Anyone who’s been following my blog knows that a few weeks ago, I promised a story about my experience drawing a naked lady. If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, then you can read about it here.
Anyway, I finished writing the other day, and I figured I’d share, because I know there are at least a couple people who have been dying to read it.
As I sat at a table beside my friend, Jen, and a classroom full of strangers, I waited anxiously for the professor to arrive. She was late. Very late. I headed into the hallway to get some water and avoid the questioning stares I was receiving.
“Are you one of the students?” someone asked excitedly from the end of the hallway.
Taken off guard, I looked to my right. There was a curvaceous 20-something wearing nothing but a leopard print robe.
“Well, sort of,” I answered. “I’m actually a journalism student, so I’m going to write about this life drawing class.”
The conversation continued for a few minutes, and as we grew more comfortable with one another, I grew uncomfortable with the notion that I would soon be staring at this woman’s naked body in a futile attempt at drawing it.
My last serious attempt at drawing must have been in middle school. I don’t remember what I drew, but I know with certainty it wasn’t a naked woman. So when Louise Captein, the life drawing professor, finally came bustling into the classroom, I was the farthest from my comfort zone that I had been in years.
Since time had already been lost, Louise didn’t waste a second more of it. After I briefly reminded her of what I was doing in her classroom, everyone setting up pads of drawing paper on rickety easels.
The woman in the robe walked into the center of semi-circle of students at easels. She nonchalantly stripped off the only article of clothing that spared all the details of her body, which was similar to those I’ve seen in Renaissance paintings. But there was nothing classic about how she went about her morning’s duties. She plopped down on the wooden platform as she awaited the professor’s posing instructions. She crossed her legs like a carefree man, resting her right ankle on her left knee, which caused me a higher level of discomfort than I already had.
Rather than delving straight into drawing, everyone had to start by making one abstract mark on every easel in the room. I thought I didn’t know where to begin before, but now I was faced with a paper full of charcoal markings that meant nothing to me. I looked around, trying to decide what to do with both the marks on my paper and the perfect side-view of the model’s butt that I was graced with.
The sound of quick charcoal strokes against paper filled the air as students engaged in quiet conversation. As I cowered behind my easel, I wondered how people gain the ability to become comfortable in this type of setting. “How does anyone become interested in drawing naked people?” I wondered. “And what’s the point?” I asked myself.
I’ve wondered the answer to those two questions since freshman year when Jen, an art major and one of my best friends at Otterbein, told me about her experience drawing Steve, the naked man. I remember expressing to her how weird I thought it was as I wondered about the benefit that nudity has for artists. Wasn’t that just something that was done in classical art, an outdated practice that has no place in modern society?
What I learned, however, is that people like me, who have little affiliation with art, have a negative attitude toward life drawing, because we don’t understand it. People wonder why the model must be naked during the drawing process. The answer is simple: When naked, the human body is timeless, and its lines, shape and depth are mastered.
And it isn’t only art professors who believe in the importance of life drawing. Even Walt Disney required his animators to take an in-studio life drawing class. He started the tradition in 1932, and it continues today. The idea behind the requirement is that when artists understand and capture anatomy and sense of motion from a live model, the animated characters they create will be more original and realistic.
In Louise’s classroom, I was unappreciative of the practice and naive to its roots. I struggled through the class as I did everything in my power to avoid the one thing that students are supposed to do when they attend it: draw. After nearly two hours of avoiding it, the model’s current pose began to tempt me. As she lay there on her side with her back facing me, I was convinced that this pose would be an easy one to draw. I surrendered to both the temptation and my boredom and picked up the smooth piece of charcoal that had remained untouched until that moment. Louise made her way to me and my easel, stopping to admire my left-handedness and my pitiful attempt at figure drawing that covered the paper. She stood behind me with her head cocked to the side and her hand resting on her chin.
“She kind of looks like a dog bone,” I said, gesturing toward the sketch of the woman I had finally attempted.
Louise chuckled in agreement but said it was good that I saw a resemblance to something familiar in my work. She interjected my process, and I was given my first drawing lesson.
“First, you need a better piece of charcoal,” she said as she discarded my tiny, broken piece.
She then began drawing a box, making strategic points on the paper where certain things should be drawn. She told me that drawing is nothing more than connecting the dots, just like the method I practiced in coloring books when I was a kid. After her brief lesson, I continued sketching in hopes of making the drawing look less like an animal toy and more like a woman. While that never happened, I did manage to become understanding and appreciative of life drawing. Through my experience in the class and some research, I was finally able to grasp the point of drawing a naked person.
During the 3 hours and 45 minutes I spent standing behind that easel, it would have been helpful if I had known then what I know now about life drawing. If I would have had some background knowledge, I wouldn’t have flinched as the model stripped off her robe and flaunted her naked body. I would have realized, as Louise later told me, that “The moment the door closes and everybody’s drawing, there’s nothing strange about that.”