In college, I was required to take figure drawing/painting classes. I honestly really didn’t get into them at all. As a subject, it just held no interest for me. I didn’t understand why that practice mattered. Through the years, I’ve sat through some figure drawing sessions by choice, it seemed like a necessary exercise I guess?— but not until the last few years has it kicked into an important place in my practice.
It was maybe 3 years ago (which means it was probably 5 years ago…lol) that I started regularly working again from the figure. My friend, Royce Deans, holds figure drawing sessions at least twice a week, so I had easy access. For the first year or so, I often stopped at the recycling station on my way home to chuck in all my drawings…it wasn’t about the outcome but the process. And by discarding all the drawings, (mostly charcoal or crayon on newsprint) I didn’t have any pressure to produce something finished. Look, focus, draw, discard, repeat. I didn’t honestly think too much about it. It was engaging while I was doing it and that was enough. I had always wanted to draw more so here was a weekly opportunity.
I try with some regularity to set up different scenarios in my work that might offer the possibility of some new understanding. So in addition to drawing with charcoal or pencil on paper during these sessions, I started painting with acrylic on playing cards, using a 3/4″ filbert brush. The challenges for me stemmed around how to get the shapes to function on that little card. Decisions about where to crop and how to adjust scale started to matter more than the rendering of the figure. Even though the little paintings became more realistic, which rather surprised me, I was thinking about them in an abstract manner.
I started to see subtle changes in my landscape paintings. I added marks to represent figures in beach paintings. It totally amazed me how a sense of scale was instantly realized. (duh!) But more than that kind of an obvious change, I realized that I was able to look with so much more focus when painting.
For this past year, I’ve been mostly working in acrylic on mat board, 8 x 10 or smaller. Using large pots of paint and 1/2″-1″ brushes I can move paint around freely. In the last two months I dropped color and only work in black and white. The organizational structure of the figure sessions offers a perfect variation to me as a plein air painter. It’s inside, there’s tables and chairs and easels, the model is right in front of me, I don’t have to make decisions about where to go, what to paint. It’s way more than ‘doing my scales’ as a musician might do in warm up. It’s really evolved into a necessary part of my practice that I look forward to.
I continue to feel that increased ability to focus when working in my landscape paintings both outside and in the studio. To be able to dial in and make decisions about what is important. And to recognize when the focus is waining and I need a break before jumping back in. I guess my overall takeaway for now is really the ‘awareness’ of focus and how important it is. I never would’ve guessed that I’d find in in the figure drawing studio.