Life (drawing) is what you make of it

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When I first heard the words &ldquo;life drawing,&rdquo; I immediately thought of <em>Titanic</em>&rsquo;s iconic scene where Leonardo DiCaprio draws a steamy portrait of Kate Winslet au naturel. So as I headed out to a life drawing session in ECH March 11, I was pretty nervous about seeing, well, all of the model.</p>

I entered the studio on wobbly knees, clutching my clipboard of printer paper and trusty HB2 pencil. The room was brimming with easels, drawing boards, palettes, splatters of paint in every colour, quotes scrawled directly on walls, countless sketches and paintings, and pastels. 

A middle-aged man noticed my bewilderment, and helped me set up what he called a “donkey.” This was a small wooden bench which you straddled with a notch on one end to balance your clipboard (or drawing boards, as the more experienced artists brought). Other people turned it on its side and used it as a table to hold pencils or palettes of paint.

I had expected the session to be mostly students, but most of the people coming in were older adults. Only one fine arts student showed up — not unusual for a session, he told me later, although they’re “the ones who really should be coming.” Two high school girls came in, looking even more nervous than I did, if that was possible.

Finally, the model walked in. He was a tall young man in a grey robe. I felt my cheeks get hot. Beside me, the high school girls were intently focused on ripping a page out of their sketchbook. The model walked up to a little stage which had been set up in the middle of the room. Then he took off the robe, and there he was. 

There was no time for awkwardness, because he started posing right away. We had one minute — sixty seconds! — to sketch his pose. There was only time for rough shapes: an oval head, a line across the shoulders and across the hips, suggestions of arms and legs. Before I could add any details, he moved and we had to start over again.

After five one-minute poses, the model held one pose for five minutes. Now I had the time to pay attention to the roundness of his back, the way his neck attached to his shoulders, the bent shape of his knees.

Drawing his face, though, was difficult, because making eye contact was immensely awkward. Some of the other artists, I noticed, didn’t draw his face at all — they left it blank, or cropped his head out of the page. For my part, I waited until he closed his eyes, so I could draw his floppy hair and eyeglasses without him staring at me staring at him.

We did three five-minute sketches, and then the model held one pose for 15 minutes. Concentrating on one drawing for so long, I found, was a real challenge. After some time, it was difficult to know what to add or where to improve. 

My head was constantly bobbing up and down, up to the model and down to my work. I realized that by focusing on the negative space between his arm and his chest, and trying to copy that abstract shape, I could get a more accurate line of the bend of his arm.

Finally, we took a break to stretch. Though I hadn’t been sitting as still as the model, I felt nearly as stiff from bending over my drawing for so long. I took the chance to peek at the other people’s work beside me and was fascinated. On my left, one of the high school students drew round, confident shapes in two shades of Conté charcoal. She used dark blue for the outlines and highlighted her forms with yellow, pale pink or light blue. On my right, a middle-aged woman painted the model against a solid-coloured background. She used at least six different colours of paint just for the skin, from white-pink to caramel to beige and grey-blue. 

I found it really cool how, even just two feet away from me, my neighbours had slightly different angles on the model. Where I painted a profile, they painted a three-quarters view; where I saw one leg, they saw two. I wondered if you could line up all the easels and see a three-dimensional view of the model in as many styles as sketches. 

Beside me, the high school girls chatted about their new experience. “I wonder if my mother knows what I’m doing right now,” mused one. “Life drawing —  she probably thinks we’re drawing apples.”

The model returned to the room, and took his robe off again. After having found the 15-minute poses such a challenge, I was nervous when the leader announced we’d be doing a 30-minute pose. Would I find enough to draw for so long? The model needed to be comfortable, so he reclined supported by a pillow. 

This time, I started by outlining a rough shape of the entire body. Then I filled in his head, shoulders, hips and legs, paying attention to how long each part was compared to the others. I looked at the light. I tried to make the darkest places in real life match the darkest places on my paper.

The model, I noticed with some amusement, was extremely bored. His eyes sometimes rolled with exasperation, and his head drooped steadily through the 30 minutes. Little things like that reminded me that I was sketching a live person, not a photograph. My drawings showed the difference too, looking alive instead of surreally perfect and flat.

Every once in a while, I looked at my entire picture, stepping back mentally. Then I compared it to the entire model, and saw what matched and what didn’t. This led me to redraw an entire leg, even though it was quite dark and detailed, because I saw that in my picture it was hovering above the stage. I finished my drawing by sketching the background very lightly, drawing the folds of cloth of the stage, the walls behind the model,and wisps of other sketchers in the distance.

I was surprised and proud at how quickly I got back into the swing of drawing. I hadn’t picked up a sketchbook since my Grade 11 art class, but apparently the intense practice was enough to revive my skill. And I needn’t have been so nervous about seeing the naked model. Sure, it was startling at first, but it became less important later. 

After it was over, I felt quite happy. It had been a productive two hours, yes, but there was something else about the experience that was beautiful. Maybe it was taking the time to work steadily on one thing, without distractions. Maybe it was knowing that since prehistoric times people have been doing life drawing, and that those ancient artists would have observed and drawn the same shapes as I did. Leonardo da Vinci did it, so did Leonardo DiCaprio, and so, that evening, did I. 

Life drawing sessions happen every Wednesday until April 8, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. in ECH 1224A. Free and open to everyone, bring your own drawing board, paper and materials.

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