November 9 - December 14, 2012
In an effort to promote working from a live model,
the Atrium Art Gallery at the University of Southern Maine's Lewiston-Auburn College in 2003 presented a state-wide juried exhibition exclusively focused on work created in the environment of a life drawing group. Its success led to subsequent figure exhibits, leading up to The Figure Revealed IV. These small drawing groups exist around the state, somewhat in isolation, their members working quietly with focus and dedication. Since most work created in these groups is not intended for exhibition but as practice, we have an opportunity to enter the private world of artist and model and to better understand the tradition they continue.
Grateful appreciation goes to jurors Joel Babb and James Strickland and to poet Elizabeth Garber who wrote Life Drawing: Half Hour Pose in Two Voices for the exhibition.
Nancy Morgan Barnes
Janet Conlon Manyan
Mark A. Mellor
Lou Kohl Morgan
Wendy Newbold Patterson
Joel Babb, one of Maine's most-noted representational painters, is known for his large street-level views of historic city districts, cityscapes from an aerial perspective, and woodland landscapes inspired by his home in rural Sumner, Maine. He graduated with a degree in art history from Princeton, studying with George Segal and George Ortman, and spent a year in Munich and Rome. He received his MFA in painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and has a continued interest in drawing and painting the human figure. His work is exhibited nationally at museums and galleries including Vose Galleries in Boston. Carl Little and Arnold Skolnick are preparing a book about his work for publication this fall.
A resident of Belfast, Maine, Strickland is known as an artist, theologian, heliocentric and kinetic sculptor, and philosopher, whose studies of architecture, Japanese temples, ocean navigating, mountaineering, and technology illuminate his work. He has academic degrees from Arizona State University and California Divinity School of the Pacific. His work has been included in over 100 exhibitions around the country and abroad. www.jamesstricklandart.com
Life Drawing Every week the artists gather in light-filled rooms around ever changing models who stand, lean, lie nude before them. The artists return to see, to deepen their seeing, to train their eye and hand to sketch, draw, paint. The artists return to learn, develop, challenge, stretch, hone, sharpen their skills for decades. The artists return to reveal feeling that murmurs through the body, to reveal what is human, to reveal what is tender about living in the body. The artists return until their looking becomes effortless, until their hand brings this living body into form on paper, effortlessly. A devotion for a lifetime. -Elizabeth Garber, poet
I. The Model
Feels like a really good pose Thank God Some of them wear me out This one feels like I’m in some old painting reclining on a pile of pillows They asked me to put my arm back behind my head I look off to the side Gives a lift to my breasts Hey in this afternoon light coming in the big window I have to say I don’t look half bad Heat’s good Not freezing my ass off like that one time My friends roll their eyes Weirdest thing to do to get a break from the kids Strange but it’s my best way to get some time alone to think It pays the sitter But look at that belly Third baby left these stretch marks Maybe they won’t see them Wonder if that older guy thinks I’m still a looker but his face is scrunched up all serious He’s hunched over his paper scribbling notes glancing up and down again Should tell him to loosen up I like listening to the chalk and pencils scratching around me Kinda strange but peaceful Look at my legs stretched out dark on one side light on the other I start to see like they do Light and shadow Never seen my leg look so nice Eyelids heavy Watch out the window Pine trees so still That tree’s taken on one hell of a long pose One branch reaching up with green fingers on the end How do trees do that year in and out? Oooh! My nipples tightened Who opened the door? Cold breeze Hope no one noticed Like swimming at Knight’s Pond last summer Warm currents then I’d hit a cold patch (sigh) I love this My chest starts breathing on its own so peaceful stretching out and in Little rivers of air move in and out of my nostrils I feel air across my breasts Wonder if they can see my belly rising feels soft like the pond breathing rising and falling like floating so gentle my skin filled with silvery light and shadows I feel beautiful
II. The Artist
How lovely with her arm behind her head gazing off to the side She reminds me of Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus More relaxed than Goya’s reclining nude Look at her gazing out the window She’s so pretty there “The heart flutters” I love that line from Garcia Marquez In my 20s I was so afraid I’d get aroused seeing a nude model but in ten minutes I was totally immersed in how to shade her skin So glad our model has a more mature body There’s substance to her 19-year-old bodies seem unreal to me now Love North light reflected off the bay Winslow Homer says it’s the best light Hmmm How do I want to place her on the page Don’t know what I’m looking for Have to wait until the drawing tells me where to go Nothing like pencil on paper Some people are making great sweeps of charcoal on paper fast gestures map out the body in abstract shapes Not me my Beaux Art training so precise First year all we did hands and feet most difficult parts of the body so complex a breast and abdomen are just shaded spheres I try to catch the spirit of the pose At home I’ll take three days to finish it Have to get the eyes mouth nostrils shaded The chiaroscuro around the breast in contrast with shading the nipple Gives a feeling of flesh and substance Love the light raking up the body soles of the feet abdomen and breasts all the same light I love a languid pose on brocade pillows Puts me in a different century (sigh) We all have a body When we are nude we look like all of us allows us to see if a knee or breast doesn’t look right I love a model who’s comfortable with being nude There’s a Gaia feel to this woman’s skin I could extend her legs a little make her look more willowy but I love how relaxed she looks She has softness to her (sigh) Nudity is sacred To be comfortable in the body is so intimate A gift this model gives us She trusts us with her body I feel tears welling This beauty is such a gift
Drawing is the foundation of visual art, and the practice of life drawing forms one of its major walls. It is part scientific investigation, part physical exercise, and part exploration of what it means to be human. For some artists, it is performed as a method of honing skills. For others, the drawings are end products. Any artist interested in depicting people will find the activity invaluable and indispensable.
For most who have never labored on a figure study, drawing from a nude model is misunderstood. Due to our social conventions regarding nakedness, we immediately suspect any activity involving nudity as being erotic, sordid, or immoral. Having worked with scores of models over many years, I can say with some authority that drawing from life is, for both the artists and the model, vastly more of a hard slog than a titillating diversion. In order to maintain the interest of the artists, poses often need to be physically demanding for the model, who must remain close to motionless a half-hour or longer, testing the limits of stamina. The studio is rarely an ideal temperature, with spotlights compounding summer heat, or winter drafts finding their way around the meager output of space-heaters. The artist then has to work as quickly as possible to block in the pose, comparing proportions, making decisions regarding lights and darks, and constantly trying to make sense of visual information that frequently is at odds with what the brain thinks things should look like. It is work for everyone involved.
Concentration is palpable at drawing sessions. It is nearly silent, the only noise being the scratch of pencil or charcoal on paper, and the periodic sighs that accompany the acknowledgment that an eraser is needed. Artists use a variety of tricks to help them view their work objectively—mirrors, turning drawings upside-down, and walking back from the easel to view things at a distance. Some use measuring sticks or viewfinders to aid in measuring up the figure and composing the drawing. For each artist, the focus is making the drawing agree with the model posed on the platform. There is simply no mental space for stray thoughts—licentious or otherwise. And there is less time. Inevitably, before one is ready, it is time to give the model a well-earned break, or to call it a day.
So, if it is such hard work, why do we draw from models, and why must they be nude? No one would question the athlete who puts in hours of training daily. Similarly, it is expected that musicians practice, to enable their bodies to make rapid, minute, and exact movements. And who would want to have a doctor who never studied anatomy? Drawing from life is training, plain and simple. Yet, it is more than that. Artists, be they hobbyists or professionals, are concerned with humanity, and one of the fundamental things about being human is that we have bodies that are similar, but unique. It is only logical and practical that artists should study the human form, how activity, gravity, age, and emotion all dynamically act upon it, and how it conveys much of who we are as individuals.
What Are Life Drawing Groups?
From a drawing group that’s been meeting for over forty years to one that’s just started, they share one thing in common and that is an interest in drawing the human figure from life. The groups usually meet once a week for several hours in someone’s home, an art studio, or at a university or college. Typically, the group has a designated person who makes arrangements for models with participants chipping in to pay the model. There is no instructor and everyone works independently in whatever media they choose—pencil, charcoal, pastel, ink, oil, clay, plaster, etc. The session usually starts with quick warm-up poses then moves on to longer sustained poses. The drawings in The Figure Revealed show this range, from quick fresh gesture drawings to the more studied and detailed work that results from longer poses.
These small drawing groups exist around the state, somewhat in isolation, their members working quietly with focus and dedication. Since most of the work is not intended for exhibition but as practice, we have an opportunity to enter the private world of artist and model and to better understand the tradition they continue–a tradition that began in Europe during the 15th century. Figure drawing remains a standard practice for students and professionals in the visual arts. It is also an excellent method for non-artists to develop a meditative focus, studying how activity, gravity, age, and emotion all dynamically act on the human form and how it conveys much of who we are as individuals.
Who are the models? When we refer to the “model” it is not in the way the term is used in the fashion industry or popular media. They are a complete cross-section of men and women — as diverse as the artists who are drawing them, all sizes, all ages. Some are artists themselves, familiar with the routine and intensity of posing for a drawing group, but all are comfortable with their bodies.
Naturalist and writer Peter Steinhart (The Undressed Art: Why We Draw, 2004) received national acclaim for his insight into the expressive nature of drawing and the innate and human impulse to draw what we see. In his essay for The Figure Revealed II (2005), he describes drawing groups as “deliciously democratic institutions, with professional artists working alongside wincing amateurs and eighty-year-old matrons working alongside tattooed teenagers, all together searching for what makes us human.”
Who goes to these drawing sessions? Certainly professional artists who want to refine their skills of observation, but many are in non-art professions with varying levels of or no formal artistic training. In the years of presenting this exhibit, we’ve included a TV producer, building contractor, retired research scientist, children’s book illustrator and author, plant biologist, orchardist, paralegal, choreographer, dairy farmer, marketing consultant, psychiatrist, costume designer, dentist, law firm receptionist, high school English teacher, Rite-Aid clerk, medical transcriptionist, stockbroker, orthopedic surgeon, flight attendant, and chef. In previous exhibits, there have been those with disabilities – a legally-blind participant whose drawings combine imagination and direct observation. And a recovering stroke patient who had to re-learn how to walk, read, and write. His entry card was a struggle to read but his drawings were graceful and elegant.
-Robyn Holman, Curator
Today, in just about any American city you can find a place where, without prior reservation, you can drop in, pay a small fee and draw a live model for a few hours. I know of nearly 100 such groups in the San Francisco Bay area, dozens in New York and Washington. In suburbs and small towns, you can find them in local art and community centers, in colleges and adult schools, and in private homes and studios. They are deliciously democratic institutions, with professional artists working alongside wincing amateurs and eighty-year-old matrons working alongside tattooed teenagers, all together searching for what makes us human.
This interest in human gesture and expression is far from new. We are highly social creatures, designed to look unflinchingly at each other, to judge one another’s moods and intentions. There are clusters of cells in the human brain that light up only when one sees a mother smile or a hand grip an object or a head turn in our direction. Body posture and facial expressions have the same meaning in every culture, and we are capable of something like 10,000 different facial expressions alone. The language of the body is subtle and complex, and with it we send nuanced and layered messages. It can depict such complicated emotional states as sad and embarrassed, or sad and vengeful, or sad and contrite, or sad and confused. Artists have for at least 2000 years been deeply absorbed in understanding and reflecting such states.
In the 20th century, as abstraction became fine art’s reigning fashion, this interest in the face and body fled to the less exacting media of film and television. Art schools turned away from naturalism and placed less emphasis upon drawing and the figure. Fine art is a wider discipline today, embracing not only naturalistic, abstract and surrealistic painting and sculpture, but conceptual art, installation art and video art.
Recently, however, there has been a small renaissance of figurative art. It seems to have sparked first in these drawing groups, but in the past decade there has been a glimmering rediscovery of drawing and the figure in museums and galleries as well. This renewed interest owes in part to a relaxation of artistic orthodoxies as abstract expressionism gave way to pop art and other fashions. It arises in part from a sense that film and television tend limit the body to exaggerated expressions of sex or power. And it derives in part from a feeling that as modern life increasingly imposes shallow conventions upon us we long to see, think and feel for ourselves. To draw or paint is to discover our own originality.
Where this renewed interest in the figure will lead fine art no one can say. But we can say this: we come into the studio especially to discover what is noble, humane and beautiful in ourselves and in each other. What transpires between artist and model is often surprisingly generous and compassionate. All this looking and thinking about each other in the end makes us look into our own hearts and think about who and what we are. And the resulting art can make us feel more compassionate, more humane and more alive.
–Peter Steinhart, Author of The Undressed Art – Why We Draw, (Knopf, 2004)
Before [depicting] a man,” Leon Battista Alberti wrote, “we first draw him nude, then we enfold him in draperies. So in painting the nude we place first his bones and muscles which we then cover with flesh so that it is not difficult to understand where each muscle is beneath.”
And so, a new relationship to the world proclaims itself in 1435. Alberti, the great Florentine theorist, decreed in his treatise, Della Pittura, that one of the most important concerns for every painter and sculptor was the human figure, and it was best mastered directly, unclad. The human form as decorative pattern, so admired during the Middle Ages, quickly became passé. Within a decade of Alberti’s writing, figure drawing of the nude had been completely adopted as a standard studio practice in Florence.
Of course Alberti’s theoretical change would not have been possible without an evolution in materials. By the mid 15th century when figure drawing became prevalent, there was widespread use of relatively inexpensive tinted papers, sketchbooks, and large sheets for preliminary studies of paintings. The ubiquity of drawing paper is perhaps best illustrated by Paolo Uccello, who left whole chests full of drawings to his heirs in 1475.
Studio assistants, all male, served as models for these preparatory drawings, and it is very common to see drawn male nudes reappear in paintings as the Virgin, male and female saints, or angels. Florentine artist Andrea del Sarto provides a typical example. In his drawing Seated Youth (Florence, Uffizi), he first sketched a nude young man, probably one of his studio assistants, and then lightly drew diaphanous clothing over the figure. The drawing was then used to compose the lovely seated Virgin (fully clothed) in the altarpiece Sacra Conversazione, 1507-08, (Rome, Galleria Nazionale di Palazzo Barberini).
By the 16th century when Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci flourished, figure drawing had become such a normative practice for artists that it was adopted as part of the curriculum of Florence’s new art school, the Accademia del Disegno. Incorporated by Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1563, the Accademia was the first formal academy of art where studies of the human figure, particularly the male nude, and anatomy studies were among the sponsored activities for artists.
From Florence, the practice of figure drawing spread throughout every major European art center. It was incorporated into the curriculum at Paris’s Académie Royale de Peinture e de Sculture in 1648. Figure studies, in fact, became so integrally linked with the Academy that these drawings were called “academies.” As a result of their great popularity, figure drawings were viewed as finished works of art by the mid 17th century. Artists traded them amongst themselves, and they were acquired by collectors seeking less expensive work by noted artists. Giorgio Vasari, the famous biographer of Italian Renaissance artists, for example, had a large collection of drawings which he frequently referred to in his writing.
Figure drawing continues to be part of art training today. From specialized art school to major university, figure drawing is standard practice for students. It is also a common way that mature, practicing artists keep their skills well-honed. Just as pianists practice everyday to stay at peak performance, artists often sharpen their skills by attending figure drawing groups. In this situation, a dozen or so artists meet routinely, usually for three hours, once a week, and work from the model. Most artists draw on paper with pencil or charcoal, but others paint or model in clay or wax. Each artist pays a modest set fee for figure drawing to cover the modeling fees.
Just like the earliest figure drawings from the 15th century, the drawings in this exhibition reveal a great deal about the practice of figure drawing. Most obvious, is that both male and female models are now used. The models are asked to pose for different lengths of time. The quick gestural drawings were made rapidly, from one minute poses. At the end of the minute a second pose is quickly struck and the artists again try to capture the pose using only a few lines to summarize the entire figure. Other more complete or detailed drawings were made from one-hour poses, and finally some were made from careful study over several hours, repeated over two or three weeks.
The purpose of the drawings vary. For some artists, the point is to make acute observations from nature. For others, it is to express movement, drama, or emotion through line and shading. In each case, there is a powerful evocation of the human form with centuries-long ancestral roots.
Vasari’s 1568 admonition remains true today, “excellence in the arts depends on figure drawing.”
Genetta McLean, Damariscotta, Maine, July 2003