That smell when you sharpen a pencil; the concentration as the knife sculpts the point; the sense of purpose, challenge, creation…
I love this chaotic studio, the heavy scent of linseed oil, the walls covered in work of students long-gone and forgotten.
I look up at the six people watching me. My informal evening class; doesn’t pay much but it’s better than nothing. I reckon three of the class are retired. They’re here for fun. Two girls sit together; they’re probably friends and don’t look like they’re here for anything serious, and one guy, his eyes hard on me, challenging, pencils ready. He’s here to learn.
A curling peel of wood drops from my blade and spins to the floor. I say, ‘Always sharpen a drawing pencil with a knife. Ordinary sharpeners can snap the soft lead. Make sure the blade is as sharp as possible and never moves towards any part of you.’
I hold up a perfect point. I’m on form, confident, poised and focussed. Something good will come of today.
I say, ‘Before our model joins us we need to look at the basics.’
The model, Julie, could be a problem. When you draw someone they open everything to you or you see so much that is usually missed. Within even the ugliest features and nastiest personality is always that most amazing thing – a living human being. You can become infatuated: fall in love even. Well, you always do a bit anyway. I could well make a fool of myself with Julie. She’s neither ugly or nasty. She’s a lovely person and very attractive but going out with one of my friends – this session is going to be frighteningly challenging. Well – I did warn her…
I turn to the flip chart and look at the closest of the girls. ‘What’s your name?’
She squirms; the other giggles. I shrug.
Eyes at full information-gathering mode I take in her posture. She squirms again. Don’t blame her; an artist’s eyes are as intense as those of a hunting wolf. I’ve modelled a thousand times but it always feels like being raped.
‘Can you try and sit like that, don’t move: just for a minute?’
She nods, flashes a look at her friend.
‘OK, people, I want you to draw the person not their body. I don’t want to see a single outline until the end of the lesson.’
Frowns, surprise, it’s always the same. People think there are rules. Half my job is breaking laws that don’t exist.
‘You’re going to draw the person from the inside out. I can’t stress that enough. How tense or relaxed are they? What are they feeling? Happy, unhappy, worried, in pain…? That’s the person, nothing else matters. If every human, drawn or painted, were given life – they’d fall over. One leg would be longer than the other, the same with arms. Heads and necks wouldn’t be central. If you think that anatomical precision is required to make a figure work, forget it. You’ll end up with a lifeless, wooden doll.’
Well, no one’s screaming but I’ve lost three of them already. From the looks on their faces I may as well have said “God is an octopus”. But the eyes of the bloke, one of the girls and the oldest of the women light up. They’ve grasped it.
‘I want you to start with a single line, the curve of the model’s spine as it is right now. Then add another to show the angle of the pelvis.’
The girl blushes. I know. It’s difficult not to react when someone looks that hard just there. But she stays still, good girl, thanks.
‘Now a line to show the angle of the shoulders – just those three lines and nothing more. You won’t believe me but that’s the important bit over. See, I’ve drawn a sort of bendy capital “I”. Now throw down lines roughly where you think they should go – it doesn’t matter if they go down wrong. Don’t rub them out: it’s very important not to. They tell you where a line shouldn’t be and help you get it right. To an onlooker it will seem a mess but you’ll only see the lines that work. Your putty-rubber will sort the rest out later.’
I set the easel at an angle so the class can see me draw, throwing down lines. I love this bit. This is when you start really seeing the person. Their heart and mind flows from your pencil onto the paper. A few more glances at the girl and her legs, arms and tilted head resting on a hand all fall into place on the paper.
I say, ‘That’s it. No more. You’re here to draw – not me. Get your stuff ready. I’ll lean against this easel. Take thirty seconds to see what my spine, hips and shoulders are up to and another few minutes to get the idea of drawing from the inside out.’
They prepare, a rustling of paper behind me as my putty rubber soaks up unwanted lines and the drawing comes together as a tense, self-conscious girl.
I pose and they draw. After about twenty minutes, my left leg is numb. I ask several times if everyone has finished and get answers of “no” expressing increasing levels of panic. I abandon my slouch by the easel and go to look at their attempts.
One of the women turns her paper over and won’t let me see her work. No amount of friendly persuasion changes her mind. Another has drawn an outline that makes me look like a disastrous collision between coat-hangers and sausages. The next is an outline filled with random lines – drawn afterwards to fit the outline.
Blushing girl’s drawing shows she’s trying hard but also using the rubber. I see smudge marks where she’s put a line in again and again. She’s too embarrassed to let someone see a pencil stroke put down in the wrong place – she thinks it’s a mistake.
I thank her for letting me use her as a model and her face goes from pink to ripe tomato. The other girl knows how to draw. Clearly she’s highly skilled and just here to learn a new approach.
The bloke, hmm, a bit embarrassed and rightly so. He started with another technique and did well, switched to mine and floundered.
‘Well done, everyone. It’s hard to see someone doing it like it’s easy and then find you’re struggling. This is without a doubt the easiest way to get figures right, just abandon outlines – they draw themselves. I’ll sit on this table for five minutes so you can sketch me again. I want to see “relaxed”.’ I cross my legs, lean back on my hands, tilt my head up and stare at a crack in the ceiling.
Soon Julie will turn up. It’s amazing how people improve when there’s a person labelled “model” in the room who’s not also called “teacher”.
Only it’s not Julie that turns up. It’s Sam.
And I can’t walk out of the class; that would be the end of any serious job prospects in this place.
What the hell is she doing here? What does she know about art? She’s doing law. Well, when she’s not crucifying me in the debating society with her pedantry or being elected into the student council instead of me.
Every time I meet this bitch she finds a new way to embarrass or humiliate me. She gives me the usual bright smile before she deals out her poison.
When she’s managed to humiliate me here, her final expression will be the cool, detached, no eye-contact one I’ve had from her before. The look of someone who’s had their fun and forgotten that I exist – like dropping a broken toy.
She’s planning something but what? I’m in control here and doing what I’m good at.
Sam says, ‘Hi, Jack. Julie couldn’t make it.’ Gleaming teeth, lots of bright eye-contact. She looks round. ‘Hi, everyone, I’m Sam, your model today.’ She looks back at me, twinkling eyes, a little smirk and a wiggle of the hips. ‘I’m all yours.’
She’s taunting me. I say, ‘Thank you for coming, Sam. Can you lean here, hands in pockets, foot against the wall and tilt your head forward a bit?’
‘I keep my clothes on, huh?’
Laughter from the learners. The bloke looks like he disagrees.
‘Just take your shoes and socks off.’ On the wall, among the anatomical studies is scrawled, “Paint her ugly, paint her sweet: she’s not complete without her feet”.
Normally I read it out but I can just see her laughing at me if I did. Sod it, I’m nervous, biting my lip, shoulders burning: tense. Is this what it is then? She knows she can get to me and wants me to embarrass myself by losing confidence and drawing rubbish?
No way will I let her have that much power over me. ‘Right, people. If Sam has time we’ll do two quick practice and one final piece. You can start now or watch me do a quick drawing first. Come and stand beside me so you can see what I’m up to more clearly.’
Chairs scrape, people shuffle. Turning the easel I get a good angle on Sam. The lines start flowing and I’m off but I’m pressing too hard. Damn, I broke my point. Sod the woman. I carry on. ‘Sam, can you hold that position for five minutes for the class? If you can’t; memorise it, relax and return to it when you’re ready.’ I get another smirk from her… Actually, is that a smirk?
She says, ‘I’m fine.’
Of course she’s fine. No doubt Sam can do any bloody thing like she’s been doing it all her life. She’s relaxed, hands in pockets and slouched. I expected a slight hunching of the shoulders and elbows pushed forwards a little to express inner laughter. Maybe she’s not laughing. Her eyes bore through the floor. They flick up to me, a question in them, an uncertainty too. Weird, that’s not like her. What’s that all about?
She holds the position for ten minutes despite me hurrying everyone up and telling them it’s time to move on. Sam puts her foot down and massages the other. Holding that pose must have hurt but she endured it. Strange, not what I expected.
I scan the students’ work. Outlines, bloody outlines still but three of the class are getting the idea now. Praise, gentle encouragement. Even “Mrs Resistant” shows me her drawing.
Sam asks if it’s OK to look at my sketch. I tell her it is. While she looks I may find out what she’s plotting. But there’s nothing in her expression to tell me. Head on one side she stares. A hand rises and her finger follows the line I drew of a crease in her T-shirt. It’s a good line rising from her waist and curving round a breast. It’s like the neck of a swan.
The next posture Sam takes is sitting on a chair, knees up, arms wrapped around shins and face on her knees. I tell everyone that they have little time for this one. No one can hold that position for long. I don’t bother sketching a rough example. I need everything I’ve got for the last drawing. There’s an exhibition slot coming up and I’m in serious debt.
I say, ‘Draw your three lines, get them right, throw random lines down. Make them a little heavier when you know they’re the right ones. Draw lines to remind you how her hair curves here and any other detail you want to include and may forget because you’ll have to finish this without her. The creases in the jeans are the main part of this drawing. See the way they define the shape of her legs.’
I don’t say “bum” but I can tell this is one very athletic lady. She looks after herself. I’ll bet she sneers at my tattoos, my scrawny unfit body, scraggy stubble and lanky hair.
Odd movement there. It started in her pelvis and headed up the spine. Muscular tension rose a little. She tightened her arms. It finished with a tiny rub of her face against her legs. It’s a squeeze, a hug. Maybe she’s comforting herself because everyone’s looking at her legs. After a while she’s beginning to tremble with discomfort.
‘Relax, Sam. OK, everyone, I’ll leave you in peace while you finish those and Sam gets a rest.’
‘I’m OK for the moment,’ Sam says, her voice muffled.
I walk to the other end of the studio. Hanging around the learners makes them hurried and self-conscious. I’ve a bunch of first-year-students’ portfolios to go through … dozens of them. If I’m going to get a place as a junior lecturer here I’ve got to prove I’m able to work my arse off. I’ve also got to show I can teach and, looking at portfolios in front of me, I’m not sure I can.
‘What the hell have I got to do?’ I realise that I’m muttering out loud.
Sam’s voice right behind me, ‘You could always talk to me.’
I jump, close the folder I’m holding, slap it on the desk and say, ‘Yes, thanks for coming. You’re doing a great job,’ and walk back to the class.
She follows me. ‘You could stop burning yourself out over people who aren’t worth it.’
Damn it, woman, what do you know about anything? I need a bloody job. Get your words out of my ears and yourself out of my studio.
This last drawing will take about half an hour. Sam makes herself comfortable on a chaise longue. We grab our boards and take positions.
Right, this is going to get my all. Damn, the blade won’t cut the pencil properly. I break the lead twice. Sam has me paranoid and I’m struggling. She’s right in my territory and, despite my confidence and skill, getting to me. But I won’t let it show in my work. The learners stand behind and watch me start. I have to get this “Drawing from the inside out” concept over or I’ve wasted everyone’s time.
My putty-rubber is hot, squeezing between my fingers and slippery with sweat.
Sam’s cheek lies on her outstretched arm. That’s going to cause some serious pins-and-needles after a while. Her left hand hangs limp and open with not even the tiniest fraction of tension, nothing to indicate the beginnings of a fist. So, she’s not in combative mode. The pulse in her neck is slow like you’d expect in a person who’s fit and relaxed or sad.
Why’s she so relaxed? She’s not getting her way. Despite her I’m drawing well – even for me. She must sense my satisfaction and feel defeated but where’s the tension that comes with anger?
I move closer now and again. To check toes. Well, here’s a woman that won’t wear silly shoes and mess up her feet to impress men. Self-confidence, someone who feels she’s too good for that. I’m impressed. I study a crease at her knee, the shadow under her hand. Damn, I didn’t stress the importance of shadow. No, hang on, that’s the “Basic Drawing Skills” class not this: concentrate. I move to her head, quite a threatening thing to do to someone, study their face and eyes close-up as if they’re a museum exhibit with no rights to privacy. She reacts to my scrutiny, a tiny compression and paling of lips. They relax again. The rest of her face remains immobile. She doesn’t move her eyes but their expression changes. What’s in there? Sadness. She’s consciously letting me see it. Why isn’t she hiding that from me? There’s an openness, a defencelessness there. She’s changed or I got her all wrong.
What’s she sad about? That she can’t break me here? No, that would make her furious and more rigid. Is it about having hurt me? Were those smiles before actually of friendship and the blank face afterwards, remorse?
No it’s just the drawing-spell working, making me want to melt into her. As soon as I finish it’ll be back to… Shit! I’m supposed to be teaching. I glance at the clock.
‘OK, people, I know we’ve gone way over time but it’s on the house. Let’s take a good look at what you’ve done. Sam, relax, your arm will be totally numb by now.’
Some learners have improved and the bloke’s work is stunning. Two of the students have drawn outlines a dog could have pissed in snow. What the hell am I doing wrong? This is not difficult to pick up. God knows if I can do it anyone can.
I get the usual thanks followed by footsteps and voices echoing down the corridor.
Sam’s sitting, rubbing her arm and looking at my drawing. I’m empty and spent. It’s nearly nine in the evening and I’ve still tons of students’ work to mark but I’ve bled myself dry.
Sam’s all tight lips and wet eyes. I get a quick glance from her. Not a challenging look, more a tentative expression of hope and a question. No way am I reading her wrong. I’m still in drawing mode.
I ask, ‘Julie told you what happens to me when I draw someone?’
‘Yes.’ She’s eyes-down again, still holding my board. ‘Every other time I tried to get your attention I messed up. At least this way I didn’t have to open my gob.’
I don’t know what to say. My opinion of Sam has gone through a 180° shift. The silence goes on way too long. It’ll snap both of us. I’m frightened she’ll run out of the room.
I say, ‘I’ve been an arse, haven’t I? Would you like that drawing?’
‘You know I would. That’s really kind.’ She looks up again. ‘Did it work?’ Eyes full on mine. ‘Did you change you mind about me?’
‘Pretty much … yeah, totally.’
‘You want me to stay and help you clear up?’
‘Yeah, thanks – I’d love that. No, wait until your arm’s better. You want a tea or coffee or something?’
©Gary Bonn 2012