Exercises in Seeing

On the other side of Ways of Seeing, I’ve been thinking about how the activity of figure drawing could be an antidote to the visual language of publicity. Surely, formal figure drawing sessions use a set visual vocabulary that belongs to the tradition of oil painting Berger connects to advertisement; the models I’ve drawn usually take classical poses that hardly resemble the physicality of people generally, and they tend to appear especially able-bodied. Still, despite the cultural prescriptions of a formal session, translating by hand a three-dimensional form into a two-dimensional image—aiming to be true to both real-life proportions and expression—can ask the translator to short-circuit acquired knowledge to get at sight and the drawing hand’s most easeful movement.

For example, if you ask me to draw a nose in a frontal view from memory, I will draw what I know of a generalized nose: two nostrils, like watermelon seeds, framed by parenthetical lines meant to be the flesh around the holes, a roundish shape or U for the tip, and two lines extending up from the tip, narrowing some toward the brow to form the bridge. And the result will look little like a real nose or the feeling of a nose, but will possess all the features I know a nose to have. If I then draw from life, using myself as the model, my own nose becomes an alien being on my face. The longer I look, the more my nose takes on a face of its own, with the nostrils as eyes, and the more my hand is thrown into confusion. My hand must relax to be responsive to what I see and how I see it; and the continuous comparison, in the process of drawing, between the thing observed and what the hand produces, causes me to adjust my eyes, my hand, and what I know over and over again.

When I join the figure-drawing group at Kroeber Hall on Saturdays, this is what I’m after. I don’t go there to get the first draft of a gesture to be developed later into a finished piece, or to refine my technique and gain mastery over different drawing materials to have the skill needed to make a finished piece. I go there to be quiet among other people, with different skills and experience and motivations, drawing quietly, and refresh my ability to see. I don’t feel capable of or interested in using the issue of figure drawing to find ideas worthy of a wrastle. I use the activity as a way to practice undoing ideas, as continual preparatory work for seeing my way through dissembling to what composes it. For that reason, I prefer the short poses to the long ones. With the two- and five-minute poses, there’s no time for the analysis paralysis that leaves on the page a stiff cartoon modeled in a range of mousy middletones. The short pose requires you to act if you want to get anything on paper.

What follows may look like a how-to, but it’s meant as a to-how. The approaches given don’t need to be followed in sequence. They also don’t all need to be done in the process of making one image; one method or several, in any combination, can be used to inch toward understanding a form. In other words, these means aren’t offered with the intention of leading a drawer through to the completion of a defined end (e.g., drawing Abraham Lincoln in ten easy steps).

Credit for these exercises is due to a teacher I had who taught me as an undergrad in the same classroom of Kroeber Hall where I draw today: Jane Rosen. Jane had the presence of Rodin’s cloaked Balzac and the skin of a cattle rancher. The sculpture of Balzac comes to mind when I remember her because I associate her so strongly with drapery and its drama. Something about the way her arm moved when she demonstrated, with ink and brush, drawing drapery she’d arranged into strong, mostly vertical folds. The motion she made with the brush—between a downward stab and the first stroke in the sign of the cross and the even drag of a spatula across piped icing—was gravity in a gesture. It suggested a mass accelerating toward earth.

Besides drapery, I think of her with coffee: carrying around a takeaway cup from Caffe Strada as she taught, then popping off the lid once the drink went cold, dipping in a brush, and using the coffee as a wash with Conté crayon or charcoal. She could configure improvised and traditional materials into beauty. Anything in reach that could be held and make a mark on a surface could be her drawing tool.

I should also acknowledge that Jane’s pedagogy drew from Renaissance artists. But I’m hoping this reference is vague enough to trouble any urge you might have to research “the masters.” I only mention the connection to say that neither Jane nor I invented these practices, and to be clear that they did appear out of a worldview. However, I hope you’ll look forward—not so much to the supposed progress promised by the future, but at what’s before you—and only emulate those enshrined European artists, whose labor formed a long and sumptuous reel between the Dark Ages and “enlightened” capitalism, by trying on an abstraction of the drawing techniques they developed. Copying the work of the greats isn’t helpful for refreshing sight, because it’s difficult to extricate the images from the cultural lexicon to which they belong and view them only as examples of drawing principles. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I think drawing classical poses from life doesn’t pose the same problem, because the stylized postures live can be understood as ways to hold the body that present the greatest number of anatomical features or perspectival challenges to the greatest number of vantage points around the model. Besides, a formal drawing setting isn’t required; there are so many other ways to draw from life.

The point is to see for yourself. Without any fantasy of originality. Without the aim of expertise. With only the hope that staring off into space just sideways of the heavy interpretative overlay on and of the visible world will help you take on the billboard or the screen as an object in the round. The hope that once you’ve seen the billboard or screen in the round, you can come back to the ad on the arbitrary front and take to task the values assigned to shapes.

So, here are the exercises, sketched out. They have pencil in mind, but most drawing tools besides ink and brush would work.

The model, a person, poses. Their body is a briefly paused gesture. The hand responds by gesturing, moving without pause during the pose, and with the looseness and expressiveness of gesticulating or scribbling a signature. The time limit is the skull stretched at a slant between the two gestures. It makes you go. Mainly, the drawing tool maintains contact with the page. If it lifts off, it hovers above in motion, drawing in the air as if the tip were a bug circling an attractant.

When the person assumes a stance that suggests movement—say, their spine twisting, arms swung out as though to throw a discus, legs lunging—the hand sweeps out a skeleton indicating direction. When the skeleton is laid down as map and overall motion, the hand might direct the tool to curlicue around the form to suggest horizontal and vertical planes. The head, the breasts, the deltoids, the biceps and triceps, the lats, the belly, the buttocks, the quadriceps, the knobby knees, and the gastrocnemius muscles, depending on the view, can be circles and ovals on the two-dimensional plane of the page. Then, all those features, and the body as a whole, goes back into space, occupies a lateral plane, so the tool makes light ellipses around any or all of the form, like peeling an apple in reverse.

Maybe the person’s form contains less movement; maybe they feel blocky. The hand might render them as a mass, like a rough stone for sculpting, flattened on the page; the hand inexactly blocks out the body’s positive space with clumps of somewhat straight lines. With this start, little thought is given to the outline of the shape or what falls in the foreground or background. Once all those strokes are bundled together into a block approximating the figure, extraneous hunks can be knocked off to give the outline and surface shape. In this mode, the tool hits like a miniature machete or chisel; definite, shorter marks—not with the looseness of a signature but of chopping wood.

A few strokes of the tool chip away the limbs. To find the relationship of the limbs to each other and the torso, the eye may focus on negative shapes: for instance, the triangle made by the inside of an arm and the torso with an arm akimbo, or the one made by the inside of the two legs and the floor in a contrapposto with the feet wider than the hips. Another few strokes find the hollows: above the clavicles, on either side of the sternocleidomastoid muscles, under the ribcage, between the ribs, around the scapulae, between the vertebrae, in the notches of the sternum on a lean-chested person, forming the eye sockets. More strokes hack into the block to make folds: under the breasts, at the bent or twisted waist, beneath the buttocks. Then a few dark landmarks can be jabbed onto the page: the navel, the nipples, pubic hair. Among the hard edges, a jumbled doodle for the male genitals when they’re there: the penis with some buoyancy and the scrotum with an oozy weight.

Another way into a blocky pose is actually to draw the form as a bunch of blocks. Each block represents a segment of the body: maybe a cube for the head, but rectangular prisms for the other elements enclosed by an articulation or endpoint. These blocks, as cubes and prisms, suggest, in the most basic sense, the three-dimensionality of the body. If the head is a cube or prism and the person is in three-quarter view, then their face, as one plane, will be a parallelogram or trapezoid, the side of the head nearest will be another parallelogram or trapezoid, and, depending on your position and how the person has positioned their head, a third shape, closer to a diamond, will stand in for either the top of the head or underneath the chin.

To refine the proportions once a general frame or positive space is set down, the eye jumps to the most remarkable points on the edges of the form, sizing up the distances and directions of the lines among them, recognizing a constellation. Is this the distance of the bent elbow to the bent knee in this seated pose? Is this the distance from the inside of the bent elbow to the bend in the waist on the same side? Is the ratio of the shoulders’ width to the width of the hips to the foot in this seated pose close to the ratio in life? And the ratio of the thorax to lower part of the trunk and the legs to the trunk and the arms to the whole and the head and neck to the whole in this standing pose close?

These relationships can all be eyeballed. I don’t see the point in holding up a pencil at arm’s length, marking off a unit of one head on the length of pencil with the thumb, and measuring out relative proportions that way. If the proportions are off, the line can always be redrawn. The former line need not be erased. The record of mistakes, reconsiderations, small shifts in the model’s position, gradations of confidence in the line making are the iris of an eye contracting or expanding around the vision of form.

Somewhere on the journey along the axis going into the paper’s plane, the eye sees what muscles appear, from the surface, to sit on top. The deltoids wrap around and on top of the biceps. The pectoralis major muscles feather into the deltoids, also above the biceps, making a shallow gravy boat at the front of the armpit. The muscles of the quadriceps can bulge such that they’re overhanging the kneecaps. And so on.

Jane made us know this through touch. She said we should touch ourselves or, with their permission, someone else to feel how the muscles enfold the bone. Then, as now, I obsessed over the smooth, broad back and the meaty lip to each side of Jorrit’s latissimi dorsi. I would walk around town molding their shape out of air in front of me, my fingertips tripping on the dips and rises of the ribs tucked under the muscles’ wings. Often, I would start the shape by running my hands along his imagined trapezius muscles: diagonally down and out from the neck, skipping past the shoulder blades, then along the sides of his lats’ inverted triangle, from top to bottom. The trapezius muscles felt like the right place to begin the elongated bat ray of the two pairs together.

Drawing a figure, the tool becomes the instrument of touch. It runs along the curves of muscle, fat, and bone to feel for how the layers are ordered in relation to the eye. The body can be modeled with line only—without outright shading and highlights—by imagining the sensation of its shape. Similarly, Jane taught us hands by way of conch shells. She showed us how to see how hands curl—form a spiral of ridges—by having us hold, draw, and fantasize our fingers overlaid on conch shells.

If you’ve taken a figure drawing class before, you may be thinking, “Why isn’t she mentioning blind contour?” In blind contour, the drawer keeps their eyes on the figure and their tool on the page, drawing slowly without looking down and adjusting the line. My feeling is that blind contour may develop attention and focus, but it doesn’t challenge what we know through what we see and what we think we know about what we’re seeing. Blind contour doesn’t shake up our knowing through seeing because it doesn’t ask us to encounter the unrealistic shapes and proportions we’ve put down when we’ve been striving for realism, within the bounds of the materials. When we look at the page after we’ve finished a blind contour, we expect to see a grossly distorted representation. But when we go back and forth between looking at the person and the page, we have to reckon with the gaps between what we’ve made of what we think we see and what is there to be seen. That record of redrawn lines instructs us to be vigilant.


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