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Back To Life?

Contemplating the return to real life classes

With the support of many of my students and with the help of  Zoom, Google Classroom, a new iPhone, iPad and Mac, I’ve been able to continue teaching throughout the pandemic. We’ve pretty well covered every medium (except oil) and every genre, too, from landscapes to still-life, portraiture and abstraction.
We’ve also delved into Art’s rich history, travelled from Sicily to Sienna, walked a few hundred kilometres of the Camino del Norte and worked our way through the watercolour alphabet, from A to T – and all from a tiny back bedroom on the Stonebridge estate in Frome!
The one subject I haven’t taught, though, is life-drawing…

I contemplated it and am aware that some tutors have managed to teach it quite successfully, but I decided that online life-drawing would ultimately only frustrate me and you!


I use photography a lot. When I was writing Tate: Master Watercolour, I was utterly reliant upon the camera on my ‘phone. Artists have taken advantage of lens and camera technology at least since the early 1800’s and to eschew its use in art, in my view, would be the same as insisting on grinding your own pigments and working only by candlelight.

But putting a camera between model and student and working from a flat screen or photograph misses the point of life-drawing.

We draw from life, not just because we find the human form such a captivating challenge, but because as artists, it’s important for us to understand three dimensional space.

Wait a minute, you may say, the model is a thing not a space! Yes, but a thing that alters space – disrupts it, if you like (and then we set ourselves the impossible task of ditching one of its dimensions and squeezing what’s left onto a piece of paper a twentieth of its original size!).

How can we show, for example, that the model’s knee is closer to us than their hip? Or that because the spine is twisted, their left shoulder is further away than their right? And what of the lordosis (curve) of the spine at its base, from the lumbar to the sacrum?

The flat screen may solve these issues for us but it also glosses over them. The purpose of drawing isn’t to copy what’s in front of us but to understand it.

Being in the exact same space as the model also enables us to view from a distance and attempt to register their entire form or get up close and capture a gesture or a glance.

And if we find the pose a little dull, sometimes all we need do to transform it is change our point of view (i.e. stand up or sit down!). When there’s a camera mediating our relationship with the model, that’s not quite so easy.

The camera makes light work of foreshortening, too, but it also distorts it and it isn’t until the model is actually in front of us that we fully understand how to relate hand to elbow, hip to shoulder or knee to breast.

And then there are the notorious quick poses as the model moves about the room and we have to turn our heads to follow them – something that a video never requires you to do. The room is silent, but for the sound of frantic scribbling and the tension in the model’s body is matched only by our eagerness to capture what we’re seeing!

We call it life drawing, don’t we? So shouldn’t we be trying to show that our figure is not a chunk of marble, but alive?

‘Exactitude is not truth,’ said Henri Matisse.

It’s fascinating, too, how a single stick of graphite can conjure up soft flesh, hard bone and fine hair…

To succeed in that conjuring trick, I believe, requires the palpable presence of the model, directing our gaze and focussing our minds; the model sharing the same space as us and working in partnership with us so that we may become better artists than we ever thought we could be.

With grateful thanks to Ruth, Jules, Mark, Lucy, Linda, Petra, Cassie and Chris.

Life Drawing classes return on 23 September 2021 at Frome Cricket Club and you can choose from a morning or afternoon session or stay the whole day. For more details, please click here.

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