Planting the seed
Drawing the human form is the most beguiling practice artists can get involved with. It has captivated my attention since my very first life class in art school in the 1980s at the tender age of 18. Not because it was easy – it wasn’t. It very quickly became the one activity that has been the root of all that I do.
Look and notice 3 things
If, like me, you follow a myriad of life drawing groups across the world on social media (including my own group Life Drawing Ancoats), along with for example LifeART FaceBook group, or peer-led groups in New York or Cape Town, you notice 3 things.
Firstly, the passion and dedication of the people drawing; secondly, the quality of those drawings that capture the spirit and self-expression of the artist; and thirdly, the drawings that show the same ‘mistakes’ being made over and over again. And this is from drawers around the world! I’m not trying to be negative, there’s actually something heartwarming in this – it shows that we all experience similar things when drawing from life.
The ‘mistakes’ drawers make when drawing shouldn’t be understood as mistakes – we all make them – there is an honesty about these ‘mistakes’. The elongated body, the legs too short in seated poses, the head too big and the hands and feet too small, the stiff verticality of the figure, the broken fractured lines, the exaggeration of the lips and nipples – we’ve all drawn like this.
There is a good reason why we draw these images and I believe it is imperative for drawers to understand where they come from and why these drawings represent an underlying truth of human perception and experience. Our drawings don’t lie, they tell a truth. A truth about how we see, engage, and experience each other.
Perhaps, therefore, we should trust that we do have the skills to make drawings that are a true reflection of what we see and experience? Perhaps then we would worry less. And through worrying less about the drawing we could turn our attention to something far more fundamentally important – paying attention to how we engage and see with greater truth and honesty.
Stop worry about your drawings – they will take care of themselves.
No, not like that!
Yet we are constantly being told we are wrong, we can’t draw. That’s not how to do it – but this is! No wonder so many people are frightened away from drawing the one subject that is so powerful a presence in their lives – another person. No wonder people end up petrified of the life drawing studio citing the fact they ‘can’t draw’.
Online safety net
The growth of online life drawing, since the Covid lockdowns, has given drawers a safety net – and made life drawing more accessible to a far wider audience. It is fantastic how technology has expanded and diversified the life drawing community and I hope this trend continues.
However, I think the downside is the loss of humanity that I always feel present in the life drawing studio ever since I started drawing. The relationship built with the model, the inter-dependence of model and drawer and the vitality the model brings to studio, and the most important aspect of drawing – space. I mean the physical and very real 3-dimensional space that wraps model and drawer together in one shared dynamic experience. This is lost through the digital interface of screen and technology, and it saddens me. Why? Because we draw relationships. We don’t draw anatomy.
Before we draw flowers – do we study botany? Before we draw landscapes – do we study geology? Before we go urban sketching do we study architecture? I do question why it seems ‘anatomy first’ within a traditional academic realist style has become the dominant way of teaching life drawing these days. It seems incongruous in our Post-Modern world where plurality and relativism dominates our thinking.
There is another way.
Heather Spears wrote a book called The Creative Eye about drawing, perception and the brain. When I first read it in 2011 it instantly became a pivotal book that changed my thinking about, and making drawings.
Since getting to know Heather over a good few years of her travelling from Denmark to Manchester to teach The Creative Eye course in my studio I got to know her better, her thinking, and her teaching style. I try to continue her legacy by bringing all that she wrote about in her book to life for the benefit of drawers who wish to change the way they see and perceive (engage with) the human figure, and embrace a style of drawing that supports seeing with greater clarity and honesty.
Heather’s book is available on Amazon (non-affiliated link) The Creative Eye
Seeing and Looking
Learning to see has always been the first step to improving drawing – not learning more information about anatomy, the head fits 7 times into the body, names of bones, muscles, etc. This will undoubtedly improve our drawings but does it make us better artists better able to express our unique take on the world? We already live in a world weighted down with information. As artists, our greatest challenge is to cut through information and learn to see holistically, passionately, and with a regained innocence.
Our intellectual and objective knowledge of the human figure will catch up later. There will always be more to learn about the human figure, and picture-making – but let’s start at the beginning – learning how to draw in a way that promotes better seeing.
Embrace the humanity of drawing the figure from life
The way we draw reflects the way we see. Learning more information about human anatomy does not change how we see, connect, or experience the people we draw. I’m sure it will make us draw more expertly, yet objectively, and probably ‘realistically’.
To see with experiential truth we need to learn a way of drawing that goes deeper than objective knowledge and supports us to see with compassion, innocence, and a truth that goes deeper than learnt knowledge.
Just ask Leonardo da Vinci – as one of the first artists to make drawings with an attitude as close to scientific inquiry as was possible in his time – he was unable to study objective facts first and then draw, he had to draw in order to learn and understand more. I remember when his sketchbooks belonging to the Royal Collection Trust went on tour around the UK in 2019 for the 500th anniversary of his death, I saw how abundantly clear this was on every page.
Draw to understand
We draw to learn and understand and drawings that come from a place of innocence and inquiry will delve deeper than a drawing that comes from a place of objective knowledge. Heather Spears has taught me that.
3 things: Understand better why we make so many ‘common drawing mistakes’; explore ways to navigate through them to see with a deeper truth; and thirdly learn a drawing technique that supports your new way of seeing.
Foundations to drawing and self-expression
Perhaps this approach will form a solid foundation to drawing our personal truths, upon which drawers across the world, can then go forward and build greater anatomical knowledge; better understanding of the material qualities and personalities of their charcoal, pastels, paint or pencils; and give time to improving their dexterity and skills in using them.
Teaching and learning
Don’t copy my drawing style – my drawings are my personal endeavour to draw with a deeper clarity of vision. Rather I ask you to join me in my ongoing mission to passionately engage with that key element of being human – relationships. I want nothing in the way between the model and myself (small life groups suit me best) and equally I want nothing taken away from my relationships by technology and screens. When I can feel the push and pull of 3-dimensional space, perhaps then I have a hope of bringing to my drawings some expression of the relationship with the life model, with my drawing and mark-making being the vehicle that hopefully expresses this.
The foundation skills and knowledge to be able to travel this journey to seek a more truthful clarity of vision is what I endeavour to teach and pass on to others.
I teach my version of Heather Spears’ book The Creative Eye course called Life Drawing Foundations. Techniques, exercises and ideas from Heather’s book merge with my own thinking and reflections from over 25 years of teaching adults to draw.
I also interpreted Heather’s teaching to create a course applicable to general drawing for those who are not into life drawing called Essential Drawing Foundations.
Details of these courses are below.
- Life Drawing Foundations
- A long weekend 3-day intensive course
- A Thursday morning course over 6-sessions
- Learn Life Drawing
- A Wednesday afternoon ongoing class
- These classes teach additional traditional life drawing skills one topic at a time to build on the foundational skills learnt on the Life Drawing Foundations course.
- Essential Drawing Foundations
- A Thursday evening course over 6-sessions
- This course interprets The Creative Eye for those drawers not interested in the human form. It is based on still life.