DRAWING THE NATION TOGETHER
The TV art show that strips back embarrassment to uncover our naked talent
DRAWING is like making a lasagne. It requires various different ingredients, instructions on the method – and practice .“You wouldn’t expect to just make one for the first time without any help at all, so why do people think drawing is any different?” asks artist Diana Ali. Diana is one of four presenters who will be providing that guidance tonight as the BBC broadcasts a life drawing class live.
Viewers will be able to watch and draw along as BBC weatherman and keen artist-Tomasz Schafernaker and amateur artists at home and in the socially distanced studio capture a series of life model poses, based on classical works of art.
The first ever Life Drawing Live was broadcast as a one-off in January and featured comedian Jenny Eclair and actor Sally Phillips. The show’s makers were so overwhelmed by the response from the public that they have brought the programme back.
“We were so absolutely inundated with viewers sending in their portraits that the system almost crashed,” says Diana who, together with presenters and artists Josie d’Arby, Lachlan Goudie and Nicky Philipps, will be sharing their passion and expertise again.
“I looked through tens of thousands of drawings from members of the public and all I get is the name and where they’re from. I was like: ‘Rachel from Nottingham, you’re amazing!’
“I just hope they gained so much confidence from creating something so wonderful that they have continued drawing.”
Diana is on a mission to stamp out two taboos with the programme: embarrassment surrounding nudity and imperfection and the misapprehension that only “the gifted” should try to draw.
“Life drawing classes were already really popular before lockdown because people have become much more open about nudity,” she says. “We all have bodies – don’t be ashamed of them!
“Drawing female life models has been going on for centuries but we also have a lot more male models nowadays and it’s not about being exclusive with your bodies – we all have breasts, we all have a bum and the best models are the honest models where we have flesh, where we have a bits of flab and that is honest work.
“Others drawing them love that reassurance because they go, ‘Ok, I’m not someone skinny or a supermodel – this is like me’.
“It gives people at home a real confidence to put the pen on the paper and as soon as they do they stop looking at the body and they start looking at the anatomy,
‘We were inundated with viewers sending in their portraits. The system almost crashed’
how we are all made up.
“The models are very professional and they have the hardest job staying in one position for so long. It’s about accepting we all have the same bits and if it’s embarrassing for people at home, well they’re beyond the TV screen so who cares?” she says, laughing.
Art is not about striving for perfection. It should, according to Diana, be about expression and freedom.
“People will be drawing at home so there’s no pressure, there’s no teacher looking over your shoulder. For a lot of people the last time they did any art was at school and they were told they were rubbish so they are scared of it.
“With art a lot of people think it has to be perfect but it can be something from your heart and soul. Sometimes when we are angry we can express ourselves with loud paints and charcoal and let the voice out. When you can’t say it verbally you can do it through the artwork.
“Art has many forms – architecture is art, so are the clothes we wear – we all have something to say but it doesn’t have to conform to a perfect Renaissance portrait.
“I teach a lot of older people, lawyers, accountants, builders who’ve come up to me and said, ‘I got some acrylics for Christmas, I’m going to get them out!’ I teach an 86-year-old who’s decided she wants to do a degree in art – which is just fab.”
IT IS easy to see why the BBC has asked Diana to return for the second programme. Bubbly and smiley, her enthusiasm and passion for art are infectious. During our interview, she sketches me – she sends the finished work hours later – and multitasks effortlessly.
“I have never had to draw during an interview before,” she laughs, and talks about how her early childhood in Bangladesh has influenced her work.
“I do a lot of work with mud because in Bangladesh I played with mud a lot, I loved getting my hands dirty.
“When I came to England aged six I had to wear these strange things called shoes and socks. I didn’t
‘The perception of the human body is that it’s difficult to draw. Start with the basics’
know any English. At school in Salford where I grew up, they told us to paint a rainbow and a house. I didn’t understand so I smeared the paper in black paint. I got properly told off.”
Diana was determined to prove her teachers wrong. She played with another Banglesdeshi boy but vowed that by the time she got to secondary school, she’d be in the top class for English.
“And I was,” says Diana now proudly. “My dad came to England in the 1950s aged 12 and he didn’t have an education so he was determined that I would.
“I came home from school crying every day because I didn’t understand what everyone was saying but he taught me English and manners and how to behave. I owe him so much.”
Thanks to a teacher, Diana, 41, was encouraged to leave Manchester to study art in Nottingham, where she still lives with her partner.
“I turned my back on art for a few years after university and was a pot washer,” says Diana. “I think you’ve got to do a menial job to realise ‘I’m better than this’.” She has been a lecturer at Nottingham Trent, Sheffield Hallam and Loughborough universities and was already teaching online when lockdown started. Now that Diana is finally getting recognised as an artist, she is determined to give something back.
“I had to fight. When I was younger you would have to write to people and send your work in, go to gallery showings and go up to strangers and give them your business card. I was rejected so many times but I embraced it. If you don’t have problems and obstacles you have nothing to fight for.
“As a good Muslim girl I was expected to get married off. My mum still doesn’t get my art,” says Diana laughing. “That’s ok, she’s really lovely and she supports me but she really doesn’t get it.
“I fought for things – it took a while but that’s why I want to share it with other students.” Lockdown has had a real impact on the arts – not just in terms of performances and exhibitions but those studying the subject will be the last to return to their studios at university. Diana’s summer has also taken on a completely different shape.
“I was due to be doing painting retreats in Italy and Portugal and working with the National Justice Museum. That’s all cancelled now but it’s amazing how we’ve all adapted – if you have an easel, you can teach online!”
Life Drawing Live also had to rethink how to broadcast the programme to adhere to social distancing rules by halving the number of amateur artists in the studio from six to three, with a further six joining from home via live links. Filming will be at a distance of at least three metres between artists, models, on-screen team and crew, limiting the number of people on the studio floor. Diana and Lachlan will feed back to the public from a separate room, close to the studio.
DIANA is concerned about cuts to funding for the arts, especially in the wake of coronavirus. “Arts courses are being shut down in schools. Music has already gone and next will be art. It is not a soft course, we don’t want an entire generation that can’t think creatively.
“I work with the corporate world, with companies like KPMG, councils, HR departments teaching employees who can’t think outside of the box to channel their creativity and think about their jobs in an abstract rather than a literal way. You just can’t shut down arts courses – we need that type of thinking.”
What tips does Diana have for those joining in tonight? “As human beings we over- complicate everything.The perception of the human body is that it’s difficult to draw. Start with the basics like measuring out the head in relation to the body.”
Diana hopes we will emerge from lockdown a more creative nation. “I hope we stay slowed down and ask ourselves: ‘What do I really want out of life?’ Creativity was always at the bottom of the ‘to do’ list.
“Now there is no excuse and people have found that being creative has helped them not just to express their frustration at not being able to see loved ones but also as a way of expressing their feelings about vital themes, political themes.”
●Life Drawing Live!, a BBC Arts commission, is on BBC Four today at 8pm
KEEN ARTIST: Weatherman Tomasz
QUICK DRAW: The sketch of Deborah
LIFE LESSON: Model from the TV show and, above, art teacher Diana
Pictures: ARABELLA ITANI/BBC; MARION; JILL MANSELL & DIANA ALI let her down VIEWER SKETCH 1: But Jill’s pencil VIEWER SKETCH 2: Marion’s drawing