Monday life drawing at the last minute

5 minute gesture drawings with Micron Pigma pens on card stock
5-minute gesture drawings with Pigma pens on card stock

On Monday night I had planned on attending the local life drawing session after work. But when the demands of the day job made me late, I almost bagged it. I didn’t have time to go home to get my charcoal and Biggie pad of paper, and I wanted my dinner (like an army , I travel–and draw–on my stomach).

I had a little pouch full of Pigma pens, and a sketchbook too, but I didn’t want to fill the sketchbook with millions of gesture drawings. I’m fussy about that kind of thing. It takes me a long time to warm up, so that my first 1- and 2- minute gesture drawings are big messes. I like to use cheap paper I can throw away. I’m less precious when I use crummy paper for warm up sketches, and I don’t feel bad about all the mistakes.

I didn’t have cheap newsprint with me Monday night, but I did have a calendar made from cardstock and bound with wire. Cheap. Temporary (I’ll throw it away at the end of the year). So I did my quick sketches on the back of the calendar pages.

Wow! What a pleasure it was to draw those Pigma pens across that cheap card stock. I loved the graceful line and delicate shading that was possible on the semi-smooth surface, and the ink dried quickly, so I didn’t smudge.

And the model, when he saw that I was drawing on my calendar said, “Cool, I always wanted to be on a calendar. What month am I?”


Mr. February

Painting from life

Watercolor portrait

Red-haired Girl (cropped)
Watercolor 300# Arches hot press
Copyright 2012 by Margaret Sloan

Model guild benefits are wonderful opportunities for painting. There are often two sections: short poses and long poses. I like to spend the morning at the short pose session, warming up with gesture drawings. After a quick lunch, I  get down to brass tacks for a single long pose. After racing through the brittle morning time of 1-, 2-, and 5-minute poses, I can relax into the long 3-hour pose, and the afternoon unravels and stretches like a rubber band. My mind settles solidly into the work.

It may feel luxurious to have 3 full hours with the same pose, but the model’s timer is still ticking, so I like to organize my process. For this 3-hour pose, I allowed myself 40-minutes (2 20-minute periods) to make a graphite drawing, then I started painting. I try to get an accurate drawing quickly, as poses shift slightly over time, and even the best, most rock-solid models have to take a breath now and then. And once you start painting with watercolor, you can’t make a lot of easy changes.

There is really nothing like painting from life. You are able to see infinite numbers of color that could never show up in a photograph. The blue-green in the shadows around the eyes, the mineral violet in the shadows. You can see the subtle shifting of values, the way the skin flows over muscle and bone.

I’m not against painting from (your own) photos. In the interest of time and money, I often use digital references. But there is nothing like painting the portrait of a live person. Here’s to life.


Life drawing

This Albert Einstein quote (if it is from him—I didn’t have time to fact check) seems to say it all:

Formal symbolic representation of qualitative entities is doomed to its rightful place of minor significance in a world where flowers and beautiful women abound.

And, I might add, in a world where beautiful men abound as well.

Life drawing: freedom within structure

This is one of my favorite drawings from last week—a series of 2-minute poses—simply because I was able to control placement of the figures on the page. I was able to do it in a somewhat organized and pleasing fashion. And I was able to do get this information down fast. 2 minutes a sketch.

I could not have done this four years ago. In fact, a year ago I could not have controlled my drawing this much. Over the last year I’ve taken another leap in abilities.

I’ve been studying life drawing at the atelier for nearly four years. I’ve been focusing very hard on proportions, angles, measurements, and it’s only recently that I’ve been able to exert some kind of discipline over my errant and mindless drawing arm. (Sometimes I wonder, does this left hand even belong to me? My brain tells it to do something and like a spoiled puppy, my hand widdles charcoal all over the drawing even while my brain is chasing after it with a rolled up newspaper yelling NO! NO! NO!)

In open drawing classes (not at the atelier, because there we strive for proportion) I see a lot of people who just draw as they feel. It’s an experiential gig for them; they’re drawing to feel good, because, let’s face it, drawing feels good.

I’ve noticed that some folks have the kind of brain that allows them to see the model clearly and they are able to naturally get the information down on paper in proportion. But others struggle to see and don’t know what they are doing wrong. They often quit drawing in frustration. I was like that four years ago. My drawings were floundering attempts at something I could barely visualize, let alone realize. So I found the atelier and have been working hard ever since.

Rïce Freeman-Zachary, at Notes from the Voodoo Café has an interesting but maddening post (although with Rïce it could more correctly be called a rant) on being the thing you want to be. Among other things, she says:

“If you want to be it, you do it. And if you want to do it—if you really love it, and it’s what you want to do with your one single life—then you do it the best you can. You study, and you practice.

And, I want to add, practice with a purpose. Because here’s the thing. After four years of obsessively measuring angles, proportions, and anatomy, these days, when I do let myself go and draw as I feel, the feelings have some way to be expressed. I’ve got a vocabulary now, and my drawings can shout or whisper, laugh or cry. The errant drawing arm is beginning to behave like a well-trained appendage. My brain is happy.

The short long pose

I dropped in on Linda Corbett’s life drawing class last week. I was at the Pacific Art League for a portrait class, but it had been canceled and Linda said, “You’re welcome to stay for my class. We have a ballerina for the model tonight.” And on cue, a beautiful young woman strolled in, a tutu under one arm.

Good teacher. She knows what kind of lure will catch a student.

The drawing I’ve posted above is a “long” pose—two 20-minute sets and two 15s. That’s not much time for me; I’m used to much longer poses at the Atelier. I have clocked in 20 to 30 hours on one pose. I haven’t drawn from short poses much in the last couple years.

It meant I had to manage my time more rigidly so that I could bring the entire drawing up to some small amount of finish by the end of the evening. I allowed myself only the first 20 minutes for the block in, 10 minutes into the second pose to check measurements and make any adjustments, then the remaining time to build up the form with pastel color.

That was an exciting exercise. At the time it felt like drawing like the wind. But now I can see all the flaws in execution. It felt good to draw that way, but I traded emotion for precision.

On the other hand, this sketch above was done in about 2 minutes as the model was tying on her toe shoes. Although the proportions are off, the sketch still has an energy and integrity lacking in the twenty minute sketch. Weird how that works. Sometimes a really fast sketch will capture the model better than a longer pose.

I decided to attend the rest of the class—4 classes in all—and concentrate on pastel portraits. I’m interested to see what happens when I only have one 20-minute pose to catch a likeness.

A new road map

I’ve been studying Kenneth Clark’s The Nude : A Study in Ideal Form at the Atelier. I am not well versed in art history, so a lot of what Clark says goes zooming over my head into the stratosphere. I spend as much time scouring the internet to find information about the artists Clark mentions as I do reading the darn book.

It’s a tough book to crack. Clark’s language is flowery and dense, and often his statements reference deep-seated cultural assumptions that irritate me. Celestial and vegetable venus indeed. But this tiny bit of study of my artistic heritage (a heritage artists all share) has made me think about what I’m trying to do and say with my own work. About what it might mean to reference older traditions and cultures. And how those cultures are reflected in the prism of the art of our modern world.

Sue Smith at Ancient Artist writes, “Because we live in our own time, when the modernism driven by the critic-influenced 60’s led to a period of post-modernism that commercialized the idea of art nearly out of existence, we are now seeing a rudderless homogenization of ideas. Of catch phrases characterized by ambiguity. Perhaps we have lost the idea of what constitutes art.”

It seems to me that by knowing what went before—knowing and understanding our artistic genealogy—we artists can use it to inform their own art. We can transform the styles, methods, and means into something that speaks to people today. We can hope to create new ideas of what constitutes art (multiple ideas, because people like as many styles of art as they like styles of pie). And the most important of those ideas will be as solid, strong, and long lasting for our time as the idea of sculptural morality was for Polykleitos or the idea of simplifying the female form was for Matisse.

Human anatomy (look Ma, those drawings got no skin!)


I have to admit to being a little bit of an anatomy book junkie. Human anatomy fascinates me. Yes, I know that certain parts of human anatomy—the twiddly bits— fascinate everyone. But if that’s what you’re thinking I’m on about, then shame on you. I’m telling you, we’re not going down that road. Not without a bottle of wine and a beachfront room in Maui full of roses.

I’m talking anatomy for artists. I collect books on the topic. And it turns out my teacher, Rob Anderson, at the Atelier School of Classical Realism, knows the author of  Classic Human Anatomy by Valerie L. Winslow. He thinks highly of the book, so I bought one.

I’m happy I did. Subtitled The Artist’s Guide to Form, Function, and Movement, it’s full of  beautiful drawings. Not just drawings of muscles and skeletons, but also drawings that show important things like the action of individual muscles, how to draw the torso (Rob says, always get the torso right before anything else), and the rhythm of form (although I wish she’d spent a few more pages on this subject.)

If you’re interested in life drawing, you’ll want to check this book out.