I’ve been thinking about drawing, and about life drawing in particular lately – something I was listening to on the radio the other day – two people, a writer and an artist (Grayson Perry) who both worked for a time as life models, got me thinking about my own history or relationship with life drawing.
At art school in London – in the 1970’s, drawing from the figure was on the way out. But somehow, the life rooms were still there, manned mostly by elderly male tutors who’d been relegated to this less prestigious role, although they were not really elderly at all. The young tutors (all men in their 30’s) painted hardedge abstract paintings, using acrylic and masking tape to make perfect divisions between one square or line of colour and another. Life drawing wasn’t their thing at all.
I was drawn to the life room – it was quiet – just the sound of pencil or charcoal on paper. Life drawing had been an enforced activity at Edinburgh, where I’d spent the previous two years, so it was somewhere I felt confident – I felt at home with drawing and observation. The tutors didn’t do much tutoring – they just set the poses up, and gave a bit of advice about scale and proportion.
But getting things right wasn’t really the point. The life room was an escape of sorts – an escape from the ego and posturing of the studio; an escape from ‘ideas,’ because you didn’t have to have an idea – the model was a given. Your ‘idea’ could revolve around how you drew, what you drew with, and looking – observation. It was an opportunity to connect with a living breathing person, and to draw them. You didn’t have to beg a favour from a friend, or catch a quick sketch of someone chatting in the canteen.
The life room is where, interestingly, I was often my most experimental – I painted on paper and tore it up; I described the model in writing, and tore that up – used the writing to depict the model, and I dressed the models up in my own clothes. Mary, pale and Irish with long dark red hair, wore my ivory coloured kimono, patterned with flowers: red, yellow, black, gaping open, framing her bony figure. I drew her, using coloured pencils – a box of creamy textured Cumberlands; her skin was yellow, with purple shadows and green.
The models became my friends – I knew their colours and contours better than I knew my own body. Sometimes I drew them resting, wearing their own clothes: Frances, black-haired from Glasgow, sitting on a chaise lounge, wearing flared jeans and shiny red platform shoes; I cherish those drawings. We went for tea in Rosie’s café on the ground floor, where Rosie proffered tea from an enormous metal teapot, and Frances read my tealeaves – told my fortune.
In my teaching life, I’ve sometimes relegated myself to the role of life drawing tutor. I’ve never been very good at it – I like all drawing, even the so-called bad ones. But I try and encourage students to look – often they don’t look enough – at the model. Sometimes I’ve made them draw with charcoal, taped onto the end a long stick – they have quite liked that, or I get them to place a large sheet of carbon paper over their drawing paper so they can’t see what they’re drawing until they’ve finished.
The quiet and concentration can be intense – everyone working from a common subject, but no drawing is the same. Somehow, working from the same source, the life model, differences in their work become more acute. There is something communal and sharing about the experience too. In the studio, they stand facing a wall, with their painting in front of them often wearing headphones – listening to their own private music. In the life room, they face each other, and they share their source, the model, sitting, standing or lying in the middle of the room.
Somehow, away from the studio and their ‘ideas,’ where things have been buried under layers of paint and canvas and stuff, their individuality is more pronounced. Sometimes you can see things in their drawings that you haven’t seen in their painting or studio work. I’ve often been amazed at the beauty of someone’s line, or how well they could see – how beautifully or even how crazily they drew; or how they used colour. One person might draw a miniscule figure, in the lightest of pencil; another can’t seem to get the whole figure on the page.
Things are stripped down to their bare bones. Shy ones who haven’t shone in the studio are often admired for their dexterity – they shine in the life-room. Conversely, the confident ones who stand out in the studio are sometimes hesitant and unsure in the life room, with just a pencil and piece of paper to contend with. It’s a lesson for everyone.