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Can Any Student Learn to Draw the Figure?

Nicolas Poussin, "A Dance to the Music of Time." Pen and brown ink and wash, 14.8 x 19.8 cm. National Gallery of Scotland. (Photo at allartnews.com)

Here’s an old question that forever vexes those of us who can draw—by which I mean make a doggie look like a doggie—and who presume to teach drawing at the college or university level:  To what extent can we teach what we can do naturally to students who can’t naturally do what we do? How far can we take ordinary students, with average levels of natural talent, along the road that ends in, “Wow, that looks so real”?

Betty Edwards, in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (first published in 1979), famously argued that almost anyone can achieve naturalistic effects in drawing. I’m not convinced, but her book offers astonishing examples of “before and after” student work that back up her claim. Her methods—some of which I’ve adopted—are based on a simple principle: If you can decontextualize perception, especially by inventing assignments that make drawers forget the name for what it is they’re perceiving, and replace words with abstract visual connections (“From my point of view, the shape between the legs of that person looks like an equilateral triangle”), students studying drawing will advance by leaps and bounds.

Learning to draw the figure, as opposed to a pot, presents an especially difficult challenge. I can teach just about any student who enters a beginning drawing class ways to use line so they end up with a pretty good drawing of a pot—drawn to scale, placed in the center of a picture plane, convincingly round, like a pot is in the real world. I can even teach them to develop a bit of what we call “touch”—a line that isn’t simply mechanical, but varies in weight and nature so that it’s more interesting than a blank connection between two dots.

Like most artists who teach, I’ve developed a range of approaches to help my students broaden the kinds of line they use—beginning with teaching them new ways to hold a pencil or piece of charcoal. Although only a few students have the requisite perceptual talent to end up spot-on when it comes to proportion, it doesn’t matter much with a pot. The drawing will still look like a pot. Goof with the proportions of the human figure, however, and you get a deformed Martian instead of a human being. Or miss the proportions of the parts of a face to the whole and you miss likeness entirely. It takes very little to mess up a face. (This explains why the littlest bit of Botox goes a long way toward altering a person’s appearance.)

It takes a lot of hard work, but by copying shapes until the hand is ready to fall off, and relentlessly doing such exercises as doubling, tripling and quadrupling line segments, and by practicing drawing lines that are parallel to the picture plane, even students who start out drawing the figure with a dead sense of proportion and no sense of placement on the picture plane almost invariably end up seeing and drawing in proportion, and keenly aware of the picture plane.

But while all this works to make students able to draw a convincing pot (not necessarily an artful one, with “air” around it, but a convincing one), it won’t solve the problem of teaching students to draw a convincing figure. The problem? Air and movement. A lot of supposedly “well-drawn” figures—even those made by (gasp!) students who study the old masters, look a lot like stiffs stolen from the city morgue. Leonardo, recognizing this problem, argued for the “rough sketch” (using swift, short, broken contour lines instead of clearly defined contour outlines). Leonardo’s approach was instrumental in Western art’s shift away from schematic drawing (“To draw the Madonna, all I have to do is copy this picture of the Madonna that was made by my teacher’s teacher”).

Modern methods of teaching students how to put air around figures—of teaching them to give figures motion—teach them to search for the overall rhythms and directions in a model’s pose, rather than drawing from unexamined opinions about what that model must look like if drawn on a piece of paper. They include a lot of practice in gesture drawings—rapid drawings made in a couple of minutes, at most, that capture the essence of a figure without getting bogged down in its details.

As an abstract painter, I don’t require, or use, any figure drawing whatsoever in my work. Whenever I teach figure drawing, I start out a little rusty. Though it’s not exactly like riding a bicycle after a long hiatus, I need only a few hours to remember what’s necessary. This works because as a young artist, I studied figure drawing all the time. I’m no Raphael (in my defense, there was only one Raphael, and as his epitaph states, while he was alive, nature feared him, and after he died, she mourned him), but I’m a mighty fine figure drawer.

Like others with drawing talent, I see proportions easily and readily. I can quickly assess how the parts of figure fit into the whole.  Great drawing teachers taught me approaches to drawing that I never would have figured out on my own, however—ways to codify some of my perceptions so I could achieve better results faster.  That led me to discovering a range of kinds of lines to use, and ways to use them, in describing a human form, that lends the form a sense of roundness.  This is the crux of what I pass on to my students.

A third of the way through this semester’s figure-drawing class, my students have finally become fairly adept at drawing the figure in proportion, drawing it to the scale of their paper, and drawing it so it’s balanced and not toppling over. We’re now moving toward more and more emphasis on rhythm and motion, which requires developing a rich vocabulary of line. (Tonal drawings are easy, but without the bones of good contour lines, they’re like ugly women wearing a lot of makeup.) My teaching includes a heavy homework load, and—here’s the hard part—in-class demonstrations, after which students imitate what I demonstrated.

Those of us who teach figure drawing know it’s best to instill a bit of awe in our students. Only when we can demonstrate, in no uncertain terms, that we can walk the walk, are they inspired to go past whatever their natural talents are. By drawing the model in front of them, the teacher makes the task at hand appear possible.

So when my 14 students in my figure drawing class gather behind me to watch me demonstrate how to, say, do a three-minute drawing of a model in a contrapposto pose—getting the whole form, from top to toe, drawn to maximum scale on the picture plane, and in proportion, and with rhythm, and with expressive line—I know disaster awaits me should I fail. Fortunately, there’s adrenalin. A little performance anxiety and a bit of sweat go a long way toward driving me into that zone of concentration where I can draw and at the same time talk about what I’m thinking while I’m drawing. While this is highly unnatural for an artist, it’s absolutely essential if you expect results in teaching figure drawing.

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