Michelangelo took this further by dissecting corpses to see how muscles joined ligaments and affected the ever-changing shape of a form in motion. Fortunately, we can look at books about anatomy.
In a nutshell, I told my friend that we draw the model because this is our best chance to improve our drawing and if we do figurative work, to really understand how the shape of the body affects the way the body moves and the way that clothes hang. But even if we don’t, it’s all there for improving drawing skills – curves, flat planes, form, perspective, shading, accuracy – and once we get that bit, we can add mood, style and emotion.
Often in drawing classes, you begin with a warm up of 1-minute drawings, then 2 or 3 minute drawings sometimes going to a 20 minute drawing or a long 1-2 hour pose. Below is a two minute drawing, produced after a few hours of 2 minute drawings, many of which I discarded.
You can learn some rules which may help you ‘see’. For instance when a person is standing, the halfway point is usually about at the top of the legs, not the waistline. If a person is standing with their weight on one leg, the head is usually above the weighted leg, not positioned halfway between the two legs. These simple ‘rules’ come in useful when trying to understand why a drawing may look odd!
Really talented artists can take this understanding of the human body further into stylisation (like Modigliani), design (like Klimt), abstraction (like Matisse) or to convey raw emotion as in Picasso’s Guernica. Freud painted the naked body in all its vulnerability and Francis Bacon distorted the body unspeakably.
But mostly, it is time at the easel. I like to think of life drawing as meditation or exercising the visual memory.
To end on an amusing note – when my son was nearly 18 and doing his A-levels, I thought that he and his friend would really benefit from life drawing. I chatted to the friend’s mother who agreed and I dropped the two boys off at a drawing class, where a few of my friends drew regularly. I knew my friends Sidney and Gavin would look out for them. Anyway, when I fetched them a few hours later, and asked how the drawing went and my son said: ‘Mom you never told us she’d be nude’
Ah well! Baptism by fire.