LEARNING FROM FIGURE DRAWING: THE BIG PICTURE
Three diverse techniques of figure drawings: left by Clara Lieu; middle by Liz Hill; right by Anthony Poon
So as teenagers in figure drawing class, we all had that moment when the beautiful model dropped her robe to the floor and stood there in all her naked glory, surrounded by students in awe and dropped jaws. Then our teacher said to study the model and draw.
As awkward as it was, as inappropriate as it might have been for us young artists, we grinned and took in the nude figures before us. We learned to observe—have the details of the body enter our eyes and brains and come out of our hands. With black and white charcoal pencils, we sketched the human subject ten feet in front of us, onto newsprint ten inches in front of us.
I continue this exercise of observation and recording as I draw regularly in my sketchbook, whether it is a group of people, a bowl of fruit, or a composition of buildings. But what I learned most from my figure drawing class was seeing The Big Picture.
In figure drawing, not seeing The Big Picture can be catastrophic. Our art teacher instructs us to lightly glide our hand over our paper, imagining how we might capture the entire figure in broad strokes. But we are taught to not yet touch the paper with our pencils. As our hand gracefully outlines the figure over and over again without actually producing a visible charcoal line on the paper, our art instructor finally commands, “Begin!” Without a break in motion, our pencils touch the paper and the general profile of the nude body is softly outlined.
Though this sounds like artistic gibberish, imagine the common disasters that could occur. An eager student might focus on the model’s foot, carefully drawing each toe, highlighting the textures and shadows. As this sophomoric student moves up the body slowly, drawing the legs, the waist, the torso . . . “Oh damn! I don’t have enough room on my sheet of paper to draw the model’s shoulders and head!”
This unfortunate result happens a lot in class. And in life as well.
We should all be in motion, energetically outlining the total impression of our existence, and not simply confronting daily details. Every self-help book, good or bad, and every business advice blog suggest that you set your ten year goals, then your five year goals that get to the ten years goals. Then you are to identify the annual goals that get to your five year goals, and your monthly goals to . . . , well, you get the idea.
If you simply focus on what you are doing each day without thought to the overall arc of The Bigger Picture, you are only drawing the foot or a toe. Even if this foot is perfectly represented, later in life you will realize that you never even thought about the rest of the body.