On Life Drawing

In the June 27th issue of the New Yorker, there was an article by Adam Gopnik called ‘Life Studies’ about how he took art lessons (sort of) to learn to draw. You need to be a subscriber to read it, but the link is here anyway. If this interests you, hopefully you can beg, borrow or steal a copy. My s.o., Annie, gave it to me saying I might find it interesting. She was right.

Gopnik is an art critic, and writes extensively about art and culture… but it seems he felt a bit like an imposter since he spent all that time talking, writing and thinking about what made some art good and other art bad and yet he felt he could not draw a convincing stick figure. The article tells of Gopnik forming a friendship with an artist who gives lessons in life drawing (i.e.: drawings where one draws directly from observation, striving to make the marks on the paper resemble the ‘real thing’ as much as possible). By the end of the article, Gopnik doesn’t feel that he has become a good draftsman, but he does feel like he has at least learned a new appreciation for the art of representation. There is a lot more to the article than this pat little summary (including some fascinating glimpses into how his friend tries to teach Gopnik how to draw from life), but that’s the part I found myself thinking about today.

Gopnik’s artist friend, Jacob Collins, considers himself a bit of an ‘artistic throwback’ to art’s past. He doesn’t draw or paint anything other than what he sees with his own eyes. Collins impresses upon Gopnik that when most people sit down to draw something, they don’t look at the thing they are drawing — they look at the paper and draw what they think that thing looks like. So we are drawing ‘symbols’ rather than the thing itself.

I had occassion to think about this when I was talking to someone about some drawings I have been working on for a collaborative project. She was explaining why the drawings didn’t quite work for her, and that was frustrating for me (who likes to hear that they have to do something over again?). Suddenly I wondered if part of the problem was that I wasn’t drawing anything other than the ‘representation stuck in my head’ of things. As I looked at the drawings under discussion, all of the faces of the characters started looking alike to me — these were not individuals, they were just place markers or chess pieces. Perhaps I had to at least spend more time looking at source materials and inspiration before drawing something rather than just relying on my imagination, simply because my imagination may have started to travel down some very well worn paths recently, especially as I have gotten busier and some drawings have felt more like ‘work’ than ‘fun.’

One goal for the coming months is to try to do a bit more research and preparation before I sit down to draw. I can’t hire models or limit myself to drawing/painting plaster casts, wine bottles and drapes, but I can at least try to find photographs and attempt to make the people in the pictures a bit more differentiated. Expect to hear more about this current experiment, especially in about 3 weeks when I (hopefully) will have finally finished the big mosaic commission that is kicking my butt right now.

(above, left: some studies of hands by Da Vinci)


One Comment on “On Life Drawing”

  1. kelvingreen says:

    As part of my day job, I see a lot of new people every day, so I see a lot of faces. What I've realised is that all those rules you get taught about how people look, proportions, and so on just don't apply in the real world.

    Which is not to excuse wonky anatomy, but it made me realise that if a figure in a drawing looks weird, it's not necessarily because it's wrong. That's been a bit of an eye-opener for me.


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