Life drawing

Improving the Capacity to Learn by Jeannine Cook

I have been slowly reading an extraordinary tome while I listen to the early morning birdsong greeting the sunrise.

It is a huge book, but well worth reading: The Primacy of Drawing by Deanna Petherbridge is the result of ten years’ research and careful thought about drawing, in all its implications and manifestations.

With wonderful illustrations of drawings from a multitude of public and private collections, Dr. Petherbridge delves into all the aspects of historical and contemporary drawing approaches and philosophies.

Vitruvian Man  by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria dell' Accademia, Venice (1485-90)

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria dell' Accademia, Venice (1485-90)

Leonardo da Vinci was one of the most notable of the Renaissance artists to combine art with science in his endless quest to learn about the world around him.  Other artists, for centuries, have used life drawing, from casts or live models, as a way of learning about the human body and honing their artistic skills.

Life drawing class. c. 1890, (Photo courtesy Leeds Museums and Galleries (Art Gallery))

Life drawing class. c. 1890, (Photo courtesy Leeds Museums and Galleries (Art Gallery))

Deanna Petherbridge discusses many interesting approaches to drawing, but one summation, at the end of a chapter on “Drawing and Learning”, struck me as very apposite indeed in today’s world. I quote it in full, with thanks to its author:

"Learning to observe, to investigate, to analyse, to compare, to critique, to select, to imagine, to play and to invent constitutes the veritable paradigm of functioning effectively in the world.” (My italics.) 

I think that every teacher should think hard about including art, and especially drawing, in the preparation of today’s generations in school, college and university.

Everyone would benefit, now and in the future.

Passionate about your art by Jeannine Cook

Life drawing today made me think about a quote I read at the beginning of the year in Artist's Magazine by T. Allen Lawson, a wonderful sensitive landscape painter.  He was quoted as saying that "the depth of your art is in direct proportion to the love of your subject. If you truly understand your subject, your painting will reflect that."

It is so true.  Every time I find myself trying to paint or draw subjects that don't really "turn me on", I later assess the work as less than good.  Perhaps it is because art is an extension of one's inner self, a voice to express one's passions and interests.  It is frequently an unconscious expression, but nonetheless, the knowledge of your subject matter, the experience you have had with it, all feeds into a more powerful and convincing work, whatever the type of art.

Why I thought of this quote today was that we had a new model posing, a good one, but one with whom I had no connection, as yet.  Her poses were interesting, but somehow I felt outside the necessary dialogue with what I was drawing, not caught up in understanding what I was trying to do.  Of course, I left the session irritated with myself, but I then reflected that sometimes, life drawing does not have to be about "love of your subject".  Instead it is just a very good drawing exercice!  So perhaps I need to regard today as working towards future passion to be translated into a good life drawing.

Thoughts on Life Drawing by Jeannine Cook

The New Year is really getting going again in my art world, with talk of exhibits which are happening and planned. The more important aspect of art, however, is starting seriously to work again after the holidays - does one actually call it "work"? It is more joyful, more absorbing.

Life drawing started again too, with that wonderful silence of concentration of a dozen artists grappling with this discipline. I thought back to a piece I read of some while ago in about an exhibition held at the Cantor Arts Center, Stanford, CA, of work by Frank Lobdell. He is a highly imaginative, often playful but very sophisticated abstract artist, painting in oils. Lobdell started participating in weekly life drawing sessions very early on, back in the late 1950s, with his friends Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bishoff and David Park. He continued the practice when he moved to Stanford in 1966.

Even though one can detect the trace of life drawing's effects in some of his early work, it is a very far leap from life drawing to his colourful and very abstract work. Described as "essentially a non-figurative artist", Lobell apparently regarded these life drawing sessions as an important source of ideas, a "springboard to develop a vocabulary of abstraction (my emphasis) that was informed by a study of the human body and grounded in the formal issues of expressionist gesture and line".

I have always found it most interesting to watch my fellow artists drawing in our life drawing sessions and then see what kind of art they produce. Like Lobdell, each of us can follow very individualistic paths, seemingly far removed from the human bodies we draw, and yet, all of us benefit enormously from life drawing in ways obvious and not-so-obvious.

Drawing from Life by Jeannine Cook

In a period that has been over-busy with the other side of art - matting, framing and preparing for exhibitions - life drawing was a welcome break, albeit for only three precious hours.

A fellow artist was talking to me during one of the brief breaks to let the model remember his limbs existed. We were talking about the humbling but ever-necessary discipline of looking, looking and looking, to teach one's hand to trust one's eye in the drawing process. The conversation then moved on to the ever-interesting necessity often faced in life drawing: reconciling the slight changes in pose that even the best model has during the session.

In short poses, it does not matter. For those, the challenge is more to analyse quickly the pose and sort out how to tackle understanding the arms and legs being - often - in somewhat strange positions and how to depict the figure. that can sometimes be very challenging, particularly if there is a lot of foreshortening on limbs relative to where the artist is placed.

During longer poses, models settle into a position but then may tire, slump, move slightly... Depending where one is in the drawing process, these changes can be hard to reconcile. Nonetheless, as my fellow artist remarked, even the evident changes in the drawing make for a much more vibrant and alive work, as compared with the "perfect" work done when someone is drawing from a photograph. In fact, redrawn lines, correcting and modifying the drawing, are frequently a source of strength and interest in a work.

Silverpoint, of course, is one of the least forgiving drawing media for these modifications and corrections, because every alteration shows and nothing can be erased. Yet here again, it can strengthen the image. Two works from some of the greatest silverpoint draughtsmen during the Renaissance illustrate this point. Below is a hauntingly beautiful study Leonardo da Vinci drew. Look at the reiteration of lines on the left side of the neck. They strengthen the impression of solid support for the detailed face and head, adding stability and emphasis.

Head of a girl  , Loenardo da Vinci, c.1483, Silverpoint On Paper, (Image courtesy of Biblioteca Reale, Turin, Italy)

Head of a girl, Loenardo da Vinci, c.1483, Silverpoint On Paper, (Image courtesy of Biblioteca Reale, Turin, Italy)

Likewise, Standing Youth with his hands behind his back, and seated Youth Reading has many lines which are repeated and altered as he readjusted the contours of both youths' arms, for instance, and even the seated youth's knee is redrawn, with felicitous emphasis.

Standing Youth with his hands behind his back, and seated Youth Reading,   Metalpoint, highlighted with white gouache, on pink prepared paper (recto),  1457/58–1504,  Filippino Lippi (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum, New York)

Standing Youth with his hands behind his back, and seated Youth Reading, Metalpoint, highlighted with white gouache, on pink prepared paper (recto),  1457/58–1504,  Filippino Lippi (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum, New York)

Such works make me feel much better about corrections I make when I am drawing from life, whether it is from models or from something in nature. Today's emphasis on "perfection" - reaching for the eraser, or copying almost slavishly from a photo, can often vitiate a drawing.

None of us is perfect, so why should we expect works of art to be any different?

Quick or Slow - which is best for Drawing? by Jeannine Cook

The life drawing group in which I participate has a very sensible programme of one session of short poses, and then - normally - the following week, the same model poses for one long pose.

These sessions always get me thinking about the speed at which I draw and how fast or slowly other artists there draw. Some people can produce a very finished drawing in a remarkably short time, while others seem barely to have made many marks in the same time period.

Historically, drawing have always fallen into the categories of quick studies and finished drawings, but history seldom tells us how long each artist actually took to accomplish the drawing. Rembrandt, clearly, had a wonderful ability to draw fast and evocatively; his pen and ink drawings have a breathless immediacy on occasions, blots, drying pens, scribbles and everything in between. His drawing of Jesus and the Adulteress is spare and fast, as if he was thinking, planning, organising. Other drawings evoke a spur-of-the-moment view as he sees someone asleep or sitting in a moment of introspection, a moment that he wants to remember, a scene that he wants to record for the pure joy of drawing. Spare and elegant, his lines are fast and fluid.

Jesus and the Adulteress,  Rembrandt

Jesus and the Adulteress, Rembrandt

Granted, the medium somewhat dictates the speed at which an artist draws. Pen and ink, conte, graphite or charcoal are all relatively fast, and marks can be made expressively with quick results. When you get to silverpoint, things tend to slow down a lot. The time available to make a drawing is therefore important, and subject matter tends often to dictate the medium – if the scene is about to disappear, you chose a quicker, more impressionistic way of capturing it. Each artist also has an individual eye, choosing what is important to record. Some aim mainly to capture the essence of the subject; others get fascinated by the play of light, the spatial composition or other aspects which are more time-consuming to depict.

Adolph Menzel, for instance, often used a wonderful technique of drawing a person doing something from multiple poses on the same page.

Man scraping the  bottom of the pot, Adolph Menzel, 1815-1905 (Image courtesy of the BBC)

Man scraping the  bottom of the pot, Adolph Menzel, 1815-1905 (Image courtesy of the BBC)

In a way, he was a forerunner to William Kentridge, with his many images being drawn, erased, filmed and then refilmed after changes. Menzel was drawing fast, fluently - he was a master draughtman. Kentridge is a superlative draughtsman too, but his approach, innovative and very much of our era with its mix of media, tends ultimately to be a slow and meticulous process, as each drawing evolves, is recorded and then evolves again until its final concluding version in narrative.  As Kentridge remarked,  “The activity of drawing is a way of trying to understand who we are and how we operate in the world.”

Drawing for Project ,  charcoal, William Kentridge (Image courtesy of Nitram Fine Art Charcoal)

Drawing for Project,  charcoal, William Kentridge (Image courtesy of Nitram Fine Art Charcoal)

Lots of approaches to drawing - mercifully! It means that each of us can be a tortoise or a hare in our drawing methods. The results are really what count.

Defining Drawing by Jeannine Cook

September is the renewal of life drawing sessions for my group after summer. It is good to be drawing again, reminding of the need to observe closely, to trust one's eye and – just go with it! What I also noticed afresh is how differently each artist draws, both physically as well as stylistically.

The body movements, the gestures, that each artist makes as he or she draws are individualistic. Some stand at an easel, making huge, sweeping motions as they make the marks on the canvas or paper, almost like a violin player with a lively bow. Others sit and barely move their arms. The resemblance to dance movements is often remarkable. No wonder artists have always felt a close kinship to dancers. Add in music and the resemblance between mark-making and dance becomes clearer.

In a way, the definition of drawing becomes more murky when you see such artists working. Are they drawing in the air or on a solid surface? Things get even more complex if you consider that today, drawing does not have to be contingent on pencil and paper, or any other traditional mark-making combination. Film/video, digital routes, even three-dimensional means to break up space, within a defined area - all are used to lay out an image. Lines can be made with so many means - from tape, to beads, to tools, to thread, to stylii, even cell phones.

This drawing, for instance, was done with silverpoint, graphite, watercolour and silk thread. I called it "Symphony in Blue".

Symphony in Blue, silverpoint, graphite, watercolour and silk thread, Jeannine Cook artist

Symphony in Blue, silverpoint, graphite, watercolour and silk thread, Jeannine Cook artist

The traditional definition of drawing, since the early 14th century, is pretty straightforward: "a graphic representation, by lines, of an object or idea, as with a pencil; a delineation of form without reference to colour - a sketch, plan or design, especially made with pen, pencil or crayon" is one dictionary definition, very much echoing others. But now, as I have said, all bets are off.

One exhibition which should be very interesting to see in this regard is coming up at MOMA, New York, from November 21st onwards. On Line: Drawing through the Twentieth Century is apparently a wide-ranging examination of different approaches to drawing done by many artists from different lands. It should be very thought-provoking for anyone who loves drawing.

Eyes of the Artist by Jeannine Cook

Everyone can appreciate how valuable artists' eyes are, but not everyone then goes on to think about the different ways artists use their eyes.

Of course, seeing the canvas, paper, marble or other vehicle for artists' expressions is key. The subject of the art piece, often objects gazed at by the artist, is also looked at by the artist. Yet the different techniques of using one's eyes as an artist dictate many different approaches to art. Plein air art requires careful observation in person, usually of landscapes.

The Guidecca (A Summer  Day on the Giudecca, Venice, watercolour, John Singer Sargent

The Guidecca (A Summer  Day on the Giudecca, Venice, watercolour, John Singer Sargent

Life drawing too implies careful study of the nude model posing, as do still life studies which are usually based on arrangements made and set up for the artwork. Portraiture gets even more decisive, obviously, because a portrait implies a need to reflect some fidelity to the person being depicted. However, the methods of achieving that portrait are varied; one in particular depends very much on the use of the artist's eyes. I am referring to the use of sight-size, when an artist sets up the easel at such a distance that the subject of the portrait (or life drawing and painting too) is the same size as the image being created. Few artists learn this method today, but artists as diverse as Henry Raeburn, Joshua Reynolds and John Singer Sargent all employed this way to convey a unity of impression in their art, rather than copying all the details. A few ateliers do teach artists how to use and trust their eyes in this fashion - Charles H. Cecil's Studio in Florence, Italy, is one, the Bay Area Classical Art Atelier in California is another, the New York-based Grand Central Academy of Art is yet another.

JUlia Chapin Alsop, 1909, John Singer Sargent

JUlia Chapin Alsop, 1909, John Singer Sargent

Working directly from life for drawing and painting is a time-honoured tradition down the centuries for artists - learning to trust one's eyes as you seek to capture the image. Quickly capturing the gesture of a moving person, the characteristic flight of a certain kind of bird, the essence of flowing water, the gait of an animal - all these require careful observation from eyes that become more and more trained as the artist grows more experienced. Practice does indeed make perfect or nearly perfect, as the eyes learn to observe. As an aside, I was fascinated recently to read about a current exhibition, "Michelangelo: Anatomy as Architecture", at the Muscarelle Museum of Art at The College of William and Mary through April 11. Twelve drawings on loan from the Casa Buonarroti in Florence apparently are unusual in that they reveal Michelangelo jotting down visual ideas in a hurry, alongside verses of poetry and various notes. We associate Michelangelo drawings with wonderfully accomplished and often very finished works, but this exhibition includes works that show a much more down-to-earth approach to devising and executing an idea. Apparently it is obvious from some of these drawings that Michelangelo was carefully scrutinising ancient sculptures for his human figures, as well as using his knowledge of direct dissection, after he had peered carefully at muscles and tendons in human bodies - in other words, using his eyes a lot.

There is another aspect to artists' eyes that is vital and fascinating. In the March 2010 edition of Art+Auction, Marisa Bartolucci wrote a long and interesting article on "Zen and the Art of Axel Vervoordt". She recounted that it was apparently the Belgian painter, Jef Verheyen, who taught Vervoordt about the Zero movement and introduced him to a fresh manner of seeing. "The way one looks at things is of the utmost importance. You must feel things with your eyes" (my emphasis). This is a wonderful concept, going to the heart of any art, whether it be the eyes of an artist or those of someone viewing a created artwork. Trained eyes, which imply study, practice and much thought in many cases, allow deepened appreciation and skills. Everyone is enriched by the eyes of artists and art-appreciators.

Artists' dialogues with viewers by Jeannine Cook

Defining yourself as an artist is really only one side of the equation in art. The other side is what each viewer brings to your art by way of life experiences which will influence that act of viewing. That mix of experience will complete the dialogue the artist started by creating a piece of art. Viewer and artist, the inseparable pair. And every dialogue will be different, which makes the whole process endlessly fascinating.

Ideally, an artist's vision will afford meanings and evocations of aspects of life far beyond the mere life-like rendering of whatever subject matter. But since each viewer's experience of life is individual, he or she will interpret the artist's work slightly differently. Often, when there is a great enough consensus about a piece of art, then it will be recognised as good art. However, as with everything else, each generation has a somewhat different set of criteria for art, based on that time, and so there are often revisions and fashions in esteem for art. As Sir Michael Levey, the late Director of Britain's National Gallery, was quoted in ArtNews (March 2009) as once remarking about the National Gallery's version of Van Gogh's Sunflowers, "It stands like a beacon of yellow fire, reminding us that outside the museum, art is always evolving – we only have to look" (my italics). Artists and viewers alike have to remember that those vital dialogues are endlessly changing and evolving as the years go by.

Fourth version, exhibited at the National Gallery, London, 1880s, Vincent v an Gogh, (Imae courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum)

Fourth version, exhibited at the National Gallery, London, 1880s, Vincent v an Gogh, (Imae courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum)

On a personal basis, I have found it totally fascinating to work with other artists and see the diversity in the resultant art, even when using the same subject matter. The most obvious example is when a group shares a model for life drawing: each person's drawing will be utterly different. Similar diversities will occur when those drawings are viewed, for each viewer will dialogue with each drawing in an individual fashion. Each viewer may respond to the artist's intensity, vitality and power to evoke beyond the merely descriptive, but there will be a very personal resonance for each person. And yet, even within the narrow confines of life drawing as one aspect of art, there is an implicit message. For any art to endure, it must be true to the spirit of its own age. Today, that art needs to be able to sustain a dialogue with viewers who are saturated with vivid imagery from so many sources, digital or otherwise, and whose life experiences are vastly different from those of even the previous generation. Artists, implicitly, need to dig deeper and work harder than ever before to sustain a rich dialogue with viewers. Quite a challenge!