Discovering the Life in Life Drawing

(See image copyright notice apology at footer*.)


image0011 In the first article, Drawing from London’s South Bank, I remembered making an observational drawing of the Houses of Parliament from across the River Thames. It was a very different process from the one I’d go through to draw a human figure and in particular, an unclothed figure – the subjects are so different: one being inanimate while the other is living. Though you might want to convey something of the strangeness of reality of time and place, and perhaps even to express the interior life teeming within a building, you don’t need to worry about its welfare.


image0022 You don’t have to be concerned about your building becoming cold, getting cramp or pins and needles or wonder whether it feels used or aggrieved or happily-liberated by being drawn unclothed. In other words the relationship between you and subject is entirely different. This is particularly so when you’re drawing one-to-one and you are solely responsible for a model’s welfare, rather than working in a group where the responsibility can be shared and you can concentrate far more on drawing. (By the way, I use the word ‘drawing’ in the traditional sense to include images made in watercolours and gouache – these being the materials I use most often. In fact most of what I’m saying extends to any art made from the human figure.)

image0033 Usually (and I say ‘usually’ because there is no reason why a pose can’t be worked on over several sessions if you have the leisure to do so) usually, there are tighter constraints on time than with drawing something inanimate. Humans don’t generally stay still for long – except when they’re sleeping and even then you might be surprised by how much they do move.


Holding a pose is physically demanding. The mere act of trying to stay still requires discipline and concentration. Sooner or later your model is going to shift.

image0044 A model might start to lean from fatigue or even from falling asleep. They might, from (say) lack of concentration, close a hand or turn and talk directly back to someone who speaks to them. They might scratch an itch or move an irritating lock of hair. They might, through lack of experience simply be unaware of how still you really want them to be. It is uncanny how, when you start to draw a model’s eyes, he’ll look to a different place, or when you look carefully to try to coax out the ‘fingers from the palm of a hand’, he’ll flex them. Unless the pose is very short, sooner or later the model will have to take a rest and in any case, eventually he’ll get up because it’s the end of the pose.

image0055 What this means for the draughtsman, artist, image-maker, sculptor, looker-on is that there’s a sense of urgency, a need for action, acquisition, hungry-progress that just isn’t in attendance when you draw something inanimate. But I feel there is also something that accompanies life drawing that says: slow down – this is about life itself! It’s about a person with an inner world. It’s about your own life too, mate, about the human condition, the frailty of flesh and blood, our mortality. So here, as in the last article, Drawing from London’s South Bank, we reach that crucial point of the strangeness of reality, a feeling of time passing.

image0066 To anyone reading this who doesn’t draw or has perhaps never drawn a human figure, at least some of what I’m saying (especially the last bit, I guess) might sound fanciful. After all, isn’t life drawing simply about a person with no clothes on, a piece of paper and a pencil – there’s nothing mysterious about it? And I’d agree. These are the materials and what is left at the end is a piece of paper with marks on it. But what really interests me is the bit in between.


I mean the bit in between the start and the end of the session, between me and the subject, between me and other people drawing the same subject and between my ears as I draw! Walk around, look at the drawings and what you’ll see are the traces of movements made by the hand of a person looking, thinking and feeling in response to another of their kind.

image0077 In terms of that strangeness of reality (and by ‘strangeness’ here I mean, as I did before, that kind of shimmering uncertainty of moments passing – the insubstantiality of time, the strangeness of existence) every drawing is a failure. The drawing is happening when you are making it and it stops when you stop drawing. But in that respect it’s no more of a failure than the best works in the National Portrait Gallery, so no real worries, then. When it comes to capturing reality, all art is doomed to failure. It can’t capture reality any more than it can make time stand still. All art is artifice.


image0088 So the works of Francis Bacon, whose paintings convey a sense of the passage of time through ‘movement’ do so necessarily by artifice, by smeared paint – albeit very cleverly-smeared paint. This is not to denigrate the work or the medium, but just to make the point that if you wish to understand drawing (as I do wish to) looking at a drawing is the wrong place to start. You have to start with the activity – by doing it.

As I mentioned in the previous article, the temptation is to think very carefully about some drawing scenario and then try to formulate a plan, some general rules that say a drawing ought to unfold in such-and-such a way. But, as before, I believe that to do so would be a mistake. The two systems of communication are entirely different. It makes no sense to ‘talk’ a drawing or painting.


image0099 [As a digression, you can (coincidentally) discover just how awkwardly these two systems of communication sit together, by trying to incorporate text within a representational image. What I’ve found is that text can be made to work in only two ways: either as a caption, where the drawing simply ‘illustrates’ the words – just as they might in a childrens book (which is hardly surprising but shouldn’t be dismissed because of its simplicity) – or superficially where, by way of the typography and scale of the lettering, words create shapes within the drawing, and letters stop functioning as symbols, operating instead abstractly, as part of the design – which can be cool. (In a similar way, single words work quite well on their own – as in the works of Ed Ruscha.)

image01010 Otherwise, what becomes apparent pretty soon is that words carry a bit too much meaning – they’re too rich to sit comfortably within a representational pictorial context. The word tends to jump out and one is apt to ask: of all the words there are, why choose that one?]


But to get back to the life drawing session – here you have a living thing that is usually moving, trying to stay perfectly still. That is in itself unnatural. But the most obviously unusual (if not unnatural) thing is that this person is naked.

image01111 If you want to make art that is relevant to ‘now’ – what some people call ‘contemporary’ (a big word for the same thing) – this should concern you, because even in the art of (say) around 50 years ago, the nude as a subject was becoming questionable. Since then – particularly in the light of post-modernism, feminism and post-feminism – the nude (male and female) has been regarded as suspect and is now being treated in ways that break with tradition (c.f. works by Jenny Saville or Marlene Dumas, for example).

image01212 I don’t here want to be tangled up in an argument for the defence of the nude as a subject fit for exploration in contemporary fine art. To my mind it’s a valid subject as any creature might be, though obviously being of that kind ourselves, it’s special to us. But I think it is important to bear in mind that because the life drawing scenario is contrived, if you want to make relevant art, you need to take your drawing beyond an ‘academic’ (for want of a better word) study. Otherwise you’ll be left with a folio of drawings relevant only to you, others of your group and perhaps to the model.

image01313 Of course you can simply use what you’ve learnt about the human form to make (say) paintings or sculptures in the conventional way – in the way that (say) Henry Moore drew the figure in preparation for sculpture (and by doing so ‘coincidentally’ produced what I think are some of the most fascinating drawings of the human form) or in the way that an animator might study the figure in order to make better movies. But there ought to be a way of making relevant art from a life drawing session directly.










image01515 One way of extending the activity is to turn it
into a performance – c.f. Michael Landy’s ‘Drawing’ 2008 as an example of a
drawing performance (though these were portrait drawings and the subjects were
clothed.). But to me this is something of a cop-out because as
weirdly-interesting as it might be to watch, all it could do is add another
layer of obscurity to what might be regarded by some as an already arcane

image01616 You might set your figures within some abstract environment, say – rather in the way that Francis Bacon set his figures within ‘interiors’ – fabricated realities derived from magazines, photos, film and from his own studio surroundings, or, at the other extreme, place your figures (clothed or unclothed) within a narrative – rather like an Edward Hopper ‘film set’. I have tried this, and although I can see that it might well produce some fascinating images, it’s still moving away from, rather than towards what I believe is central to the life drawing experience – that is, the person you have there in front of you, and your response to them.

image01716 To me that simple relationship is as rich a subject as anything you could want for. Here is something alive now – breathing, thinking, feeling – how contemporary can you get? And if someone asks: but what has this to do with everyday life, with ordinary people struggling to make a living, with war and peace, politics, loving, suffering and so on? All I can say in reply is that it is up to us to find a way to make it relevant.


image01818 After all, the one enduring material constant throughout the spiritual evolution of mankind, is the body. For example, in the Christian religion, it’s not a coincidence that Christ came to us in our own form and that it was his body that was crucified. The body – what is really no more than a lump of flesh – the corpus – stands in for something higher. It stands as a symbol for the spirit. But so self-conscious have we become by our outward appearances that we find it hard to see past the body. We come into the world naked and leave it ‘naked’. I don’t believe that adding any amount of narrative trappings to this story could make it any clearer, and in the end, of course, nakedness is irrelevant.

image01919 Perhaps, as you get to know a little of the person
you’re drawing, you’ll begin to see a way through. I don’t have a definitive
answer as to where that way lies, but I think there are clues. For one thing, it
takes (of course), not a little courage to get up there and model, to be looked
at, scrutinized even. Believe me, the empathy that people drawing this person
have with their subject is almost palpable. There is complete respect. Often the
room is filled with humility. Most of us would not exchange places with the
model for anything. We may imagine they feel extremely vulnerable. We might, of
course, be entirely wrong. And this is something you begin to find out as you
get to know a little of the model’s inner life, because as quiet as a life
drawing session might be, there’s always some verbal communication during and
certainly before and after a pose.

image02020 Then there is also the visual information conveyed by the pose itself – in the model’s body language, in the expressions on their face. Indeed, in the very act of posing you might and often do see them growing in confidence, or you might feel they are posing almost under duress. For let’s be quite straight: models are usually paid a fee, and no matter how much we enjoy our work, very few of us would actually choose to do it if we didn’t need to – there’s usually something else we’d rather being doing – and I guess many people hate their work, some models included.

image02121 So there is here a contract of sorts. Is life drawing exploitative? Perhaps, in so much as the artist exploits the models need for work and the model exploits the artist’s vanity to make art. Maybe the two cancel out or maybe they don’t and what remains is a little bubble of exploitation! I don’t know, either way, it makes me want, even more, to create something worthwhile from the situation. I feel I have a responsibility at least to try to make the most of it. So I feel that by staying with the simplicity and purity of this relationship we’re at least moving in the right direction – towards the centre, towards the core of what makes life drawing worthwhile – which is a person. But a person standing in for all of us.

It is at this point where, through my own thoughts and movements, I’d hope to be able to express some of what I see, hear and feel, in my drawing.

image02222 Elsewhere on this site I’ve mentioned that it is often when you’re drawing automatically – almost without thinking – that you draw best. It’s as if, by looking, you’re reaching out beyond yourself. The act of drawing short-circuits your own self. There’s a direct response to what you see, in the movements of your own body – wrist, elbow, shoulder and, if you are standing and working on a large scale, right down to your feet.



image02323 If it’s going well, it can be accompanied by an elevating feeling. You get into a kind of feedback loop of hysteresis, if you like – particularly when drawing with a fluid and continuous approach – such as with the ‘blind contour’ method. This to me is drawing, and the longer I can keep it going, the better. But the enemy – Time – is always looking over your shoulder.


image02424 Of course, you need time. Time makes the image. Time brings you into the process. Your drawing isn’t a mechanical record in the way (arguably) a photo is because you aren’t a machine. You’re doing more than leaving a trace of lights and darks on ‘a plate’– a record of what’s before you. You are entering into that trace.


You might feel tired or full of energy, anxious about something or entirely care-free. This will affect your mark-making.


You know that were you to draw the same model in the same pose with the same lighting and materials on two separate occasions, the results would, in all likelihood, be entirely different.

image02525 Time is key. Time is what makes this activity real
and (therefore) contemporary. I have found that drawings made from a timed pose,  where there is a clear beginning and end to the process are often better (in my  opinion) than ones done in open-ended sessions. That’s to say, better than ones  where I can, by negotiation with the model (and anyone else that’s drawing),  extend the session until I have what I consider to be a ‘finished drawing’. This  raises interesting questions about when a piece of artwork is


A while back I’d be dissatisfied with many drawings because they weren’t developed enough. ‘If only I’d had another 5 minutes’ was a thought that accompanied nearly every session. I went back and re-worked some of them – usually with disastrous consequences – because of course, the subject was absent, but more importantly, so was that accompanying state of mind of ‘automatic drawing’ described above.


As I continued the sessions I began to rethink and revaluate the process and what I’d done. I concluded that there was something essential in the limited duration of the life session, and that although some drawings were better than others, there was sincerity in the incompleteness of all of them – they were as finished as ever they could or should be.

image02626 But here’s an odd thing: pin up your drawings for  a day or two on a wall in a room where you spend a lot of time. After a while,  even a drawing that you considered ‘poor’ will start to come right. It will grow
on you. Something that Picasso once said when his portrait of Gertrude Stein was  criticized for not being a good likeness springs to mind here. He said that she
will come to look like her portrait: “She will.” This is a wry comment that hits the nail on the head.

image02727 Once made, an image takes on its own identity. It  makes no concessions to reality – it is uncompromising – unyielding. If anything  gives, it must be elsewhere – in the place where things can change – such as in
our minds, where we revise our opinion of a portrait that was once regarded as a  poor likeness but that is now the only likeness there could be. So what was a  joke – Gertrude Stein’s face was never going to change – makes a serious point  in that our perceptions of the image can shift so that we grow to accept it as  ‘right’.


This is not to make an excuse for our own bad work – which might remain unacceptable to us no matter how often we look at it. The point is: drawings and paintings ‘talk back’ and though you might not at the time you made them, be able to hear them, you might do so in the future.

Recently, I have discovered ways to develop my own life drawings away from the model with slight success, and continue to experiment. But I believe that no amount of ‘post production’ work can make a drawing succeed unless you have, during the life session itself, already discovered life within the drawing process.


image02828 For examples of what I’m talking about, take a look at the use of line in the drawings of Egon Schiele from around 1910 on.







*Note to image copyright holders: this essay is intended for educational use and to provoke discussion and is not written for profit.

1 Camille Claudel (sculptor and mistress of Auguste Rodin)
2 Giacometti
3 Frida Kahlo
4 Frida Kahlo
5 Artimisia Gentileschi ‘Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting’ circa 1630
6 Barbara Hepworth
7 Photograph by Eadweard Muybridge
8 Francis Bacon
9 ‘Art’ Ed Ruscha
10 Lucian Freud and model
11 photograph by Jenny Saville
12 Women’s life class
13 Henry Moore with his daughter, Mary 1949
14 Detail from manga movie, Akira
15 Photo from ‘Drawing’ Michael Landy performance 2008
16 Edward Hopper ‘Hotel Room’ 1931
17 ‘Vitruviana’ Susan Dorothea White
18 Adam and Eve Albrecht Durer 1504
19 Giacometti and model in his studio
20 Life class Life magazine
21 Pablo Picasso with model
22 Matisse
23 Matisse
24 Schiele drawing a nude model before a mirror 1910
25 Paul Cezanne
26 Gertrude Stein beside Picasso’s portrait of her
27 Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein
28 Egon Schiele




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