Recently, Patricia Godvin of Bozeman, Montana wrote, “As an artist who works with the nude figure, I find so little quality dialogue or artists’ exchange of ideas concerning this subject. I would love you to stimulate some discussion on working with the unclothed figure.”
Thanks, Patricia. Have you ever noticed that paintings of nudes come and go in popularity? In the galleries I work with, there are currently very few. Back in art school the nude was de rigueur and I actually thought I was getting the hang of it. In those days, most of our models were women. Perhaps the current decline is because the idea of “woman as object” is not as popular as it once was.
I recently passed by a classroom full of women furiously drawing a nude guy. It seemed a comment on our times and a subject for a New Yorker cartoon.
Fact is, the unclothed figure, male or female, is an education in waiting. Above spheres, cones and blocks, the human figure is key to understanding light and form. Michelangelo went so far as to say, “One who does not master the nude cannot understand the principles of architecture.” Student artists neglect figurative work at their peril. Painting or drawing nudes with facility was a rite of passage for past members of the Brotherhood and Sisterhood. Fortunately, underground vestiges of the cult still exist. “The naked form,” said Auguste Rodin, “belongs to no particular moment in history; it is eternal, and can be looked upon with joy by the people in all ages.”
Well, maybe not by all people in all ages. Whole cultures are currently trying to get more and more folks to cover up. Is the world turning once again toward some sort of Puritan modesty, equating skin with prurience and sin? Might this be partly because of recent Western art trends depicting naked depravity? Was, as some critics think, Toulouse Lautrec the naughty one who set the orgy in motion? Perhaps we might, within the anatomy of our imaginations, think once more of the naked body as a vessel of grace, taste and wonder. In the spotted history of art, stranger things have happened.
PS: “The body always expresses the spirit whose envelope it is. And for him who can see, the nude offers the richest meaning.” (Auguste Rodin)
Esoterica: Our bodies, apart from their brilliant role as drawing exercises, are the temples of our being. Like the bodies of all fauna, they deserve both our study and our appreciation. Few there are who object to a naked dog, cat, horse or parakeet. The Society for the Encouragement of Modesty in Animals (SEMA) attracted only 72 members before its website went blank. I once considered a program to put shorts on dogs, but Dorothy rejected the garment and made an unpleasant fuss. There’s something natural about au naturel. But when, for art’s sake, will au naturel make its next comeback? “What is the body? That shadow of a shadow of your love that somehow contains the entire universe.” (Rumi)
Better than psychiatry
by Catherine Stock, France
I organise and attend weekly life drawing sessions. To my mind, they serve the same purpose as sessions with a shrink, as all my feelings, sometimes good and sometimes bad, are exorcised onto paper. My life drawings don’t sell but they are my purest and best work and keep me sane.
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by John Crowther, Los Angeles, CA, USA
I attend a weekly uninstructed figure drawing workshop with some remarkable artists. One of the most fascinating paradoxes of my life, counter-intuitive really, is that my figure drawing skills have improved thanks to my cartooning, not the other way around as one might expect. I cartoon from the images in my head; I draw the figure from the model. But the reality of live models is that they move. It’s what I call “pose drift.” If you’re not aware of it, all the “mapping” you do in the early stages is out the window by the time you’ve completing your drawing. Robert Henri brilliantly said that in his ideal figure drawing class the model would be in one room and you would actually draw in another. You capture the model in your mind, then go to the next room and draw.
Nudes are hot
by Doug Swinton, Calgary, AB, Canada
I have painted the nude for a long time. I have also painted the landscape for a long time. Landscapes sell well in galleries. No one wants nudes. Recently my second out-of-town gallery was purchased and thus had new owners who had never owned a gallery before. The new owners of my second gallery started taking nudes from the moment they saw them, sighting that they were beautiful and should have no problem selling — maintaining an, “I will take anything that will sell” attitude. My first gallery has always maintained, “Nudes just don’t sell” “We can’t give a charcoal away.” Meantime, gallery-two now sells them all the time. Recently, gallery-one came to the studio to pick up some new work and saw framed nudes ready for gallery-two. “Really, you give them these and they sell them??” “Yes,” I said. Not to be outdone, the reluctant gallery took two drawings. Two days later they called to see if I had more, as they had not even hung any on the wall yet and one sold. I now sell nudes quite well in both galleries. I’m not sure why but I hear galleries say all the time, “No we don’t take nudes. They don’t sell.” I can tell you if you don’t have any on your walls, they sure won’t sell.
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An emotional experience
by Ingrid Christensen, Calgary, AB, Canada
The privilege of studying and painting a nude model is something that generates huge emotion in the class that I teach. One of my female students was near tears as she painted the angel-faced, young woman who had been posing for us for the past three hours. The painter said that she pictured all that life still had in store for this innocent girl and felt protective and worried for her.
Though model breaks don’t give much time for getting to know these women, I find that, at the end of the class, all of the painters express warmth and gratitude to them for the generosity of what they’ve provided: an opportunity to look deeply at humanity in all its grace and frailty.
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Bedeviled by ‘The Shadow’?
by Travis Apel, Omaha, NE, USA
Perhaps Ms. Godvin’s view is determined by a bias that has been forged and conditioned for a long period of time. Maybe her governing thoughts are due to the haunting, Jungian archetype, the Shadow. This archetype is one that represents alienation, a sinister danger to a mysterious and uncomfortable scenario which can create cognitive dissidence. If I could guess, her predetermined judgement is etched in her amygdala part of the brain and should be regarded as irrelevant because of its subjective memory bank.
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In praise of older women
by Terrie Christian, Plymouth, MN, USA
Part if my own art journey has been the human form and I think it has value. I did both male and female drawings at an atelier school and it was good for my education and even has informed some of the more abstract things I do today. One of my favorite artists is Alice Neal and I love her willingness to use her own body even as an older, wider woman. Recently, one of my art friends brought a magazine that had an article about Sigmund Freud’s son that featured a painting that he did of an older, thicker woman. All in our group are over 50, not all of us wider, but we all loved that painting. With so much of the imagery these days of almost emaciated models and the concentration on youthful bodies, I would wish that artists who want to paint the body choose many different body types to honor as art. Everybody has beauty in their own way.
A dated idea
by Richard Harper, Memphis, TN, USA
I learned to draw in life classes. The human body is difficult to draw, but well enough known that any mistake is quickly visible. Today I prefer drawing & painting from people with their clothes on. This allows more variation of shapes. The nude is a dated idea that while attractive to viewers is still a picture of a naked person and all that implies. One complaint I have with nude models, especially in long poses, is that their goal is to be comfortable — posing is hard. I have posed for a class myself and we had an hour long pose in a freezing cold room. I grew tired and was able to utter, “I think I’m about to faint” a second before I did faint. Upon coming to I had the wherewithal to comment, “I dreamed of waking up naked in a room of people.” How the drawings turned out I don’t know. I prefer talking to my subjects while I draw and paint them. They are more engaged this way and I can see it in their muscles.
Can’t fake anatomy
by Jill Wagner, Saline, MI, USA
Even though I am mainly a plein air painter, I love going to figure drawing class every week. I think it is the absolutely best way to learn to “see” and then “translate what you see.” It is easy to fake a tree or a flower, but it is instantly noticeable when a limb or muscle does not read correctly in a painting. Our bodies are probably our most intimate subject and we know it better than any other. I feel earning to draw the human form is imperative for all artists. Now if only all galleries and museums also valued nude paintings.
The contemporary nude
by Teresa Posyniak, Calgary, AB, Canada
I have drawn and painted from nude models for many years and incorporated this imagery in my work. As an art student in the seventies, I was expected to learn to draw from the model as an exercise, among many others. I guess it stuck with me, and ten years after graduating with my MFA, I found myself working with the nude again. I approached the subject of the nude in a more personal way and appreciated the individuality of my subjects, who became inspirations for some of my work. Thus, the nude, for me, was not an object. The women (and male models) were not objects, and I didn’t view them as such. The Nude became a way to deal with the issues of vulnerability and resiliency. For instance, in 2010 I had a solo exhibition at the Glenbow Museum which focused on my triptych, “I Speak my Daughter Tongue.” This piece portrayed a couple (both nude) holding a bundle of their late daughter’s t-shirts… as an expression of their grief. The Glenbow Museum in Calgary chose my work as a ‘contemporary’ approach to the Nude. My website has some details of the work as well as the writing about it and other works.
Hooked on the human figure
by Karen Martin Sampson, Sayward, BC, Canada
I have been fascinated with the human form and face since I started drawing as a small child. Most of my work has involved the human figure, especially nudes. Lately I have been doing more draped figures, but with the underlying form of the figure still being present. I have found that there is not a huge market for many of my figurative pieces, but many have sold over the years. I have even had a gallery turn down my work because they considered themselves a “family” business and didn’t want to offend anyone with nudes in their gallery! No matter how often I am prevailed upon by others to do more “marketable” subjects, I am hooked on the human figure.
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Where there’s a will, there’s a way
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
Unfortunately, my nude figure work does not garner income and comes with all the clichés attached in a very puritanical society.
Figure paintings are in a Renaissance and those who have spent years learning the figure are now in the forefront of figure painting. The East Coast of America is the hub for figure painters, not Montana. Although my teacher moved there some years ago, his work is valued and sold primarily on the East Coast. One aspect of figure painting is you can use them in paintings but not so much as subject matter. Also I use my nude studies to get the proportions correct, then paint the figure in clothes for finished works. This has been done by the masters. I have even gone so far as to clothe old nude figure paintings and re-title them. These have done better and I am slowly bringing down my inventory. In addition, I do still life and landscape for the money, though my passion is with figure work. Don’t stop painting what is in your heart. But think about the practical side and establish your reputation by being an all-around painter. Lastly, I use the landscape as a foil for my figure work. Much of what you see on my site were at once nudes now re-painted with clothes in landscapes and urbanscapes. There may come a time when nudes will be again appreciated but not until we lose our stifling, puritanical thinking.
As for women as object, there too, it’s all in the way we look at things. Women can and are painted with style and grace toward women hood and not as sex objects. It’s all in your approach.
I’ve painted nude men, but on the practical side, they don’t sell. Here again, though, things are changing with the freedom of sexual choice and inclinations. I do sell nude men and get requests for original works of men to male clients. So, where there is a will, there is a way.
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oil painting 12 x 16 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Nick Banderas who wrote, “Where did you get those shorts to put on your dog?”
(RG note) Thanks, Nick. They’re actually my shorts, but it’s okay because I washed them before I put them on Dorothy.
And also Dorothy Gardiner of Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA, who wrote, “After studying and sculpting the nude figure for many years, my 11 year old son pleaded, ‘Mom, could you please put some clothes on those naked people all over the house. Every time my friends come over they laugh and tease me!’ ”
And also Susan Marx of Orange, NJ, USA, who wrote, “There is a difference between nude and naked. It is the artist’s intention that is important.”
Enjoy the past comments below for A strange situation…