SOME PERSONAL REFLECTIONS
ON DRAWING FROM THE NUDE
By Robert Ross
There’s a great public curiosity about what happens between artists and models. In one popular scenario, the relationship between artists and models is a romantic one. The dominant conventions of the media, jokes, myth and other cultural expressions have male artists engaged in some kind of basically sexual relation to their female models. Unfortunately this notion serves to reinforce inaccurate and damaging stereotypes of both artists and models, while more accurate and significant dynamics of figurative art are obscured. What’s really going on?
THE DRAWING PROCESS
I've been drawing from nude models for over 50 years now. I think the most telling bias in my work is its dependence on drawing, regardless of medium, or degree of realism or abstraction. In fact there’s nothing that’s advanced my work over the years as durably as the practice of life drawing. It’s the fundamental staple.
The human body is especially resonant to me as a subject, uncompromisingly beautiful and suggestive in all its permutations of age, fat and lean, languor or tension. I see in it the common humanity of us all, our literal, physical Human Condition. When I'm drawing, I'm trying to concentrate on my drawing, on the quality of the work I'm doing. But in order to feed this work I seek information from the real, natural world, in this case the human body. As I study and draw from the figure, whether male or female, old or young, I experience a kind of physical charge. This may be more or less conscious, but underneath there’s an unmistakable gut recognition: shared humanity.
There's a definite sensuality in drawing -- not necessarily in the subject matter, but in the pleasure of the eyeballs, transmitting through mind and muscles to the pleasurable life of the mark. There’s a poignant reminder of this sensuality in certain subjects: nudes, landscapes, interior or other atmospheres charged with light. Yet somehow it always comes back to the process of drawing itself, drawing in the sense of drawing from a well, drawing from one's internal resources of heart and mind, from the natural world, and from the example of great artists of the past.
When I speak of drawing here I’m not speaking of a primarily economic or manufacturing activity, the production of 'drawings' which can be matted, framed, admired, offered as exchange in commercial transactions. This is not to imply anything nasty about selling one's work, but I do want to acknowledge the most essential feature of drawing for me: It’s a practice by which the entire process, from eyeballs through mind to muscle to hand to mark, is exercised and strengthened, made more supple and responsive. It's a mode of research. It’s a practice in seeing more, seeing better.
So, in drawing, the mind needs to be relaxed, alert and receptive. This allows visual information to be most pleasurably and purely absorbed and understood. In this state of heightened awareness, the recognition of our species link, of our shared genetic patterns, of our family-relatedness, seems like a natural and inevitable response. There's something just incredibly touching (and inspiring!) about witnessing the softness and vulnerability, the variety, vitality, and expressiveness, and the exquisite structural authority of the human form.
Each person’s body has a principle of growth which forms it, including genetic and environmental factors. In this sense, it's like a tree, a canyon, a cloud. And each individual posture which an individual body assumes exhibits evidence of this organic growth. Getting the 'sense' of this organic life is one of my fundamental aims in the practice of life drawing.
As I study a model, perhaps I note the line (or 'outline') of his arm. This is a very specific line, with its own particular series of gentler or more sudden curves or angles. If I were standing two feet to the left, and had a slightly different view of the arm, the line would be different. In fact, when my model takes his break and then resumes the pose, the exact line I see along his arm will be slightly changed. Or as I use one eye or the other, or sway or shift in my own posture, the line is changed. As I observe the line, I understand that this is a line I will never see again, ever, anywhere.
I understand that in all moments of my life I am gazing on phenomena that will never reappear in an identical form. I will see the 'same' tree, the 'same' person, but the mutability and change of all things is constant. So drawing is also a way of reminding myself of transience, of the passage of time, of mortality, of loss, of resurgence. Drawing reminds me to pay attention, to appreciate these lines, forms, phenomena now. Drawing trains me to be alive and receptive, sensitive to the opulent beauty of the mundane. Sequences of shadow in the corner of a room; the shock of color in an alley with vines and a dumpster; a streak of light glancing through a window, bouncing off a polished surface and illuminating a piece of a houseplant -- these are the kinds of daily, ‘unimportant’ phenomena that drawing has taught my eyes to pick up on and honor.
I'm nuts about mark-making. I love crisp lines, 'fast' lines, 'slow' lines, blurry strokes, bleeding, graininess, wash, smudge; the infinite modulation of dark and light values; shapes, volume, and movement; and the potential composition of these elements into a lively, informative, beautiful drawing.
I see a lot of things at once when I’m looking at a model posing: the overall posture or gesture of the body, areas of light and dark, an array of interconnected volumes of mass and space, lines goin' ever’-which-a-way, shapes, rhythms, colors. To the extent that my motivating interest is in playing with marks, composing, drawing, what do I actually do with the model?
If it’s a short pose, say five minutes, I'll have time to observe and note down only a limited amount of specific detail about the model, but I’ll get a pretty good take on the general overall gesture. Primarily what I'm after is the exercise I mentioned above: training my observation and memory to see the gesture fast, to remember its sweep and direction, clusters of volume, of light and dark; and to attempt to indicate the three-dimensionality of real life by making marks on what is, after all, a flat surface. This sounds complicated, and it is. That's why the training and practice are so necessary and useful.
There's a real thrill seeing a short but dynamic and tense pose, a twist of torso which reveals the splay of ribs and shoulder blade along the back, or the contraction and articulation of leg muscles in a stretch or bend. But a pose offers plenty more to look at besides muscular tension: coloration, rhythms of light and dark or the rhythms of volume sequences, the influence of gravity on flesh, the swing of a posture, etc. When it's a longer pose, maybe fifteen minutes or even three hours, there's more of an opportunity to study details. If I'm aiming at a more 'finished' work, I often start with brief, light marks to indicate reference points of the pose (top of the head, shoulders, hips, etc.); or light, tentative lines to show the overall gesture and proportions, and to place the figure on the page in a compositionally decisive way; then I develop the drawing in stages.
Drawing a long pose in more detail, I usually make careful adjustments of proportion. The actual length of a model's arm, in the context of the size of his torso, his legs, his head, will be different if it is stretched out sideways on the drawing surface, or if it is coming straight at me in the studio and needs to be foreshortened on the page. It’s definitely possible to imagine and to improvise such differences of size and shape directly on the paper, to 'make it up.' But in my work I get a tremendous boost out of being able to actually put my eyes on the real model, make my visual measurements of scale and relative proportion, try to lay this out on the page, examine my drawing, and then be able to check my drawing against the actual model in life and make corrections and adjustments as needed. Being able to look again, to re-see, to indulge in re-vision, this is one of the precious opportunities offered by the presence of a live model. In other words, the model is there for me to study.
The model is an incredibly generous source of visual details. There are few situations in life in which we are given the opportunity to visually graze other human bodies, at a kind of unhurried pace, for pleasure and for information. The professional model invites us to this kind of leisure gaze, this particular form of visual intimacy. In addition, models will hold poses, sometimes particularly strenuous and dynamic, which normally we would see for a few minutes at most, often for a few seconds, or more likely as a fleeting stage in an active motion. This is physically demanding work, and is basically a gift the model offers to us who draw.
Sometimes as I'm drawing I'll suddenly notice, say, the turn of muscle and shadow under an elbow and coming up the forearm -- shapes and delineations I've never seen before -- and it'll make me literally gasp with astonishment and pleasure. Like, "Wow!" And the model offers a virtually infinite supply of such visual nuances: surface effects of light or texture, arabesques of line, anatomical particularities of musculature, traces or protrusions of the underlying skeletal structure, gestural details such as the angle of a hand or head, all combining in a specific individual human 'presence.'
But I’m not simply trying to make exacting two-dimensional replicas of the model. My imagination, my experience with the tools and materials, my memories of other bodies and other drawings, my sense of what's 'right', all come into play. Some of my drawings are more 'exact' or precisely descriptive of the model. Others are looser, and seem to focus more on the organic life of the marks themselves than on precise re-presentation. I try to be responsive to both these motivations, to merge the expressiveness of the model with my own intuitive energy of expression.
The work of my eyes is critical in this process, and in order to register the beautiful nuances of the model my mind needs to be clear and relaxed. In addition, I want to be receptive to the quieter, subtler nuances of interior feeling, free from the distractions of external or internal clamor. This kind of attention is quite different from a state of sexual alertness. I have found in my own work that sexual interest operates as an interference with the drawing process. I'm not trying to claim that I never experience any sexual interest in a nude model, or to downplay any sentimental or romantic aspects of working from the nude. But in order to pursue my work deliberately and conscientiously I sublimate this interest, to transform it into a sensual experience of eyeballs, hand and mark. Other artists have reported this same experience. I think this transformative capability is a necessary function for an artist. One of the greatest rewards of my life as an artist has derived from the recognition and nurturing of my eyes as primary organs of pleasure. One of my goals as an artist is to create work which nourishes this sensibility in others.
These ruminations do not pretend to cover every aspect of life drawing. I’ve pretty much stuck to some of my own major concerns in drawing from life. I hope my remarks generate a better understanding of the complex process of drawing and the function of the model. I hope they illuminate this marvelous special zone we call Figure Drawing. And I hope they serve as a reminder that the authentic work of artists has everything to do with functions of witness and of honoring, and our shared identity as human beings.
Copyright 2014 Robert Ross