Thoughts on Life Drawing

February 11, 2013

Above: 18 x 12 inch (approx.) five-minute life drawing sketch, soft vine charcoal (smeared with my finger) on newsprint.

In December a reader wrote in and asked about life drawing and I wrote the following explanation of my various approaches to life drawing. I decided to rewrite it a bit and create a post out of it because it's hit or miss for the comments section to be seen.

I do three types of life drawing—first there's the simplest which is just going out and about wherever life takes me (waiting rooms, restaurants, etc.) and using the "life models" available (i.e., people and animals milling about) in that situation. (Here's an example of "life drawing" while I sitting in a waiting room.)

On those outings I go out with a plan to capture some gesture, idea, or impression of a person (bird, dog, etc.). If I'm sketching a person I encounter I'm also looking to capture clothing styles, hairdos, shoes and such. I work in my journal—which I carry with me all the time. Though on rare occasions I travel light and leave the journal behind because of shoulder problems. Then I'll work on small squares of paper I carry with me. I use whatever pens I have brought along; sometimes I use the Niji waterbrush with gouache or watercolor.

The second way I work on life drawing is to attend life drawing co-ops where there is no teacher—just a bunch of artists and the model. When I go to such a session I modify what I take for supplies depending on where the session will be held. Some groups meet in people's homes so I don't take messy media to those locations. Other groups meet in an artist's studio (which in Minneapolis typically means the warehouses that have been repurposed). People hosting these events are more inviting as to what materials you can bring and use as you're working in a studio space where a little mess is acceptable.

Because of that I'll take smudgeable materials as well as my watercolors. I go into the session with a plan of what media I'm going to focus on that day and what I hope to accomplish. For instance I might decide to work on faces, work on hands, or work on the whole figure. Then I stick with that plan regardless of how the session is going and I find ways to make it work and learn something.

The third type of life-drawing situation I find myself in is something I just started in January 2012. (I took the summer off and returned to it in the fall.) This is a gesture figure drawing class. Since it is a class there is an instructor present. (I've written about this gesture class here.)

Because I attend as a student I'm not running the show. The instructor has a plan for what we are going to do in each session. In this particular class we have 1-, 3-, and 5-minute warm ups. We then do some sort of experiment, devised by the instructor, for a couple poses. We end with two 20-minute posses.

With the instructor setting the agenda (and the exercise) in some ways I don't have to have an overall plan. However, I do plan for what type of media I think I might want to work in and bring those supplies and the appropriate paper.

The gesture life drawing class I attend is done in a studio setting. The instructor actually suggests we work in charcoal on newsprint. I bring a lot of that with me. I like to work with other media as well. Often I will do my warm up sketches with the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen or the Pentel Aquash Brush Pen with Light Black ink. They buckle the newsprint, but it isn't awful, and it's fun to do the quick gesture sketches with them. I bring other papers with me that I can whip out and use if I want some other type of effect on the page with those pens.

I also have my Faber-Castell Pitt Artist's Calligraphy pen on hand. I'll use that pen for some of the 5-minute poses. Using that pen approaches most closely what happens when I'm out and about in the city sketching people—except that in gesture life drawing class the model is naked and posing.

For longer poses (3 minutes and up) I'll often use charcoal because I'm going to have time to make corrections and want a smudgeable medium. But other times I'll use a colored pencil (that isn't erasable) or graphite pencils that I don't take time to erase. Essentially I'll take out whatever medium I brought with me that I think fits the experiment in front of us. 

It is actually not as large an inventory of supplies as this description indicates. I'll have everything packed in a single cloth bag, but in my mind, based on the day I've been having up to that point I know what I'm going to work on before I get to class and then go with that, sometimes changing for one quick drawing or two, and adapting if that goes well, or switching back if it doesn't. Depending on the experiment the instructor sets I might default back to charcoal.

I see the class as my opportunity to try out different approaches as suggested by the instructor and fail miserably in the process because it's practice and I'm trying to see if the learning needs to go in a certain direction or not. And it is also great to have a fresh eye come up behind you every now and then and point out that you haven't added feet on your drawing (a standing joke in my circumstance which I'm working on) or that a certain line or angle isn't quite right and if you fix that the whole thing works.

Sometimes we get so involved in the sketch that we don't step back and check on things before we dig a trench we can't get out of. This class is useful in reminding me to step back not only more in class, but also in my own work outside of class.

The other thing that I find in this third type of life drawing situation is that it is a good time to force myself to SLOW DOWN. I always work too fast. A minute is actually a very long time.

[The reader then asked if I work on the whole figure] As to describing the whole figure equally I guess the thing that has always struck me is that something about a pose will catch your eye and if you're a street sketcher like I am you always go for that small bit before anything else, and you get that, because the eye is drawn to that and the person is going to be gone in a moment.

In a life drawing class I try to be aware of that element that drew my attention and capture it with a little bit more information as needed, for instance just having a person's spine might not be enough (though it could be enough to capture a gesture).

I would say that I'm more successful focusing on something outside of class in passing, than in a class situation. In a class situation I try to juggle the stated exercise with describing the whole and usually run out of time in a way that is less satisfying compared to when I am out and about and capture what immediately catches my eye. In class I'm running what I see through the filter of the assignment. On the street I'm just responding to what I see. When I go to a life drawing co-op (where there is no instructor) I create my own goals and exercises before I show up and hope I can apply them to the poses the model presents.

If you go to my post on the fun I have taking this gesture drawing class and look at the second image in that post you'll see a 5-minute gesture sketch that illustrates what I'm talking about. In this pose what captured my attention was the manner in which the buttocks flattened on the floor of the stage and the model's body twisted and you could still see a little bit of the left leg. The angle of the arm supporting him was important to me, but having the hand, I didn't need it, and the other arm going up wasn't interesting to me. I didn't spend any time trying to capture those parts.

Other students in the class did the full view and included the arms, and I'm sure at least one person was focusing attention on that raised arm and hand because the model is always very conscious of what he does with his extremities: he always makes them interesting. It's just that on this day, from my angle, they weren't what was most interesting to me.

[I offered the following suggestions to the reader who said she didn't love her short pose sketches.]

So I would suggest that you slow down, look at the figure for a couple seconds before sketching, get what is important to you in the gesture while not ignoring the whole. (It sort of depends on how you learned to draw—if you start with the broad big picture and work down to details do it quickly establishing proportions and then go into the detail you want to capture and spend your time there. If you start with what captures your interest you can build out, but you have to be careful because your proportions might be off.

Another thing to consider, do you not love the results of your short pose sketches because you don't get down what you would like or because you don't get a "finished" sketch or because of some other reason?

The best solution for any of those circumstances is to sketch all the time, including when you're out and about, and build up a sense of working faster (but still in a considered manner). (And remind yourself that you are practicing—not going for finished drawings.)

Sketching birds at the park is great practice for this. You now have 1-,  3-, and 5-SECOND poses to consider and capture on paper. If you do that a lot, getting into the studio and having a whole minute is going to feel like a time warp of eternity.

My problem then is to slow myself down and actually USE that time productively in either a life-drawing co-op or class.

I recommend ALWAYS having a plan. In my case I try also to have a Plan B and a Plan C so that if things really go cockeyed I can switch to something else. It's one of the reasons I like to end my gesture drawing sessions with a portrait. Sketching noses, hair, and ears—it's something I love. It's familiar yet challenging at the same time—even if I don't get great results I feel positive about the overall output. My results from a session let me know what I have to work on next.

Note taking is also helpful. I recommend you jot down notes at the end of a session and then read them before your next session. Your notes might contain clues as to what you will want to focus on or where you need to start, or the medium you want to use.

And right away I would suggest that you come up with an internal dialog that is not about judging the images in the moment. Everything I do in life drawing is throwaway in intent. The morning after a life drawing session I photograph sketches from that session (when I'm working on loose paper), but I toss most of them. Because I have the digital files I am able to look back at what I did the previous week quickly on my computer and decide what what to focus on.

While either a co-op life drawing session (without an instructor) or a class (with an instructor) is in progress I draw for the duration of the pose, look at the final drawing and assess quickly what did or didn't work. I then flip the drawing over onto the floor and don't look at it again until the next morning when I take photos. I find that things are often better than I thought at the time and I can see more of the drawing as it actually is because I don't have the adrenaline of working quickly clogging my judgment.

Whether all your drawings from a session are complete shit or not you need to develop a way to talk to yourself that is open to failure (from whatever perfect drawing standard you're judging by)—which lets you be where you are right now, practicing, working.

Hope this response helps. Some of this is stuff I've written about in various ways over the years (internal critic) and some of it is in posts I'm working on and maybe I'll be able to say it more clearly there.

Keep going to life drawing. I think it really matters.

I'm going through a bunch of life-drawing books right now and will have a review of them at some point. So another suggestion I have is that if you aren't in a class but are just attending a figure drawing co-op find a good figure drawing book and do some of the experiments the author suggests.  

Here are two books I reviewed this summer, both of which give lots of "experiments" for you to try on your own.

  1. Reply

    Great post that could not have come at a better time for me. Tomorrow is my first session in a really long time, and this helps me begin to form a plan for the experience. Capturing gesture and proportion in an interpretive way is my goal, using the PPBP with Neocolor II crayons. Aiming for truth in movement….

  2. Reply

    I miss having the opportunity to go to life-drawing class. There aren’t any in my area, an hour drive away would be minimum…so I love your habits of sketching from the tv, birds & animals, from toys, and even taxidermy animals. All very effective practice. I really love to draw people. Do you have recommendations for drawing people out in public, like at a coffee shop or a mall…I hesitate because it feels like an invasion of privacy. what do you think?

  3. Reply

    Dianne, obviously from my life’s work I don’t think sketching people in public places is an invasion of privacy. I sketch people wherever I am when I’m out in public. I’ve written extensively about this on the blog. I don’t know where you’d find all the posts but if you use the blog’s search engine and search for things like “Sketching in public” you’ll get lists of posts that you can read up on my opinion that sketching in public is totally OK.

    I think that what you do have to be aware of is respect. If someone sees you sketching him/her and comes over and is upset you can apologize and cease drawing him/her. That’s really all you can do.

    When I was much younger and we didn’t have Facebook and reality shows more people used to express a desire for privacy. Now with everyone having cameras and posting on FB it seems that people who do notice when I sketch them are more bemused than anything else.

    But the reality is 99.9 percent of the people I’ve sketched while I’ve been out in public were oblivious to the fact I was sketching them, because they just weren’t alert to their surroundings.

    Also, typically I have a duck-billed hat on so people can’t see my eyes, but even in waiting rooms when I don’t have a hat on people don’t seem to notice. I think it has to do with a ninja cloak of invisibility, but I’ve written about that before too.

    I don’t sketch in cafes much because I don’t go to coffee shops and sit around like a lot of sketchers do. I DO NOT LIKE THE SMELL OF COFFEE so to sit in a coffee shop all day is actually tortuous to me.

    I’ll sketch people in any public building or concourse type thing that I might be at for whatever reason, if I have some down time.

    If you read my sketching at the jury pool post
    you’ll see that I tend to sketch people who are quite a distance away from me. So in that instance where a very, very large room was broken into distinct seating areas, with U shaped seating areas and other areas with tables I picked subjects that were in “other” areas from me, not sitting directly across from me. That helps limit their ability to notice you.

    When I’m at the allergist’s after getting my shots (I have to wait 30 minutes afterwards in case there is a reaction) I sketch people I can see through the door of the waiting room I’m in—people who are in the main waiting room. They are totally oblivious to my very existence, but I have a direct view of them.

    Sketching people shopping in stores as you sit outside on a bench would have the same effect in a mall situation.

    Sketching people a couple rows in front of you at a lecture or sports event would also be something that you could probably do without being noticed.

    I draw the crowds of people at zoos, the Bell, art museums all the time. Anywhere where people will be focusing their attention on something.

    Sometimes when I’m some place and there are only people sitting next to me I will sketch that person’s shoes. It means I can keep my head down and look back and forth from the shoes to my journal, and they won’t see that movement at all. So even if you can’t get a lot done you can get something done.

    If they are really aware I’ll actually ask if they mind if I draw their shoes. No one has ever said no. No one.

    Since I don’t know you and your comment states that drawing in public “feels like an invasion of privacy” you need to think about what your goals are and whether you really feel this. If you do, end of discussion, don’t do it.

    I’ll keep doing it. My friends will keep doing it. But we don’t have any ethical or moral qualms about it.

    If you do, you should not do it.

    But you also need to ask yourself, “Am I upset because I’m invading their privacy, or because if they notice me I’ll have given a tacit invitation for them to talk to me and that is an invasion of my privacy?”

    I bring that up because 90 percent of the students I’ve had who express problems of “privacy” when drawing in public, turn out, when questioned by me about their art practice to actually be more concerned about the discomfort of someone coming up to them and telling them their drawing sucks.

    Once they can get over that they can happily get out in public and sketch.

    I write about advice I’ve given students in the past, on the blog too. Most obvious is to prepare a couple statements to say to people when they interrupt you. “I’m sorry I can’t talk with you I’m concentrating,” “What did you say, I was concentrating and didn’t hear you,” etc.

    And some funny or light things to say if they criticize you (which is different than a person being upset about you drawing him/her—then just apologize and stop).

    Happily the way to overcome discomfort of drawing in public is to do it constantly. So that remedy is in your own hands.

    All you have to do now is ask what is true for you and apply it to your life.

    Since you say there are no life drawing opportunities (classes/co-ops) in your area you might get like-minded friends together and take turns posing for each other (clothed). Someone can read a book for 10 minutes in the same pose, with a lamp set up to throw some nice light. Then it can be someone else’s turn to “read” and so on. In that way quite a lot of practice can be accomplished. Have the person sit in a chair, sit on a stool, sit on the floor, recline on a couch, etc. In all these things you will have a different aspect of anatomy and fabric folds.

    Good luck with whatever you decide to pursue.

  4. Reply

    This is a fabulous description, so intriguing to know your artistic motivations.

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