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Life Drawing at Charleston with Silvia MacRea Brown

I attend with trepidation. It’s not like singing. Imagine singing and finding for the first half-hour you are out of tune and that on a bad day there will be a lot of duff notes. Or is that just indicative of my lack of experience, that I should be drawing every day. That’s how the college student does it: all day, most days down at the studio. You have to train the connection between the brain and senses, the arm and the page.

Getting ready the night before would help; I don’t. Rather I’m making lunch, looking for paper and deciding how much clobber to take from first thing on the day of the class. I cannot transport my ‘studio’ to Charleston so some choices have to be made. I could turn up with a packed lunch and a smile and be able to enjoy the day: everything is provided, easels, materials, coffee and snacks. All I need is enthusiasm and a willingness to make mistakes, to listen to constructive criticism and to keep having a go.

We aim to start soon after 10.00am. The fifteen minutes before hand easels and boards and large wedges of paper are transported from Silvia’s car.

Setting up in the Charleston Hay Barn – the model’s point of view. (CC BY SA-3.0 J F Vernon 2022)

Charleston is closed to the public on Monday and Tuesdays so we have the place to ourselves – though the office is open and someone comes over to help make sure we have all that we need and the chef comes into the restaurant to order and take deliveries and prepare food.

we used to meet in Charleston Farmhouse itself; not in the studio space used by the Bloomsbury group (that would have been cool), but in a small alcove. That could only take a handful of people. I have no idea at all how I heard about the session; this would be November 2016. I’d been attending sessions in Brighton at the Sussex County Arts Club a few times a week for several months. Did I hear about it from someone there? Did I learn about it on a visit to Charleston? Or pick something up online when I was searching for something in Lewes? I know I was getting fed up of going into Brighton but found the life classes in Lewes were booked up.

There were twelve or perhaps thirteen of us today. I got myself tucked over to one side as out of the way as I could be while still able to get a clear view of the model.

Set up. Blurred as I tried a panoramic image on my phone. That’s my whiteboard on the left hand side. (CC BY SA-3.0 J F Vernon 2022)

The last couple of sessions I’ve taken a large whiteboard; I like the scale. I tape a section of wall paper lining to this with the intention of putting all the initial doodles and sketches together. As the model, it is Ruth today, will move slowly through a series of many short poses I like to try to fit them all onto the one page.

I use Crayola wax crayons; I don’t think wallpaper liner deserves pastels. I would try pastels if I had a large enough piece of cartridge paper – perhaps. Though I have found I can repeat the exercise, ‘copying’ from this sheet to further sheets once I get home.

Ruth Moves – wax crayon on wallpaper liner (CC BY SA-3.0 J F Vernon 2022)

For half an hour it is like being in a library, or better still, like sitting a formal exam. You can sense the concentration. The model moves like Salome in front of Solomon – but in slow motion, a movement that from time to time pauses for a minute. We sketch feverishly; one artist attacks their page as if they are shoveling coal into a coal-hole, most pick away studiously with less vigour.

I make the first mark. I have three complementary crayons: bright green, dark green and black. I work from left to right across the page alternating colours. I then fill in the spaces with small doodles or larger sketches. Afterwards I reflect: next time I will think of the entire sheet as a composition with the model smaller on the back of the sheet creating a timelapse effect (I hope) where I have captured her around the room as she moves.

There is no stage, possibly for the first time to my knowledge. In the past the model has been on this platform under a large window. Once we brought the model into the centre of the barn. This brings the model onto the floor and closer to us. We can draw in the round, she can approach us. Our angle will change without us having to move.

There were then two short static poses: two ten minutes each I think. I should note it down at the time, but I don’t and by lunch time the order in which I have produced multiple sketches on different sheets of paper using different tools is lost to me.

This might have been where we are invited to do a couple of exercises: drawing with the non-dominant hand (in my case my left hand) and drawing from memory – simply not looking at the model (though later in the day she was rather elegantly covered in a translucent piece of chiffon).

We break to give the model a breather, to admire each other’s work, talk about it and share notes and practices. Silvia was keen for us to take a look at ‘I Live Here Now’ by Liza Dimbleby.

It reminds me of how I used to sketch in my teens and twenties, on the beach in France, in the bars in Val d’Isere and even on the chairlifts. And then it died away until recently. Certainly in my teens my mother had encouraged me to have a pad of paper with me all the time and I did.

Chairlift from La Daille, Val d’Isere, January 1991

We drink tea or coffee and eat biscuits. We get some air or disappear into the barn for a bathroom break (an experience in itself as The Charleston Trust invested into new gallery and restaurant space some years ago – all swish with oak and glass around a small courtyard – like the corner of an Oxford college, a small one, like St.Edmund’s.

Round three: more poses, of course, always getting longer and with length a chair. I think it was 30 minutes or so to begin with, followed by an exercise where we draw from memory – only looking at the page. What I find I do is I recall all the problem solving moments, the insights I gained, and the techniques I used at the time to position things, to use negative space, to use the window from and chair … I lack natural insight from knowing my anatomy and underlying skeleton. But I give it a shot – whatever I am invited to try I give it a go and learn something from it, from what works and what does not.

I’m aware of Silvia doing the rounds, commenting, suggesting and helping correct other students/artists. As my mother would do when she was around she appears at my shoulder but I’m unaware of her presence until she speaks. It is like a voice through an earpiece, almost as if your own subconscious is pointing out something you are failing to see: her head is too large and the neck couldn’t support it.

I don’t question this nor fret about the marks I have already on the page, I simply add more, drawing over what was there even if it risks my having what could look like a model with two heads, or a model who had moved her head and I’d caught both positions. I am not here to produce a finished piece, mistakes are necessary and they tell their own story on the page.

Then lunch. I had mixed up various vegetable/plant based casseroles from the fridge with rice – this is ample. I could vanish off to Middle Farm Shop, we have an hour. The cafe at Charleston is closed. Several of us gather around a large round table in the restaurant. Today I get to know Ruth, our model. I have drawn Ruth three or four times now over 8 years; you’d have thought I would have drawn her more often – once or twice a year. I rather think that if we have twelves sessions a year then we generally have as many models, maybe eight with some duplication.

The truth is when you draw you see shapes, negatives space, limbs, tendons, patches of light and dark – not the person. Is this my mistake? There isn’t time to get a likeness of the model. I can do that, but it is an entirely different skill and requires a long pose, or the same pose repeated in order to spend 3 or more hours at it. (Note to self, a regular Saturday or Sunday slot at Sussex County Arts Club would give me this).

Ruth, Coloured charcoal on paper. (CC SA BY-3.0 J F Vernon 2022)

Onwards to a long pose so Ruth lies down. A bench/platform is created from tables with blankets and cushions. We draw on. And once again, as it produced some interesting results and a lot of positive comment we are invited to have a go at drawing this from memory – after Ruth had got up and gone.

Ruth ‘from memory’ in a minute or so. Black drawing pen.

Tea. More looking at what others have done and talking approaches. I asked a lot of questions about adding colour and the problems I’ve been having with watercolour and pastels. Keep it simple. Just two or three colours was the tip I took and will apply once I am home.

And then a warm down of shorter poses to end the day.

I scribbled these onto A4 or A3 sheets in quick succession. There wasn’t the ‘flow’ we had with movement first thing. I kept at it hoping to get the essence of something but wasn’t overly happy with the outcome. I keep everything regardless and will file it away once I get home. Sometimes I see a shape, or a get a feeling for a pose later and have ideas of doing something with it.

Once again we compare drawings, talk tools and technique and eventually depart, a few staying behind to chat and help load the back of Silvia’s car with the easels, drawing boards, materials and paper.

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