At one point in his career (1620), Antwerp’s Peter Paul Rubens had 80 apprentices sketching figures in charcoal and making pounce patterns. In the 1920s every American art school held figure drawing classes. The Roaring ’20s may have been roaring but, apart from the African issues of National Geographic, the figure drawing class was the only legitimate access to nudity.
National competitions for student drawings were held and the results often published. One such, from 1927, is among my vintage book collection. It shows the year’s winners — each briefly noted as follows: “Morris Schwartz, pupil of Kimon Nicolaides, Art Students League, New York.” The drawings are often a compelling education in themselves. While an unclear division between “imitative, constructive and expressive” was made in the book’s introduction, the usual long-winded appraisals of each drawing were left out. They all look pretty realistic to me.
In those days the undraped figure was the temple of the soul. As such, the model was set up on a plinth or pedestal, often above eye level to the seated or standing artists. Legs are often long and torsos foreshortened. Male models were covered up in brief, female models not so. Lost lines and unresolved forms were commonplace and an aid to avoiding the naughty parts. The results were sensitive, delicate and often understated.
Treatment of light and shadow was interesting. Although there are a few exceptions, details in shadow were avoided in favour of detail in the lit parts. It would be another decade before detail was commonly put into shadow and “dazzled out” in the light parts.
Looking at the craft of these drawings and the attention to type, race and the classical nobility of the models, one might conclude it was a last gasp of decency and propriety. Modernism was looking in the door and a new era was emerging, particularly in Europe, where drawing from the model was on the way out. In Picasso‘s atelier, for example, one eye was up the chimney and the other in the pot. And where, we might ask, is the work of Morris Schwartz today? My goodness, what has happened to civilization?
PS: “To express one’s inner self so that others can understand you, is art. If your expressions are elevated and beautiful, it is good art.” (Author unknown, from the preface of “Fifty Figure Drawings — a Selected Group of the Best Figure Drawings submitted to the Fifty Best Drawing Jury,” 1927)
Esoterica: Many of today’s art schools hold life classes and figure drawing in much the same way as yesteryear. The human figure is accepted as a prime learning tool for form, line, gesture and design. Also, because of the remarkable variety between individual humans, the undraped figure is key to understanding bodily personality. When I was in art school I loved my days in life class. Like a lot of us, I’ve always had a desire to understand varieties of personality, and “bodily” is just one of them.
Figure Drawing, 1927
Figure drawing covers a lot of ground
by Ben Novak, Edmonton, AB and Ottawa, ON, Canada
Figure drawing along with the skill of catching perspectives correctly are, to me, essential prerequisite for an artist’s development. Figure drawing has so many challenges because the viewer is familiar with the form and expects proportions and foreshortened members to be correctly positioned. Add to this the play of light and shadow, and one covers a lot of ground. Speed sketching of figures is also very useful in developing proportions and composition. I like your selection of works.
The Angel Academy
by Tish Lowe, Florence, Italy
Figure drawing is alive and well at the Angel Academy of Art in Florence, Italy, with life drawing daily as required curriculum!
(RG note) Thanks for reminding me, Tish. This is such a great school that we had to add some illustrations.
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by Sandra Taylor Hedges, Cornwall, ON, Canada
When examining figure art I can always tell the artist that has had the experience of a Life Drawing class and those that have not. Seeing the form of a living breathing human is an experience all Artists must give themselves by doing this they will know then how to breathe life into their images even if simplified.
Another experience the avid life drawing Artist should have is being the Life Model. I did this for some much needed cash years ago and gained an insight on the level of professionalism the Model requires to sit motionless for long periods of time and worse still get back into the pose after a break when the body is screaming at you to stop. Not only did I gain respect for the model but I learned how to still my mind and breath, listen and learn from the words the Instructor gave to each student as they were encouraged to see beyond the simple gesture itself. Priceless!
Passionate at life drawings
by Victor Lunn-Rockliffe, London, England
The question I have wrestled with over the last few years is why do I do it? Are my life drawings (up to around 20 in a day — short and longer poses) an end in themselves or merely a means of exercising the drawing muscles? Am I like an athlete exercising in a gym in preparation for the main event or a piano player practicing scales on the keyboard?
The fact that every 6 months or so I go through the pile of drawings and throw 95% away suggests that perhaps I do it just as an exercise. But this conclusion bothered me. Perhaps I should keep more of them? As a compromise, and taking account of severe space constraints in my home — I have no studio — I started to scan or photograph all my drawings before the 6 monthly cull, in order to preserve a record of my hoped for progress (or equally likely regression!) and in the hope that perhaps I might find some use for these images in the future.
Fellow artists expressed severe doubts about the practicality of pressing into different service a bunch of life drawings. Being a stubborn sort, I experimented and figured out a way of assembling a collection of life drawings in homage to the prehistoric cave painters in Chauvet, France. Looking at the work of our primitive ancestors so long ago, it never ceases to amaze me that the creators of these wonderful and evocative drawings clearly struggled with exactly the same issues about line and form that I wrestle with every Monday in the studio! The result of my recycling became a short movie sequence entitled “My Chauvet.”
My raw material for the movie is a series of life drawings I did earlier this year at a Drawing Marathon at the Prince’s Drawing School in London.
(RG note) Thanks, Victor. There was a fellow at Art Center School who became so obsessed with figure drawing that he didn’t get enough of it and complained to the registrar who offered to throw him out if he didn’t pull up his socks on other courses like drawing toasters and armchairs. As a paying guest in the same place as myself, I used to see models coming and going from his room at all hours. Sometimes he would borrow my car to pick them up and take them home. I didn’t think much of it at the time except to admire that he was, like you, so single minded and passionate.
Figure drawing alive and well
by Skip Rohde, Asheville, NC, USA
I run an open session every Wednesday in my studio and there are several other sessions around town everyweek. I’m a figurative artist, so these sessions are important to me. The challenge in figure drawing (for me) is two-fold. One part is to get an accurate rendition of the figure, which requires looking in an almost clinical way at shapes, light, and shadow. The other part is to try to get something of the sitter’s character. One of my models is a very sweet and graceful woman, and I draw her very differently from the one who is bouncy and perky. Getting the character is more difficult than getting the shapes. Some days, all my work is junk; other days (fewer), things happen on paper like magic. I live for those days!
‘Tragic decline in traditional skills’
by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA
For almost a century figure drawing has been dragged down from that plinth you speak of. I know I taught in a major art school here in Rhode Island. In the foundation year — the only year they had basic drawing, one half of the class were told to make marks and the other half had figure drawing. There was some figure drawing for those who went on to illustration. Those who wanted more figurative work had to start and fund an independent class of their own.
Excerpted from an article on the sadly departed Robert Hughes in 2006 in The Australian on the state of figurative art.
“Suppose you come up with the name of a (contemporary) figurative painter whose work is as sublimely impressive as, let us say, Velazquez. I think you’d be really hard put to,” he says.
“There are a couple of really great figurative painters around: there’s Antonio Lopez in Spain and, of course, Lucian Freud in England. But I don’t think you could say that either of these guys were the mirror equivalent of a Velazquez or a Rembrandt. There are times when art, the medium, just isn’t producing exceptional stuff.”
Here is wonderful address Robert Hughes gave on drawing to the Royal Academy in 2004.
“In the 45 years that I’ve been writing criticism there has been a tragic depreciation in the traditional skills of painting and drawing, the nuts and bolts of the profession. In part it has been caused by the assumption that it’s photography and its cognate media – film and TV – that tell the most truth about the visual.
It’s not true. The camera, if it’s lucky, may tell a different truth to drawing — but not a truer one. Drawing brings us into a different, a deeper and more fully experienced relation to the object. A good drawing says, “Not so fast, buster.” We have had a gutful of fast art and fast food. What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in 10 seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media. For no spiritually authentic art can beat mass media at their own game. This was not a problem when the Academy was founded, because in 1769 such media were embryonic or non-existent. A quarter of a millennium later, things are different. But drawing never dies, it holds on by the skin of its teeth, because the hunger it satisfies — the desire for an active, investigative, manually vivid relation with the things we see and yearn to know about — is apparently immortal…”
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by Paula Dougherty, Brooklin, ME, USA
In good figure drawing, one chooses how to express the best possible vision of the human in the allotted time. It is not only about the anatomy to me, more-so the mystery. That is what I noticed in the 1920’s drawings illustrated. There is breath, breadth, and gentleness in the depictions. I will never understand the complexity of the human before me in life drawing, and am not an expert in drawing structure. Yet, if the beauty is expressed by gesture and by the aid of contour drawing techniques whereby one keeps his/her eye on the subject while drawing then, hopefully, an aspect of the person is captured, and wholesomeness results. From your webpage, I was inspired by Kimon Nicolaides ‘s quote: “Committing oneself to a technique causes stagnation.”
(RG note) Thanks, Paula. Kimon Nicolaides (1891-1938) was one of the instructors in the 1927 folio whose ideas have persisted to this day. His book, The Natural Way to Draw — A Working Plan for Art Study is still in print and popular among many instructors and their pupils. A former student of Nicolaides, Mamie Harmon, oversaw the putting together of his notes and published the first edition in 1941.
Big difference at old art school
by Ken Oberste, Little Rock, AR, USA
I have to disagree with your statement: “Esoterica: Many of today’s art schools hold life classes and figure drawing in much the same way as yesteryear.”
I attended a commercial specialty art school in Chicago in the early ’60s. No academic subjects, just art classes. The first year students took a half day of “Fundamental” classes and a half day of “Life” class, drawing from nude models. With the teacher looking over your shoulder, that model was about as sexy as an old shoe. And for the next 3 years, half the day was devoted to life classes, no matter what special class you took the other half day. All the several life classes had double doors that were never closed, so any one, student or visitors, parents or possible future students walking down the hall could hardly miss seeing the model on the stand. Several times I noticed a model walking down the hall wearing nothing but a small open cape flowing behind. No one seemed to give it a second thought.
Well, several months ago I visited Chicago the first time in 60 years and I thought it would be great to visit my old school, which is still in business. What a difference! Besides the fundamental and specialty classes being nothing but students sitting in front of computers, all the life classes were in locked down solid doors that no one was allowed in except the teacher and students of that class. I would say that there is a BIG difference, at least in my old school.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Figure drawing…
Sunrise in the Kaaterskill Clove
oil on panel, 16 x 20 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 Jane Yelliott of Hixson, TN, USA, who wrote, “I could hardly believe my eyes when in your letter you asked, ‘Where is the work of Morris Schwartz today?’ The following is from an email I had just read immediately before yours!!
Morris Schwartz is on his deathbed, knows the end is near, is with his nurse, his wife, his daughter and 2 sons. ‘So,’ he says to them:
‘Bernie, I want you to take the Beverly Hills houses.’
‘Sybil, take the apartments over in Los Angeles Plaza.’
‘Jacob, I want you to take the offices over in City Center.’
‘Sarah, my dear wife, please take all the residential buildings downtown.’
The nurse is just blown away by all this, and as Morris slips away, she says, ‘Mrs. Schwartz, your husband must have been such a hard working man to have accumulated all this property.’
Sarah replies, ‘Property? … hmmmpff … that’s his paper route!’ ”