What exactly is the point of doing life drawing? I was suddenly reminded of this thorny old question when I caught sight of a sign nailed to a tree as I came home from work on the bus. “Life drawing classes” it read, with a telephone number beneath, which I managed to store in the memory of my mobile phone as we went by.
And there the number has remained for several months as I try to decide whether or not it is something I really want to do. On my foundation course we hardly seemed to be out of the life drawing class, and our rate of progress through supplies of charcoal must have been the cause of major deforestation. We would be next to our easels through long hours of the ritual progression of the typical life drawing day: firstly, quick poses of just a few minutes, or even seconds, to get us warmed up (and, more importantly, the model), then a few longer ones during which you realise you will run out of paper shortly before lunch, and then, in the afternoon, by which time you have stocked up, or reverted to drawing on newspaper, longer poses. By about 4pm you find it perfectly normal to stand around chatting to someone who is completely naked with charcoal dust smeared across your face.
This way of working was an excellent way of building up an impressively thick portfolio of work in a very short length of time, in preparation for interviews for degree courses that seemed to start after about three weeks of term. And during the course of this process, drawing soon became, for some of us at least, the most normal and indispensable thing in the world.
But what of the work we produced? I sent mine up in flames years ago, needing the space in the studio, and realising that the drawings weren’t nearly as good as I liked to remember them. I began to think, perhaps, that the act of creating them was often more important than the end result. Maybe that is what the tutors at my degree college thought: I remember their reaction when a group of us asked if a life model could be made available to us to work from for a couple of days. It was as if we had politely requested the slaughter of their firstborn, although later they agreed.
On holiday in the sun this year, sitting on the banks of a quiet Italian lake up in the mountains, the urge to draw the human form stirred once more. It was the usual scenario: children playing happily, partner snoozing contentedly, leaving me with a few minutes to spare with a sketchbook and pen to hand. Around us sat a fairly plentiful supply of potential subjects, albeit slightly more clothed than the average life model.
There is, I found, an art to this, er, art. Unless you want to ask if your fellow sunbathers are happy to model for you (my Italian certainly isn’t up to that and besides, they may demand payment), there has to be an element of subterfuge to the process of beach work. Drawing does involve looking and scrutiny, which can arouse suspicions even among those perfectly happy to expose their bodies on a beach. The secret, I found, was not to draw anyone sitting too close, avoid eye contact, and work quickly. When people did give me a look of suspicion I would hastily move onto my next subject, while making out I was checking the children were OK. I think I got away with it.
The disadvantages, of course, were that I found myself having to draw people quite far away and, in order to avoid suspicion, those looking in the opposite direction. Thus I ended up with a few too many drawings of distant people’s backs. It was a start though. I’d be glad of suggestions from other artists who have tried this out in time for next summer. In the meantime, I still have the number of that life drawing class in my phone.