I have been doing life drawing at a studio down on Spring Street. Generally the sessions are open and you can do what you like. Some people paint or draw. One guy draws entirely on his PowerBook (and fabulously, creating something that looked breathtakingly like a chalk & pastel drawing). Yesterday I went to a three hour anatomy lesson; we studied the innards of the bottom of the foot. Fascinating and baffling.
Drawing the human body is hard. Tackling a nude is the hardest of all. Foreshorten the body with its unfamiliar shapes and angles, all symbols distorted beyond recognition makes the degree of difficulty quite numbingly high.
It’s not just that a body has so many angles and curves. It’s how loaded it is with expectations and meaning. Humans know the human body intuitively and yet not consciously. We are able to spot our species from afar, to judge a fellow man from another among thousands. Have you ever scanned a huge crowd, at a football game or in a train station, and been able to find a familiar face though all you have to go on are tiny differences, the cant of a nose, the miniscule difference in eye size or the relationship between ear and cheekbones? Cut a person’s hair, give them a beard, makeup, a hat, or glasses and, often, we will still manage to pick them out from across a crowded stadium. It’s a life saving skill, finding your mother in a herd, and yet it’s a lobster trap of sorts. We can spot Mom and yet we probably can’t describe her accurately to a police officer with an Indentikit. We can’t recall or reproduce those features which we can so accurately judge.
When drawing the human body, unclothed — a sight we actually behold quite rarely in the flesh (and yet think about several times an hour) — we have to ditch all our baggage and try to see clearly without judgment, breaking it down into components, lines, shadows, angles and curves. And yet the inaccuracies we might get away with when drawing an apple or a car or a building are completely unacceptable when drawing a person. The tiniest miscalculation in the angle of a nose turns Mary into Sue or possibly Bob. On the other hand, if we slow down too much, become too accurate, too calculated, we will never capture Mary’s balance and weight, she will be a two dimensional cut-out instead of a body with mass and volume, with no sense of the bone, muscle, and fat that lie beneath the skin. And most challenging of all, we will fail to capture her humanity, her personality and character, her spark of life. She will be just a body, a slab of flesh, an animal, a cadaver, and not Mary.
Seeing humans is extraordinarily hard because it requires the usual cool, calm, objective sight that lets us draw still lifes and landscapes and yet a much healthier dollop of subjectivity. We can read Bridgman and learn all the tricks that make joints turn and proportions accurate, but we will end up with comic books heroes or mannequins. To be Degas or Rodin, we must work and work to internalize these principles so they become unconscious, second nature, so that we can suffuse them with feeling and response to the actual person before us, not a faceless hulk but a living breathing person whom we can lust for or pity, love or disdain. Investing that human feeling is at the core of all successful art, even when it’s not depicting human anatomy. To draw a peach or a beach or a leach, and make the viewer feel something real about it, we must transcend technique and approach the truth about how we feel about peaches and leaches, about the world, about ourselves, a truth that is simultaneously intensely personal and completely universal.
Practice makes perfect. By mastering technique, anatomy, light, color, materials, we push them into the background and let our selves take the helm — honest, open, caring, judgmental, flawed, true. Drawing humans is incredibly hard because to do it really well, we must let ourselves be a little naked too.