I’ve read a lot of books about life drawing and tried for many years to figure out a way to find success at drawing from the model in life drawing. I don’t have much time to attend life drawing at work so most of my drawing from life consists of carrying a sketchbook and sketching people I see as I wait in line at the movies or while my kids play at a local park (on the rare occasions they let me stop playing with them for a few minutes!). I must admit that my motivation to attend life drawing sessions at work is low anyway because I am always frustrated by the experience. My drawings always seem disjointed – it looks like I drew all the parts of the model individually and they don’t flow together in a pleasing way.
The work I do in my sketchbook is more successful – there are still some clunkers here and there, but by and large I am pleased and surprised by my results, and I find sketching to be rewarding and enjoyable. However in life drawing, I almost never produce any work that I like at all and I find the experience frustrating and unpleasant. So obviously I would be a fool if I didn’t examine this phenomenon and ask myself what the difference is and why one method seems to work while the other doesn’t work at all.
When using my sketchbook, I am always drawing people on the move as they go about their lives. Unlike life drawing, these people aren't posing for me and they rarely sit still in one place long enough for me to get a really get a good look at all of their parts. So my method when sketching in public has become like this: I glance at the subject, get a split-second impression that inspires a drawing and lay it down in my sketchbook within about 5-10 seconds, usually without another glance at my subject. On the rare cases that I do look back at the subject it’s just once, very quickly, to double-check a detail (on the infrequent times that they're still there).
So I record the parts of the figure that inspired the drawing first and then I rely on my imagination to finish out the parts of the drawing that I can vaguely remember or didn't get a good look at with my initial glance. Usually the face, the head and the overall body shape and proportions are the things that I spark to and try to capture on the page. But there are always part of the figure that I wasn't focused on in my initial look and so I have to fill those parts in as best I can. And when I am filling in parts from my imagination, I naturally use the only criteria I can: I have to invent shapes that work with what I've already drawn to make a completed drawing that looks good.
So in other words I do a quick drawing that combines a quick visual impression combined with some design choices to fill in the rest.
By contrast, when I'm drawing from the figure in life drawing, I have the "advantage" of a model that I can reference as much as I want while I draw. And that becomes the problem: because the model is sitting there, totally still, my mind becomes convinced that the whole point of life drawing is to copy the model, as exactly as possible, onto the paper in front of me.
Now anybody can read that last sentence and tell you that trying to create an exact copy of the model on paper is going to be a recipe for failure. I remember even back at CalArts twenty years ago a fellow student complained to me that our life drawing teacher was encouraging us to simplify and organize what we were seeing, rather than telling us to transcribe the model onto paper faithfully, which this student thought was the way to do a good life drawing. Just hearing this person say that it was instantly clear to me that trying to draw exactly what you could see on the model was going to be a recipe for disaster. It was pretty evident from that exchange that one key to great life drawing is to use the model for inspiration and capture the essence of the model and the pose while using design to make a pleasing picture.
That's why my sketchbook drawings work when they do: I am filling in the gaps in my memory, using design to make choices instead of trying to remember exactly what I saw.
Albert Einstein said "Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution." I think of that quote all the time while drawing (at least the first, more famous part of that quote) because in drawing it is always important to remember that design is more important than knowledge.
It seems like such an obvious statement to say that using design principles will help improve a drawing far more than the most detailed knowledge of anatomy ever could, and yet, too often when I sit in front of the model I suddenly forget everything I know about design and I try only to slavishly copy the model. I struggle to capture the exact form of her feet in space and fret over every wrinkle of her knee so that I will finally know how to draw the world's greatest knees. It's no wonder my drawings end up looking like a mass of disorganized parts: all I am doing is recording bits of a model and not thinking about the whole of the drawing.
The times I've had success at life drawing were the times I used the model as inspiration, as a starting point, but when my eye drifts from the model to the paper my mind switches to design mode, and instead of remembering how many bumps of the external oblique are visible, I am thinking how to offset the curve of her stomach against the curve of her back so they are asymmetrical. I am thinking about making one side of her leg more of a straight and the other side more of a curve. I am finding a rhythm that captures her pose and also works as an abstract composition. I am dividing her tangle of hair into small, medium and large shapes so there is an order to her hair that is far more pleasing to the eye than if I faithfully recorded every wayward strand.
So to beat a dead horse for the thousandth time: design principles are more important than anything else in the creation of a successful drawing (as well as painting, photograph or any other piece of visual art).
I know, I know, that sound I hear ringing out across the land is a collective: "well, duh". Followed by "...and don't paraphrase Albert Einstein, you moron."
It's one of those truths that seem completely evident but reams and reams of crummy drawings are created every day and poor design choices are usually the cause. Like most things that are amazing, life-changing truths, basic design concepts seem so simple and obvious that we don't treat them with the reverence they deserve. Most first-year art students (if they're anything like me) hears the basic principles of design and rolls their eyes while saying "yeah, I know, but tell me the real secret of drawing, okay?" not realizing that there's really nothing else to drawing but basic design. Just for clarification, here's a list of some basics that I find apply to every life drawing: rhythm, straights against curves, offset curves (basically, making sure that no two curves are symmetrical), using a variety of small, medium and large shapes, and balancing areas of detail with blank areas for the eye to rest.
Anyway those are a few tidbits to keep in mind next time you go to life drawing...everyone has their own way of approaching design and their own technique that works for them, all I can do is to articulate mine and hope it helps spark an idea in you that works for you.
And for something that seems so obvious and self-evident, I am surprised that books about life drawing don't talk about this much. I guess it's because it's so unbelievably obvious that most people would be insulted if a book felt the need to remind them. But sitting in front of a real live model and undertaking the daunting task of turning them into a work of art by using the same techniques that Rembrandt and Michaelangelo used...well, that can make the most basic of truths fly out of your head, only to be replaced by a voice saying "okay, record that bump there, and make sure you capture that weird little shadow there, and draw all of the toenails exactly right..."
The only book I can ever remember reading about this in was, I think, Robert Fawcett's book on life drawing called "On the Art of Drawing" (or it may have been "Drawing the Nude"). If memory serves (and I know I wrote a post about it long ago), he wrote that he didn't actually know anything about anatomy: he just looked at the live model and applied design principles to what he observed to create a great drawing. He asserted that he had never really studied anatomy and had no use for it. Design was all that he needed. At the time I read that, it was so contrary to my established way of thinking that I almost couldn't comprehend it, but now I see the wisdom and the truth of what he was saying. Also, my guess would be that as an illustrator, he probably was in the habit of taking photographic reference of figures for each painting he did so that he was rarely faced with making up figures in his head. For those of us that have to make up characters and poses every day, it is probably more essential for us to know a bit about anatomy. Nevertheless, his point is well taken.