Life drawing, and reprogramming how you see

**Content warning! Life drawing == nudity**

I’m seeking out opportunities to do life drawing so I can get a bit more attuned to gesture and anatomy. I’d ultimately like to get better at representing facial expression and body language.

If you’ve never tried figure drawing before, it’s an interesting process no matter what you think of your artistic skills. In a few ways, it moves you into a space that is contrary to how you usually interact with the world. For that alone it’s quite a mind-clearing exercise.

Looking to understand

We’re taught not to stare. It’s a behavior we intentionally adjust in ourselves because of the way it affects others, the many different ways it can be perceived…especially by strangers. Life drawing is a situation that is a direct challenge to this. The model is (usually) someone you don’t know that has given you permission to look as much as you need to, with no further relationship or obligation. It’s up to you what happens then, and what approach you take to understanding their particular truth.

In the first life drawing class I took, our teacher introduced the model, and after describing the structure of the class, said that we weren’t going to draw yet. For the first pose, we were simply going to look. The model disrobed and adopted the first pose, and we spend 5 minutes in near silence except for the occasional direction of our teacher about things to observe. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a very long time to just look. It’s long enough to get past the initial shock or titillation of seeing someone naked, past the self-conciousness of looking, past any fleeting feelings, judgments, or comparisons that could come up. It’s just not possible to hold onto them.

It’s similar to meditation, though instead of making the space for stillness or clarity, it makes a space for curiosity. I’ll try to figure out which muscles are tensed to support weight. I’ll wonder about the bumps revealed by highlights or shadows, and whether those are bones, or muscle, or skin. I’ll follow the curves and how they connect. I’ll look at the whorls and patterns of hair. I’ll think about what the pose itself seems to communicate.

Discarding what you know

Just as hard as it can be not to stare at something interesting, it can be equally hard to make yourself draw what you’re actually seeing. Your brain says “leg” and has an idea of what a leg should look like. If you’re drawing what you know a leg to look like, you’ll miss learning about the qualities of it that go beyond your current understanding.

Interesting things happen when you pretend you aren’t drawing a particular thing. You can bounce between different modes of seeing: seeing edges, seeing volume, seeing shapes, or the negative space around it, or just the highlights or the shadows, or just a color. You can imagine what would happen if the model shifts balance. You can see the whole pose as if the model were a stack of shapes, or just the skeleton.

So…lest you think it’s mostly about embracing nudity and waxing philosophic about ways to see, there’s a mechanical aspect to the progression of these drawing exercises too. These sessions usually start with extremely short poses – just a minute or two each – to get you capturing overall pose and gesture as quickly as possible. It loosens you up and gets you focusing on what matters most. Usually then it’ll progress to longer and longer poses. The ones I’ve been to lately have gone up to 20 minutes poses.

As I have more time to work, I’ve been trying out different methods of capturing both highlights and shadows. It’s probably a little too fussy as I’m running out of time for some of the details…so I’m still figuring out what level of detail I can get to. I am also finding it hard to do the right thing for heads/faces, probably because I’m starting with parts of the body first (usually shoulder area); somewhat the opposite of what happens when I’m drawing from a photo.

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1 Comment

  1. Beautiful work, love it! Figure/life drawing classes were among my favorite. I love the 1-20 minute progressive exercises. I still think some of my best figure sketches are from those quick exercises. Once you get in the rhythm of it, there is such a feeling of freeness…

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