I woke up refreshed and energized today, following a productive life drawing session last night that yielded up a few drawings I was happy with.
Sometimes I leave sessions in disgust, both annoyed and angry at myself for not producing anything worthwhile. On those occasions, I have to withdraw inside myself, and categorize the nature of my thoughts as different parts of myself.
Depicting the human form accurately is tough, and I’ve fallen out of practice in recent years. It’s one thing to knock out a quick sketch of someone, but another thing entirely to sit down and embark on a mission to represent an individual in front of you, complete with shadows, highlights, while being anatomically correct in every way. All together, there are 650 muscles in the human body, and 205 bones. They interlock, intersect, and generally just make it a thing to draw even the simplest human gesture accurately.
So, when I don’t leave with a good drawing or two, I try to separate the emotional, intuitive side of myself from the engineer and strategist.
One screams: “How did we fuck that up so hard? We have nothing to show for THREE hours of effort! Fuckkkkkkk!”
While the other placates, kindly: “It’s the practice that counts, not the night’s outcome. We went, we learned, and we’ll keep getting better. Be content with that.”
They bicker on and on, into the night, until sleep takes me and both blissfully fall silent.
In the life drawing sessions where I do really well, the kiddie gloves have to come off. I have to put on my super serious I-come-to-conquer face, drink a ton of caffeine, and then make it happen however I can. In truth, I do know a lot of tricks; some I was taught earlier in life, and some I picked up along the way. Things like… mentally measuring limbs with shadows. Aligning things together by judging the height from the floor. Using the whole arm to sketch rather then just the wrist. Cleverly depicting blankets/pillows closer to the model than they actually are. Drawing attention from weaker areas with color and/or darker shadows. That kind of thing.
So, that last drawing?
I took that photo with my phone somewhere around the halfway point, so probably… 11 minutes in? At 20 minutes in, the thought that crossed my mind was:
“I gotta fix this guy’s dick.”
It looked like a mushroom glued to a baby carrot.
Practice indelicately illuminates our weaknesses.
And his left leg… oh man.
I never quite got it right. From where I sat, there was some amount of foreshortening going on, but ultimately what I drew simply wasn’t proportionate to his frame, and I could only fuss with it so long before I needed to move on and get to other sections.
There’s a quote I heard the other day: “All blades grow dull”.
You have to keep drawing people, on a weekly basis. You can’t just… stop. If you do, then that familiarity just… seeps out.
In the decade or so that I’ve been out of the habit, I’ve noticed models will actually ask to take pictures of work they like. Everybody has a phone with a camera now, after all, and I guess it makes sense.
At one point, the guy from the drawing I posted above came around to look at everyone’s work, and it was the second time in the same month that someone seemed really happy with the drawing I did of them.
“Oh man, that’s awesome!”
He smiled widely, then, and looked right into my face with an expression that dispelled any doubts I had that he was being anything but genuine.
“Thanks man, I’m… glad ya like it.”
I’ve always felt that the key to not making something awkward is not care if it turns out awkward.
Somehow, inexplicitly… he was pleased. In a way, it was a weird reminder how goddamned cynical I can be about my own work. I’m always trying to improve, always sharpening the blade, and always scheming how best to approach the next endeavor… so sometimes I forget to simply appreciate what came out this time.
People bring all types of stuff to these sessions, and I’m often surprised by what I see. One guy brought a box of crayons, and another brought a collection of carpentry pencils. One woman brought some strange type of charcoal I’d never seen before, which smelled like sulfur and was SO dark it reminded me of Vantablack.
The models that are brought in are intentionally of different ethnicities, body shapes and genders.
Since I started getting in practice again I haven’t drawn the same model twice, which is certainly helpful, and keeps me on my toes.
There was a young woman who modeled for the first time the other week, and I felt a bit sorry for her. People were still setting up all their supplies, and her discomfort was apparent as she stood in a robe talking with the host of the sessions. For me, the sessions are like… doing math, or something, and my whole goal is to not fucking suck. As such, I sometimes forget the unique strangeness these people must feel stepping up into the spotlight.
She’d brought her friend with her for company, and after each round of drawings the two of them would walk around to see everyone’s work. I’ve heard a number of models say that that’s the “fun part”, and I always groan inwardly when people make their way over when I’m less than pleased with what I did.
After the end of a drawing, I’m often sitting back in my chair, or on the edge of stool, and staring pointedly at the paper while blinking slowly… just sorta… digesting what went well, and what didn’t.
I looked back at one point, having stood up, and saw the new girl behind me, slightly hunched forward, mouth open, and smiling from ear to ear.
“That’s amazing!”, she said.
“I guess it did turn out… okay.”
I scratched face, not knowing what else to add.
I’d used some obscure purple colored pencil I had near the end of drawing to outline everything.
Because, well, why the fuck not?
I hadn’t been too sold on anything else about the drawing, and throwing some color in there seemed… fun? Different?
Again, seeing her smile reminded me how seriously I tend to take my work, and how much… polish that I expect of everything.
It’s honestly a relief when each drawing is over, despite whether they turn out bad or good. Working in isolation, you don’t get feedback unless you choose to seek it out.
Therefore, getting feedback unexpectedly is occasionally refreshing.
Because it’s like “Well, they don’t think it sucks. Yay?”
Kind of a partial win… in my book.
Young artists quickly realize that drawing the human form, convincingly, takes careful study, practice and patience. Some realize they’re fine with less-than-realistic work, and fork away from the pursuit. Others stick with it a little longer, and some even choose to make it their focus.
But, at some point, almost everyone puts it on the backburner for longer than they intend.
“Alright, I’m good for now. I’ll get back in the habit once I have some more free time.”
And then one day you realize, hell, you’re actually having trouble drawing a foot, or an elbow…
And you think:
And then… because you’re prideful, but not so prideful you’ll let it affect your work… you find yourself back in the saddle, as it were, and inwardly cursing how shitty the arm you just drew looks.
You just gotta own it.
With bad work… you just gotta own it.
And as soon as you do, you can move forward. You dig up your old anatomy book, and your laminated charts of muscle groups and bone structures.
Among artists, it’s customary to individually thank the model for their time. They’re already getting paid, sure, but there’s just sort of an unspoken rule that if a model agrees to stand, sit or recline for hours at a time, without moving, that you should… well, acknowledge their effort. Well, perhaps ‘discipline’ is a better word.
It’s… etiquette, I suppose?
After one such occasion, a few months back, I thanked a model, and she said to me:
“Happy to! I hope you got the inspiration you needed.”
And I thought: “What? Inspiration…?
I kept thinking back to that phrase, again and again.
“I hope you got the inspiration you needed.”
At the time, I’d replied something about still being relatively rusty, still needing a lot of practice, etc. Her statement had genuinely confused me.
And then I remembered something!
Some artists do go to these things to find inspiration, not simply to brush up on their skills.
I’ve always found inspiration in strange things, though. Not naked people.
Bizarre colors. Dreams. The sad smiles of old men. Nightmares. Insects. Rusted machinery. Dark clouds. Orange atmospheric pollution.
I’ve never felt an ounce of inspiration drawing a bald guy laying back on a sofa, or a woman with her arms encircling a chair.
Sometimes I go to these things, and I feel like the poses that models choose are based primarily off of what they think is expected of them. I wish that weren’t the case, but at the same time, they’re already in the spotlight… do I really want to suggest that they should also be more imaginative?
People have always told me I’m a good teacher, and that I’m patient. The truth is, I don’t feel the need to mentor people unless there’s a reason. When I was in college, people used to pass around my sketches after life drawing sessions and talk among each other, often breaking down what choices I’d made, how I’d approached things, and what sketches were best.
As they did, I’d still be sitting there, brow furrowed, while staring into the empty space the model had been in. I’d replay each sketch in my mind, from start to finish. Not every individual detail, mind you, but the broad strokes, and the junctures where things worked out well, and when things went to utter shit.
More often than not, I’d recall the shit moments, and what caused them.
At the time, I didn’t put any emotion into my work. All I cared about, stupidly, was technical perfection. Perfect form. Anything less then perfect had to be scrutinized, broken apart, and understood.
These days, though, I’m a bit better.
Being rusty is one thing. You shake off the cobwebs, put your head down, and you practice. Eventually, it pans out. You fall back into the rhythm. Things works themselves out. Eventually, you’re better than you were before, and growing, again.
That being said…
I don’t care about classical poses.
I want to draw real emotion.
What do I mean by real?
True feelings, I guess. And the poses that accompanied them.
When I was a child, I heard voices outside the window speaking in low tones. When I came out, I found my mom talking to the neighbor. She turned to me, and she told me that my puppy, a Cocker Spaniel, had been hit by a car and died. I refused to believe her, and I ran off towards the road alone, utterly certain she’d somehow been mistaken. When I saw nothing, I felt relief, until my mother and the neighbor pointed down the road. As I neared the body, I sunk to my knees, and stared down for an eternity.
That’s what I mean, though, when I say I want real emotion.
Life, as it is.
Maybe some find comfort in the expected, and the generic.
But I don’t.
As such, I’ve considered just coordinating sessions myself. Basically just renting some space with good lighting a few hours a week, listing an ad somewhere, and paying a model a lump sum for two to three sessions a month, then giving them a bit of direction to help steer things in a slightly more meaningful way.
I mulled it over, in the back of my mind… just kinda considering the logistics/planning. I’ve got other endeavors, other projects, and plenty of excuses I could make not to pull the trigger.
I don’t want to be less.
While considering it, I suddenly thought of an old instructor I had in college, and something minor he’d told us about life drawing.
His name was Abbot Smith. He’d hosted plenty of life drawing sessions himself, and had been teaching at Digipen for around three to four years by the time I met him.
I saw him as another type of artist. Our interactions were pretty lukewarm, and without much weight. I wasn’t especially impressed by his work, but I also felt he had some useful insight to impart in some areas. A few years after I left he actually became a politician, believe it or not. If you want, you can even look him up and see a few choice comments people have left on sites where students review professors. The guy got a ton of feedback when he was teaching, it seems. While I felt pretty neutral towards him, the vast majority of his students either seem to have loved him, or hated him.
Here’s a few choice comments:
“Learning from Abbott is like trying to drink from a fire hose. Best idea is to print his slides before class, then takes notes on them so you’re not trying to write down the slides. He loves teaching and his goal is to have you succeed–which means even though he’s scary as sin, approaching him with problems is easy as pie.”
“At first, Abbott’s teaching style is impressive and makes you optimistic. But as time passes, you realize he is full of****. Everything he teaches you can learn from book for much cheaper. He is not a true artist – have you ever seen his work? He cannot walk the walk at all, and takes out his insecurity on young art students. Beware the ****.”
“Has a big ego, but does know his stuff. Unfortunately, he explains things in the most roundabout way possible, making it difficult to pin point the actual answer to a question. I really wish he were more to the point as it would make time for more questions to be answered as well more time in general.”
“Horrible teacher with no respect for anyone but his gigantic ego.”
“Abbott is definitely the best teacher I have ever had. My artwork has transformed in such a short amount of time and a lot of that has to do with him. The way he set up the cirriculum is pretty amazing; everything’s interconnected. I think if people listened to him instead of questioning his methods then they wouldn’t have any complaints.”
“Not hot, not helpful, wish he would quit teaching all-together!!!!”
“he loves himself way too much”
“Not a very nice person to work with. He dances around a question if someone if fool enought to ask it. He also goes off on that question for longer then nessasary, something like 15mins to 1hour.”
How’d you like the fire hose analogy someone left? That one made me laugh the most, by far.
The point I’m about to make angles back at my original statement, when I first brought up the old codger.
According to him, if you host a life drawing class, and the model doesn’t show, then the instructor is expected to fill in.
While I don’t especially savor the idea of standing there with my dick out for three hours, I’m also no coward, and certainly not a prude.
By the way, it’s Wednesday, and as promised, I’ve dedicated some time this evening to take drawing requests. If you have something you’d like me to draw, then feel free to plunk it into the comments section below!
UPDATE – 11:55am PST
And here’s the latest request, which was:
“I want you to draw a guy with a heart shaped head, who’s always been made fun of for it, but gets a Valentine from a WOMAN with a heart shaped head.”