This is not a rhetorical question. I don’t mean it in the sense that one might ask ‘What’s the point of Simon Cowell?’ because there is undoubtedly a lot of point in life drawing; in fact there are a number of different very good points to life drawing, and that is exactly my problem.
I don’t draw from life when I compose my paintings. I may occasionally grimace in the mirror or hold up a hand or an elbow to see the outline of it at a certain angle, but on the whole I am drawing (no pun intended) upon my knowledge of human anatomy and how everything hangs together when I put together a composition. The advantage is that this gives me greater freedom to bend the rules a little, to compose for dramatic and pleasing effect without being too bound by real exact reality. Given my subject matter I’m not sure real exact reality is a major issue. Of course, it’s also a quicker way of working… and I don’t have space for a model in my studio.
This knowledge of human anatomy comes of course from drawing real people when I get the chance, so I go to life drawing sessions. Life drawing also teaches you about gravity, and space. It can build confidence and a fluidity of line: if you have a mere five minutes to get down on paper what you see in front of you, before the model falls over, you have to get on with the drawing very rapidly. It focuses the mind.
So there is an argument that the process itself is the important thing, not the actual picture. If I threw away the drawings as I finished them all of the above would still have happened. Ah… but then the catch: nowadays, having developed a style that sometimes makes an acceptable picture in itself, I pick out the good ones and I sell them. And in these straightened economic times having the life drawings for sale is very useful, because my actual paintings cost a lot more. So these drawings are affordable to people who couldn’t buy a painting.
So it always goes through my head to wonder what, as I make a drawing, I am doing it for. Is it excellent practice in anatomy and draughtsmanship, and, as a by-product, I may end up with something I could sell… or do I strive to produce as attractive an image as I can, the by-product being that I also get better at drawing people? Can I actually do both at once without one intention being in the least subservient to the other? Of the three scenarios, this last is probably the least likely!
But then again, I know which of my life drawings are the kind that people generally buy: not to put too fine a point on it, they’re the attractive ones of nicely-proportioned women, or of couples, in fairly natural poses, not too odd or extreme, with a bit of movement and a nice balance. Usually not the ones of just men, generally not the odd shapes and weird poses, though they may be the more challenging and instructive to draw. I don’t pick the poses, I go to a session run by a chap called Dave, who is the male model and usually has a female model with him. He puts the poses together and we all sit round and make the best of it, or occasionally add helpful or silly suggestions…
And then there was yesterday. Yesterday I went to Dave’s life drawing, and his female model had not turned up. Well, these things happen, and so I will end up with a lot of drawings of ‘Dave poses’, who, left to his own devices generally does quite odd, extreme poses that are entertaining but aren’t going add much to my stock of pictures for sale. And then one of my fellow artists, who has done a bit of life-modelling in the past, volunteers to pose with Dave. She’s a lovely lady, but not in the first flush of youth. Well actually she’s 81.
I hope I’m that sprightly when I get to her age!
Still pretty fit at 81, and a fascinating shape and profile, but I know in general people are no more likely to buy these drawings than the random and contorted ‘Dave poses’. Of course, these are broad generalizations, but we are so used to seeing ‘pretty’ pictures of people nowadays, and I’m fairly sure it’s bad for us! So now, was I freed from the yoke of commercialism, and, not worrying about making a pretty picture, drew all the better for it? Well… no. I still strove to draw a picture that pleased me, of course… and I can be quite hard to please in my own work. Still, it did bring to mind these questions, so I thought I would share them with you.
In the end, I shall be putting one or two of these on my gallery wall, as a there are a couple of drawings here I am quite pleased with… and besides, I am not generally accused of too much ‘prettiness’.
(Incidentally, the drawing materials are pencil, and a little pastel added with a cotton bud, if you are interested. This is a slightly tedious way to use pastel, since you first have to pick it up on the cotton bud each time, before you can get it down on the paper, but I really like the effect. All the drawings in this post were done in the same session, plus there were two or three other drawings that I have left out because I thought they were a bit rubbish…)