figure_study_17th_jan_11_smallLast Friday, I went to the luncheon of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities, and as usual there was a fascinating short talk to accompany lunch and coffee. (As I mentioned before, the membership of this group is a rather wonderful mixture of people mostly from USC, UCLA, and the city of Los Angeles in general, mostly prominent writers, artists, and other people from the humanities, film, theatre, and… they let one or two dabbler-type scientists like yours truly on the list, bless them.)

The talk was by Bram Dijkstra, and was entitled “The Nude in American Art”. As with most of the talks here (and in many similar venues), it seems to be associated with a book the speaker has out recently, and this one is a sumptuous-looking tome called “Naked: The Nude in America”. It was a nice talk, although he did not get very much into the modern America part because he spent time on the European connections and background and then ran out of time (they try to keep the luncheon talks short and to the point, leaving you wanting more, and leaving time for questions, which is indeed a good thing). However, one of the things that kept coming up was the whole business of an early prudishness or puritanicalism (still persisting in some places today) that meant that the naked physical form should somehow be hidden away. You get examples even today of art galleries’ major donors creating problems for an exhibit that contains nudes, etc., etc. He discussed various changing (and not changing) attitudes to this issue on both sides of the Atlantic through the years, which I found interesting. Aspects of this were not just tied to things like religion, but also the changing status of women in the various societies, to various degrees, since a lot of nudes feature the female form.

This is all very interesting to me in view of The Project for, I hope, obvious reasons. I found myself wondering (and indeed asked a question at the end about it) about correlations between the changing (back and forth) attitudes and approaches to art instruction. The nude is a major study tool forming the foundation of a lot of an artist’s education (or at least a lot of kinds of artist). This is not just because they might be drawing or painting people. There is something about the human form that is just perfect for developing certain skills. For a start, it is very familiar -everybody can recognize the human form, given that they see them all the time- and also, it can be twisted and turns into so very many forms, each with a world of meaning. What greater challenge is there to the skill of visual representation and interpretation than such a form with those two key attributes?

I decided to spend a lot of time with the nude figure in recent times. (Yes, yes, I see all the jokes there…) It has been important for me in the quest I set myself to improve my skill set to see if I could really tackle The Project. As I’ve said before, I put myself through a lot of concentrated effort to take myself to a new level, and a study of the human figure in many situations became (and remains) a focus. This is not just because the dialogues I’ll be illustrating have people in them and so I better be ok with drawing them, but also because it is a great overall foundational skill, as I said above. It is the ultimate test of what I think of as the balance of drawing – in your head there is a constant conflict between drawing what you see and drawing what you know, and they are both important skills to develop. Successful drawing, in my view, is about turning that conflict into a partnership.

When people say they “can’t draw” – a much-stated declaration that people make, and one that I simply don’t accept at face value – it is usually because they have not found the balance between these two things. It comes from practice… just trying it a few times and then giving up and declaring you can’t do it is very similar to what people do when they say they can’t do mathematics or don’t “get” science. I don’t buy the “natural talent” business that people subscribe to so readily. Hard work and practice are just not given a chance to work, and increasingly so, it seems sometimes. People can achieve so much with practice, which involves successes and failures along the way, learning as you go.

Some of my work day during the sabbatical semester, for a period, was taken up with increasing the respective strengths of the “what you see” and “what you know” sides to drawing. So this meant looking at and drawing all kinds of things at random, including figures, and getting some of the classic encyclopedic works on human anatomy (from an artists perspective – try Bridgman, or Hogarth, for example) and studying them, just as I would study a book on techniques in physics or mathematics when I need a new technique in my physics work.

What do I mean by drawing “what you see” vs “what you know”? Take a cylinder, as a simple example. To draw it well in all situations, it helps to know what it really is like structurally in a three-dimensional sense, even though when you are drawing it, you only ever see a two dimensional projection. If you are perfect at drawing what you see, you never need to understand a cylinder three-dimensionally in order to draw it perfectly from any angle in any situation. On the other hand, if you are perfect at holding the form of a cylinder in your head and moving it into any position and drawing that imagined view, then you never need to be able to draw what you see. Great master draftsmen are very fluent in both. Most people like you and me are (perhaps with a bit of practice) somewhere in the middle of the scale on each approach. Successful drawing – beating the “I can’t draw” cliche – is simply a matter of using both skills in balance, relying heavily on one or the other to solve a particular problem as you go along in the drawing. That’s really all there is. It is not hard, and it comes with practice and just relaxing and not giving too soon up because you don’t think you have the “natural talent” (an overrated concept, if there ever was one).

As with the cylinder, so it is with drawing a more complicated object, like a human being. I spent a time simply visiting places where there were a lot of willing stationary posers for me – sculptures of human figures in art galleries, typically – and taking the time I needed to stand there with notebook and draw them. This is actually a nice way of appreciating an art gallery that you may already be familiar with, by the way. (It sometimes has the drawback that you become more interesting to the patrons than the art, as I found to my horror in the Museo de Prado in Madrid, the Tate Britain in London, especially (I was swarmed by tourists one, and a party of schoolchildren in the other) but you learn to deal with that.) Then, more confident, I started carrying a little sketchbook with me so that I could catch some real live people on the subway and buses, in cafes, etc. This works well in nice crowded cities where you can look at people without them noticing you. (There’s something marvellous about realizing that if you want to study the lips one day, you just go on the subway and there’s a thousand pairs of lips staring at you for you to draw.)

Since I also want to render people well in my mind (my characters and situations and so forth are fictional after all), the necessity to look away and build a good sketch from only short glances so as not to alert your prey (er.. subject) is something I am always looking to improve upon as well. I still do this, as I have mentioned in other posts. Just last night I got some great quick sketches while nursing a glass of stout in a local crowded bar….

Once I got to a level I was happy with, and since I wanted to improve my ability to make good sketches in finite time (it is not much use to me to be able to nicely render things in infinite time), the next step was to find willing subjects to pose for me. Actually, I realized pretty quickly that this is not hard to do. A bit of google searching while on my travels found me any number of places where a paid model comes along and sits, and people show up, pay some money, draw them and leave. I decided to try this. These are often all called “Life-drawing classes”, which annoys me a bit since they are not really classes – just an agreed on place, time, and subject where people with mutual interest can assemble to get on with the task in hand, and which presents a safe and professional environment for the model. So I just call them studio sessions, or something similar. (Of course there are ones where people go to learn to draw from an instructor or get advice, etc., and those are classes, but that’s not what I’m talking about, and was not what I was looking for. I would not go to one of those since I know what I need to do and don’t want some external voice in my head messing with my internal system.)

The first time I did it (in March last year – it was upstairs at a pub in London) I was quite curious and excited. No matter how mature one is there’s always the worry in a new situation with a new skill that you’re going to suck at it so badly that everyone will gather around and point and laugh, even though you know that is not really going to happen…but that was not my primary concern. I just wanted to know what it would be like culturally, as it were, and other things, like Who goes to these things? What are they like? Would they wonder what I was doing there? Would I be spotted as a kind of fraud?… Mostly, I was buzzed about the challenge to my developing skills… Would I really be able to do this? What would it take to get to a good level? In the end, I decided that I’d been practicing enough on statues and photographs and so forth to make a good go of it, and in any case, it was a fun anonymous adventure into a totally new world. What fun!

Turned out that it was a lot of fun, and I did a few more while travelling during the Spring, pleased with the results and the immediate effect on my work in all domains. Once I returned to LA I sought some out here too, for regular practice through the Summer. It is actually very interesting to go to different studios in different cities. They all have very different character. There’s also a sort of nice anonymity that some of them have. What I did is figure out where a studio is taking place in the city in question, make contact by email to check it is ok to come, just to be sure, and then show up. You pay your money, the model disrobes, poses, and people shut up, find a space, and get on with drawing. Nobody pries much into anyone’s business, and once done, everyone melts away back into the city streets, as though we’re a guild of assassins. I love that!

For those who might be thinking that this is of interest but are unsure, let me say this: – Just do it. The thing you should know is that there are all sorts of skill levels at these things, and so there is no need to feel self-conscious, and in any case, nobody knows who on earth you are unless you choose to tell them, so there’s just no issue.

Here in LA the range of ability is impressive since a lot of people in attendance are professionals of one sort or another from the huge local entertainment industry, keeping their skill level high through practice. You can tell the professional animators and storyboard artists right off as they are the ones who just rattle off great stripped-down renderings of figures in seconds. I am still stunned by this, but remember, they’ve been doing this for years. Practice. You have the painters and graphic designers working on the things that are important to them with equally impressive skills in other areas, such as light and shade, form, or colour. They’re good at their thing… through practice. And you have hacks like me muddling along on their own journey, also having fun doing so. And it’s all about practice there too. My main goals is to improve my rendering speed – the rate at which I can capture the essence of what I am drawing so as to be able to speed up and overall improve the production processes on The Project that I have described a lot in earlier posts, such as here. I don’t go as often as I like, since I have, you know, the Professor gig, and I have good days and bad days. For an evening session, I try not to go along after a workday that has been too stressful – this puts off the balance between those drawing elements I mentioned and I end up just frustrated and end the hours very displeased with myself for wasting time and money.

On moderately bad days my work looks stiff and formal, like the very first one I did in London – it was fine, and everything was there, but it looked like a technical drawing. On great days, the constituent forms in the figure seem to just pop out at me and fall off the pencil almost on their own and it just feels great. All the practice comes together and that’s a nice feeling. My line weights are nice and varied and even a single line can convey much about the light on that part of the figure, and so on and so forth. On really bad days, the forms are not there, and my lines are naive, thick, forced, and clunky. I leave with nothing worth looking at much again (although everything is a lesson, so I do). Overall, there’ll always be a lot more to learn, and I enjoy being on a learning curve – it is a good feeling, and it is in my nature (and I suspect, most academics) to challenge myself and to research and teach myself new skills like this.

Most times, I am happy at the end of a session if I get two good ones I am pleased with, done in a decently short amount of time, or maybe at least one that I am happy enough to keep to hand for later reference and just to enjoy as a nice work. I don’t finish everything, and I like to leave in some of the remnants of the stages of drawing, such as major construction lines, etc. These are studies, and I like the unfinishedness of it all. Some of my favourite drawings by the great masters are partial sketches or studies for paintings, etc.

The drawing upper left is one I did last week*. I like it because it came together nicely in about 15 minutes, with another 5-7 minutes adding a little bit of extra shading, and then I was done. (It is about 10 inches tall – I work on 11×14 paper – it frees the mind and the hand to work large.) I was pleased to not be rushing at the end, and felt happy with the effort in the time allotted. (I’ve cleaned it a bit around the sides of the drawing here and there since there was print-through from another drawing when I did the scan.)

If the truth be told, this was an easy pose, relatively speaking. A more accomplished sketcher would have done at least the same amount in less than 15 minutes, for sure. It is not so hard since so much of the body is just straight up and down, with no real complication. More challenging can be extreme foreshortening, when a limb has a long dimension lying along your line of sight – then the balance between the “drawing what you see” and “drawing what you know” must be juggled nicely to solve the rendering problems involved.

Drawing is a lot of fun, and very worthwhile. It helps you see the world anew. If you think you can’t draw, I’m almost certain you’re wrong, for the reasons I’ve explained above. There’s some degree that you can get to that is satisfying. Have a go, and practice a bit and watch the improvements start to pop up (especially after periods of frustration when you feel stuck). It’s rewarding for its own sake.


*Copyright Clifford V. Johnson, all rights reserved, as for all my work on this blog.

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13 Responses to Nude

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  2. kim says:

    why do you think the naked form is hidden away and frowned on? How does this relate to pornography?

  3. Clifford says:

    Well, I agree with some of things he said, upon which I reported in the post. There’s more to it than those, but I think they’re part of the starting point for understanding the differences.



  4. Ele Munjeli says:

    I once watched a friend of mine who was a beginner as an artist draw a tree: she actually drew all the branches first, then covered them with leaves. I thought it was absurd, but an excellent example of ‘drawing what you know’. Speed is crucial to good rendering, eventually you can trust your eye to portray a figure that’s mechanically correct, even in an unexpected pose.

    Nice essay on the culture of figure drawing. It’s a rare opportunity to enjoy a human body objectively, without exploitation, or intimacy.

  5. kim says:

    But there are a handful of those with “natural talent”. Edward Witten for example. So even though you don’t buy the “natural talent” business, what are you thoughts on those that are naturally talented?
    Is your view that hard work and practice can go a long way yet those who do have that natural talent will always be one step ahead?

  6. Clifford says:

    I have no general thoughts on “people who are naturally talented”. Frankly, I don’t really know what it means. I think that the concept of natural talent is oversubscribed to, and often used as a get-out clause for not trying at something. The actual admixture of natural talent with hard work and so forth is hugely variable (and mostly, hard work is the most important component in my opinion), from person to person that the whole natural talent thing is largely irrelevant in getting worthwhile things done. Even in the exceptional cases, hard work is a huge compoenent. The Ed Wittens, Gary Kasparovs, and Michael Jordans of this world put in a huge amount of work to achieve what they did/do. If they hadn’t, they’d have got pretty much nowhere, just like anyone else who’d not done the work.

    So the person one step ahead can just as easily be in that position due to hard work as due to “natural talent”, whatever that is.

    I think the most important thing is simply finding your way into a subject/area/skill. Once you find that way in (and how that happens is very person dependent) then your enthusiasm and dedication does the rest. That’s probably all natural talent is… whether you found your way early on. It does not mean the others cannot find their way too, through working at it.


  7. kim says:

    I agree that hard work gets worthwhile things done, but some people can understand things quicker than others. They also have significantly more good ideas which can lead to breakthroughs and then prizes and medals being awarded to those individuals. Most professors have to work hard yet only a small minority get fields medals or nobel prizes or have breakthroughs.

    Do you accept there is some hidden factor which gives these people the upper hand? If not what explanation can be given for their success?

  8. Clifford says:

    If you’re in a field to win prizes, medals and awards, then I suggest you re-examine what it is you are doing, and what for.



  9. kim says:

    Prizes and awards creates competition and an incentive to succeed which is conducive to increasing scientific knowledge no?

    But that’s a separate issue from my original question. I was hoping you would respond to that but it seems you are in some sense sidestepping it.

  10. Clifford says:

    I’ve responded as fully as I know how. You keep banging on about special factors and uppers hands, and I keep banging on about hard work.

    You have focused here and elsewhere on prizes and awards and evidently think that is a motivation, and I don’t think that I am sidestepping matters (as you say) by taking the time to tell you that such things are not the reason most people do what they do. Those are certainly not the motivation for doing the hard work people put into their activities… And thank goodness for that! Nobody I know (in research, teaching, administration, or writing, composing, designing, etc, or jobs in service, etc) thinks prizes and so forth are even remotely relevant to why they get out of bed every morning and do what they do.

    I am done with the prizes and natural talent discussion now. Thanks for your questions and thoughts, but let’s leave the thread for other things now.



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