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Figure Drawing

April 7, 2019

Lately, my “day job” as a self-employed builder has distracted me from my creative time. Scheduling art into an already full schedule, at the end of an exhausting day, is difficult. The one exception is figure drawing, which is a practice I have tried to maintain, off and on, ever since art school. These are like scheduled appointments, with models and other artists or students, which I tend to keep.


I have been teaching figure drawing at the Community School of Music and Art, in Ithaca for several years. It’s satisfying because it is hard. As a teacher or a student there is always more to learn. I treat it as if it were a practice like Yoga; the point is not to end up with good drawings but to develop a habit of good drawing. When I teach, I refer to Eugen Herrigel’s short story, Zen and the Art of Archery where the master teaches his pupil that hitting the target is secondary to making a “right shot”. It’s an interesting pedagogical approach where good learning takes precedent over anticipated performance.


I also participate in model sessions, an age-old tradition where a group of artists sit around a nude model and draw. In this age of digital technology it is refreshing to do something in the same way it has been done for centuries. Except for the electric lights and music played on an i-phone, It is still the same dusty charcoal and smudgy pencil, and the models, aside from a tattoo here or there, could have walked out of the Renaissance. Stripped bare, we are all reduced to our basic humanity, timeless and universal.


In cataloging my drawings, which number in the thousands if you count all of the pages in my sketchbooks, I realize I have this whole body of work that has never been seen except by me. Even when I am having a good session and producing “right shots” only a few land squarely on the page; this is the norm, and editing is a part of the process. After a thorough culling, I have at least a hundred decent drawings. Why don’t I show these? Why do I consider this work an aside? Certainly, if you know my work with its sexualized organic forms and rolling seductive landscapes, you can see how figure drawing has informed my process. If drawing is the source, what better place for the viewer to drink?


You don’t see a lot of contemporary figure drawing and sculpture in galleries. Museums are full of old master figurative works but few shows are dedicated to current artist working in the vein. In the inner circles of the art world, figurative work is the exception, even though at one time it was central. One outlier is Jenny Sayville, whose luscious paintings of large women have set a recent record at Sotheby’s for a living artist.

Locally, I can’t think of one gallery that would show nude drawings. Unfortunately, in this sensitive age one has to tiptoe around the issue of nudity, especially when children may be present. I’m not talking Alberto Vargas pinups, but simply drawings that are inspired by the human form, something that everyone can relate to. Some refer to them as “nudes” while raising their eyebrows. I am inspired by the beauty of the models I draw, yet the beauty I seek is not any kind of sexualized stereotype. Each model has their own unique attributes that inspire me to draw. I prefer the female form for its (yes, I am objectifying- but with an artist’s eye) softer lines and less pronounced muscles, but robust males are interesting too. The pose is as important as the model but only some models really know how to pose (knowing yoga is a plus). As for any kind of eroticism, yes, it can be there, as it can be anywhere, but the truth is, if you are really drawing you are way too focused on capturing the complexity to even start down that path. Typically you have only five or ten minutes to capture it all. By design, the model session is an incredibly trusting and safe environment. In academic settings, as most model sessions are, any introduction of the erotic is absolutely forbidden. As an artist, it is a privilege to be able to study the body of another so closely, and one, that like a doctor, we treat with care and respect.


One thing that I love  about drawing the figure, is that I have come to know our intricate inner workings. I teach superficial or artist anatomy: the parts we can see and how they relate to what is happening on the inside. When I look at a person, I can see the skeletal structure and muscles, I can see the flaws and perfections, the pain and the beauty that we all carry. I’ve had many x-rays and other imaging of my own body; these fascinate me like the medical anatomy books I pored over as a kid. I can talk specifics as I discuss my injuries to my doctors and physical therapist. It’s a visceral way of knowing myself.


I will share a few drawings I have done over the past few decades. They are remarkably consistent in showing my hand, which I think is good. By the names and dates scrawled on each I can remember specific sessions and models. Each captures a moment of concentration free from the distractions of life.


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