Life Drawing: History, Tradition and Raison d’Etre

When I attended my first figure drawing class at the beginning of my freshman year in college, I was shocked to see a nude male model standing at the center of the studio. I don’t know what my 18-year-old self, new to the formality and deep tradition of high-level artistic instruction, was expecting. An introduction? An explanatory talk? Some kind of tasteful draping? In any case, that evening represented my trial by fire into the rarified culture of life drawing class. Over the course of the year, the model changed over to a female one, a professional of high endurance and dedication who could hold difficult poses for long stretches of time. Her commitment to excellence was obvious, and she put the entire class, myself included, at ease.

Why, exactly, is life drawing viewed as the requirement, the inarguable prerequisite and foundation for all other forms of artistic expression? Why do we put our college freshmen (and their peers) through it? The answer, too textured for narrow definition, can be traced in clues and examples from prehistoric cave art all the way through ancient Greece, medieval Europe, and Renaissance Italy. The Carraci family, stylistic progenitors of the Baroque movement, instituted figure drawing as the primary focus at their Accademia degli Incamminati in 16th-century Bologna. In 18th-century France, neoclassicists ushered in the acceptance of life drawing as a compulsory form, particularly at the studio of Jacques-Louis David, where students were required to master it before studying painting.

As human beings, we inevitably hold a pronounced, indelible fascination for our own form, and artists have traditionally used this primal, exacting discernment as a standard for measuring the truth and accuracy of their own creative sight. We are hardwired to perceive every possible subtlety and variation of the human body, and it’s easy to tell if an artist is even slightly off in terms of proportion. In life drawing class, the absence of clothing on the subject leaves no room for careless portrayal or vague intention. A working knowledge of anatomy becomes essential, unavoidable, and empowering, because an inherent honesty begins to inform everything attempted—even if the composition is comprised only of a single gesture. An infinite array of challenges is presented by every new pose, angle, or play of the light.

Charcoal is primarily used in life drawing class because of its fluidity, malleability, and ease of manipulation. It serves the student equally well for a series of warm-up gesture drawings or an in-depth, full-length study. Errors can be easily reshaped or wiped away entirely with a kneaded eraser, cloth or the fingertips. Use charcoal instinctively and without hesitation for results true to your own estimation of the human form. With time, practice, and expert instruction, the refinement of your artistic sight will tangibly align with the results you seek in all of your finished work.

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