There’s more to life drawing
Naked truth Artists have sought beauty in the human form since classical times, but is life drawing as popular as it was? Garrick Webster finds out…
From the embarrassing possibility that your girlfriend’s mother poses nude for the local art group, to male models with nicknames like Tommy Salami, there are enough old clichés about life-drawing classes to keep a 1970s sitcom going ad infinitum. But are enough fantasy artists taking life drawing seriously these days? That’s the question in this age of online self-tuition.
Online courses can be beneficial – that’s not in dispute – but artists who do attend life-drawing sessions find they get more from working in the physical milieu, with a living model. It not only broadens their skills, it changes the way they see the world. And seeing the world differently is itself a core skill if you want to become a topflight fantasy artist.
How the light falls
Patrick J Jones is an illustrator, author and university lecturer based in Australia, with lots of life-drawing experience. His latest book, The Anatomy of
Style, was published recently and covers the topic in detail. For him, sitting in front of a model and observing how the light falls on them is a very different experience from using online references. “Life drawing has taught me to quickly see and draw landmarks in the anatomy – such as the hip crest highlight and the shadow of the tenth rib,” Patrick points out.
Time pressures – because your model won’t pose forever – force you to use your instincts. By learning gestural drawing you can become a better artist. “Photos give us too much time to labour and become confused over unimportant detail. Photos also have camera lens distortion. I can always tell if someone has traced a photo,” continues Patrick.
By learning gestural drawing you can become a better artist
In Sarasota, Florida, Andrew Theophilopoulos teaches at the Ringling College of Art and Design, and recently wrapped up a 25-painting solo exhibition. He laments the fact that local drawing classes are getting harder to find. “Unfortunately, it’s very tough to afford figure models multiple times a week. Ringling will actually be cancelling its much-loved figure-drawing club because of a lack of interest,” says Andrew. “I’ve been attending the Ringling classes since I was in high school and now it’s doomed due to a funding issue.”
Plenty of life-drawing courses can still be found around the world. In New York, a two-hour weeknight session at Drawing New York is $15, or an eight-session course at the National Academy School of Fine Arts for $325. In London, City Academy offers life-drawing classes starting at £69 for a full day, and Life Drawing Manchester has two-hour sessions for £10 (£8 for students).
Increased online learning may be one factor, but students and young artists may no longer have the funds or time to justify classes. Even professional artists such as Aaron Miller, based in Chicago, find there’s pressure to work from photos rather than a model. “Times have changed and illustrators don’t have the resources they once did. The client’s demands for speed and cheaper fees have made the processes of the past almost impossible. Yet, I still work from a model for almost every illustration,” he says. Like Aaron, the Sweden-based artist Miles Johnston wishes he had more time for figure drawing. In between teaching at the Swedish Academy of Realist Art and creating his own beautifully rendered fantasy art prints, he does quick studies to keep things ticking over. It’s become a Zen-like ritual for him. Miles calls it “visual mindfulness”: becoming conscious of how your brain renders the world around you.
He explains: “A camera captures light in a very specific way, which isn’t exactly the same as how we perceive the world moment to moment. Understanding these differences can give your work an added sense of realism.
“Also, you have the ability to move around your subject and really figure out the form, along with practically unlimited resolution compared to a photo or a computer.”
Because subjects are imaginary by definition, there’s always the temptation to dismiss the real world when creating fantasy art. Crucially, however, your work still needs to be believable and have its roots in the real world, and that’s something that life-drawing skills deliver. Patrick J Jones loves painting mermaids because he can practise depicting the female form, and because they’re alluring, romantic, mysterious and deadly.
Patrick recommends extending your anatomical work to animals and exploring new possibilities. “Understanding that most animals share some human anatomy, such as the scapula [shoulder blade], makes
The model becomes an object you need to understand and try to transfer to paper or canvas
it easier for me to join, say, a bird’s wing to a human’s back convincingly,” he says. “I have commissions pending that involve harpies, centaurs and mermaids, all of which will involve me meta-morphing animals and humans together. That’s great fun if you’ve learned your anatomy, but a nightmare if you haven’t.”
It’s not all doom and gloom for the lifedrawing scene, though. Clothed and costumed sessions for science fiction, fantasy and comic artists have been popping up everywhere, such as Dare2Draw in New York and Aaron Miller’s Figurative Illustration Workshops that are held in Chicago – as seen previously here in ImagineFX.
For Aaron, the key is for artists to start early, and not to see it as either a chore, or a chance to see someone naked. “There’s a switch that seems to flip when you start working from life, at least if you’re serious. The model becomes an object that you need to understand and try to transfer to paper or canvas,” says Aaron.
“Once that happens, the real work begins,” he continues. “You can actually find an entirely new appreciation for the body that you just can’t grasp when all you’re thinking about is boobies.”
These 20-minute poses painted by Andrew Theophilopoulos put the emphasis on instinctive and gestural strokes, giving the paintings a sense of life.
Patrick J Jones works with a life model in his studio, making close observations on anatomical structure, in the flesh.
“No! This is not a self-portrait,” laughs Miles Johnson. He uses life drawing to come up with works that aren’t just natural, but are full of detail.
Capturing the mood as well as the anatomy, Andrew Theophilopoulos wishes there were more opportunities to do real life drawing.
In a real, physical space, it’s easier to study human dimensions, says Patrick J Jones. At a figure-drawing workshop in Chicago, Aaron Miller’s model dressed as Nick Fury from the Avengers.
Like Patrick, Aaron enjoys merging human forms from life-drawing sessions with pieces of animal anatomy.