Is this the real life?

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I had restarted drawing and painting.

I didn’t state it explicitly in that post, but around the time I posted it I more or less set myself a goal to try and draw or paint at least one thing every day for as long as possible. So far, and I realise that 3 weeks isn’t an exceptionally long time by any reasonable standard, I have managed to do this. Some days it has pretty much been just one or two quick sketches and some days I’ve managed to spend several hours working at arty things and come up with several pictures that I’m quite pleased with.

Today I have taken another step that will, I hope, help me to keep this goal going for quite a bit longer, as well as to provide a significant boost to my drawing (and hence painting, and perhaps even at some point sculpture) skills and give me a great deal of pleasure along the way. I have joined a life drawing class.

Life drawing has traditionally been considered an extremely beneficial exercise for learning to draw, perhaps because the human body is an intrinsically complex (and fascinating) subject offering a wide variety of challenges. As traditional wisdom goes, I think that viewpoint has a lot to recommend it. I’m also of the school of thought that the figure (both draped and undraped) is a worthy subject in its own right as well as being an excellent stepping stone to mastery of drawing more generally.

I got an opportunity to attend a handful of life drawing sessions when I was studying for my GCSE art exam 25 years or so ago. I’m still not quite sure how I ended up doing that, as it was actually a course for A-Level students, but I’m very grateful for the opportunity as it was an excellent experience (and furnished several items towards my GCSE portfolio).

Since then, even when I have been going through artistically productive phases, the closest I’ve got to life drawing is a handful of sketches from statues seen in museums or from photographic references, and perhaps a couple of times when I’ve attempted self-portraits beyond my usual head-and-shoulders approach. Personally, I think that both self-portaiture and life drawing have enough challenges individually that they are probably best kept largely separate!

A few months ago, a life drawing class started meeting on Wednesday afternoons at the community centre where I work. Since I wasn’t doing any drawing at the time, it didn’t cross my mind to consider joining them, and I just let them get on with their own thing while I carried on with my work in the office next door. However, once I picked up my pencils again it didn’t take too long for the idea to occur to me.

The group usually runs from 1 to 4pm on Wednesdays and while my working hours are fairly flexible I am supposed to keep the office open until 3pm. I figured that I might be able to catch the final hour of the session and perhaps sneak in a quick bit of sketching earlier on during my lunch break. I was quite busy with Christmas preparations for the final couple of weeks before the group broke up for the holiday, and they didn’t start meeting again until today, so this was the first opportunity I had to see whether this would be feasible.

My first life sketches for quite a long time The good news is that it is. Shortly after 1pm, nervously clutching my brand new A4 sketchbook (a comfortable compromise between the smaller ones I usually take out for sketching on location and the bigger ones that I prefer to use but can’t easily carry on my bike) and a tin of pencils, I made my way into the hall, where the group were already well under way, doing drawings or paintings in various media from short poses held by this week’s model. I think she was called Elen or Ella, but I didn’t catch the name clearly.

From entering the room I had about 30 seconds to make my first sketch before the pose came to an end. I can’t remember whether the next pose was held for 5 or 10 minutes but I managed to get four sketches out of it, before heading back to the office to actually eat my lunch and then carry on with my work. Here you should be able to see my first page of sketches.

A bit later in the afternoon, I came back through to grab a cup of tea and another quickish sketch. At this stage they were working on 20 minute poses and I caught the last 5 minutes of one. A fringe benefit of having joined the group is that I can now nip through the hall and get to the kitchen to make myself tea on Wednesday afternoons (normally I have to stay out of the hall when groups are in there).

I’d managed to get through today’s work load by the time the clock struck 3, so I hurried back in to catch almost the whole of the final hour of the session. They were still working on fairly short poses when I got in, but after a couple more of those we moved on to a 30 minute pose to finish the afternoon. I spent most of that time on one pen drawing and finished off with another quick pencil sketch.

It was certainly very exciting to be drawing from life again. Apart from anything else, there is the knowledge that you only have a very limited time in which to complete the drawing (which is not generally the case if you’re working from a photo or a sculpture), and at least with the shorter poses, this has the positive effect that it becomes much harder to overwork the drawing, which is something I’m quite prone to doing. Also, the slight movements that even the best models make while holding a pose help add to the dynamicism of the drawings, while there’s something about being in a room full of artists all working feverishly to produce their impressions of the model and all coming up with quite different results, even when looking from more or less the same angle, that adds a dimension to the creative experience that isn’t there when you’re working alone in your home studio.

Line & wash drawing based on first life sketchesI must admit, though, that I was feeling so inspired by my hour and a bit in the life class this afternoon that when I got home I spent another hour or so working up a few more drawings and paintings based on my earlier sketches. I mainly wanted to use the opportunity to try a few different media (e.g. charcoal, working on a slightly bigger scale) and to make use of the sketches while they were still backed up with fresh memories of observing the model.

I have taken photos of pretty much all of today’s output and put them up on Flickr, with a fairly extensive commentary. If you check out my Life Drawing album there, you should find them in more or less chronological order.

Having got off to a great start, I’m looking forward to more life drawing over the coming weeks. Doubtless at least some of my sketches from the life class and subsequent works based on them will be appearing in my Flickr photostream. There may even be one or two more blog posts to come.

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