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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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
My first Tuesday of the month life drawing class doesn’t come around quick enough, so, for the first time in nearly eight years of doing this, I’m making time to take pieces created during the class to rework. For the first time since an A’ level in art 50 years ago I am using colour; it’s taking time to figure it out! This is Liz from Life Drawing 7 June 2022: redrawn onto cartridge paper with a fineliner pen then a watercolour wash added.
Above: Liz, from June 2022. From Qi-Dong movember drawings where only her arms were moving. Various attempts at adding colour.
There are new skills to learn (and costs to meet). I prefer to work on A2 sheets or, ideally larger … which requires a lot of paint: good watercolour can cost £15 for a 15ml tube. I am still trying different approaches: from a small set of watercolours to a few tubes of primary colours (red, yellow and blue) and mix everything up. This is what my late mother did with us as children: only primary colours, no such thing as black, that sort of thing.
Having started with some of the individual and sets of drawings I did of Liz at the June session I then went digging around in my archive. I remember the session drawing Dave back in November 2016; it was only my first or second session at Charleston with Silvia MacRae Brown.
Above: Dave from 2016, from the original charcoal drawing reworked and painted up in various ways
In due course, so long as it doesn’t bring too much additional expense, I will finally use boxes of acrylics, even a set of oil paints, gifts I believe from as long ago as my 18th, 21st and 50th birthdays bought for me either by my motheror a girlfriend. I’ll need to get some tips before I start.
My mother will come into this often. From as young as I can remember we were learning how to create an observational drawing: each other watching TV, a bowl of fruit, other still life: shoes, toothpaste, flowers in a vase – that sort of thing. Each of my siblings and I developed our own styles and interests: for older sister Jane it was female fashion, for my older brother Nick it was racing cars, for me it was portraits and for younger sister Joanna it was animals; in particular horses and dogs. We were told never to throw anything out: I still have some of my efforts kicking about, self-portraits age 12 or 13, old girlfriends from my teens, a pair of cowboy boots … Over the last 7 or 8 years of life drawing (I started out going to Brighton to attend sessions at Sussex County Arts Club) I have kept every sketch, the good, the bad, the half-finished, the overworked, the misshapen, the clumsy … It is to these piles extracted from folders behind or under the sofa that I am now seeking inspiration.
I rather prefer my technique of November/December 2016 when I first visited Charleston. We sat, six together in a small room in the farmhouse. I couldn’t use my learned technique of carefully and very slowly marking up and measuring out proportions, limbs and muscles – there isn’t time. But at least I combined the two: take a moment, take a careful look, figure out where the drawing will sit on the page, get a few ‘landmarks’ in place: bellybutton, head, hands and feet, the external genitalia …
Above: Dave as Tim in the style of Egon Schiele. Tim as Tim – in the style of Egon Schiele.
Over the last few weeks I have ‘had a go’ with watercolour, watersoluble pencils and charcoal. I am yet to break out the acrylics or oils though I have a few canvasses that have been kicking around for years.
If I’ve learnt anything in the last month, for me, at the moment at least, it is very much a case of ‘less is more’ – a wash on a sketch yes, but adding layers of colour is not yet something I can do with any accomplishment. For a start, I need a colour reference – the model in front of me ideally, if not a photograph to work from. This is colour added to a Frankie image:
5 July 2022
I attend life-drawing sessions with Silvia MacRea Brown on the first Tuesday of every month at Charleston. (I don’t think we have a session in January). Last year we had some extra classes in a barn (and outdoors in a closed garden) at Friston Manor.
We arrive before 10.00am and aim to start around then.
Unusually this time round we were convened in a semi-circle against one of the barn walls rather than the model on the podium at the end of the barn with its huge window and the potential problem of silhouetting and the distance from the model.
There is always a warm up session. Historically this has been a series of short poses of around three or five minutes. The last two sessions, in an interesting change, we had a 10 minute session of continual movement. After this we have a series of slightly longer poses, sometimes coming from a threaded movement, but held for three minutes or so. And then, I think poses held for 10, 15 or more minutes.
I’m still learning what I enjoy and where I feel I am playing to my strengths. Today I took in a large whiteboard on which I taped lengths of backing wallpaper. This would give me a large landscape sheet on which to draw. I also used, for the first time, a box of children’s wax crayons. Working from left to right I then put down a series of rapid sketches, each taking around 10 seconds, or at most 30 seconds before I moved onto the next pose. The model was moving continually, albeit slowly. I’d give up on a doodle or sketch once the move had shifted too far for me to continue with it.
I worked on three sheets. The second two didn’t go as well, upright didn’t work. And I feel I’d lost the rhythm of it by sheet 3.
I had another go doodling across the page at elbow height.
Over the day I tried a number of different things: pencil in a sketchbook, fine-liner in a sketchbook and returning to an apparent strength, wax crayon on backing wallpaper.
In past sessions I have used an inkpen – exclusively. Or charcoal. I have moved away from soft pencils simply because they favour the long pose – at least 45 minutes, but in my experience, 2 or even 3 hours.
Above: Sketches (10/20 minutes) Fine liner on cartridge paper. Model: Frankie. Charleston (CC BY-SA 3.) J F Vernon 2022
Unusually, enabled by a spell of dry weather, and using the space at the back of the house as a pop-up studio, I took some of the day’s work and transferred it to sheets of paper. I then, helped with some YouTube videos, looked at how to add colour. I’m happy adding a simple wash of colour to a fairly complete drawing, but I am yet to figure out the methods required to get paint onto the page without making a reasonable sketch worse. This will come.
Tuesday 7 December 2021
Since mid 2016 I’ve tried to join the life drawing classes run by Silvia McCrae-Brown at Charleston.
I’ve kept all my efforts and have a photographic record of most. I’ve just taken a look over these by way of comparison – I’m glad to see a significant transition from the awkwardness and impossibility of these early drawings.
Silvia Macrae Brown runs the life drawing class at Charleston on the first Tuesday of each month. I go along when I can, Covid permitting. I’ve taken the day off from work in the past to go along. It is just one day.
It matters to have someone with a plan, especially if it is designed to stretch us. This isn’t one of those classes where anatomical exactness created over a single pose over many hours is wanted, rather we have multiple poses, movement, drawing with our non-dominant hand, or with our eyes closed.
Today was different. There is an exhibition of Duncan Grant’s work ‘Duncan Grant: 1920‘ showing at the moment.
So the plan was to work the way artists at Charleston worked 100 years ago – a life model was a rare treat so what doodles and sketches they made were reimagined into later works, painted onto tiles, cupboards and wall panels.
Now it was my turn. I’ve always embraced instructions whether from a coach or teacher – however awkward I may feel the challenge of the new can create insight. Today was such a day.
An idea that had been fermenting in the first idea for something to contemplate in the afternoon was brought forward. The model would hold a pose and rotate 45% every minute – that of put her on a rotating plinth. I prefer the short pose. I find 30 seconds is enough. The race is to ‘grab’ the essence of the pose for future reference. Silvia is a sculptor who often references her own approach to seeking to find the essence of a pose.
I use a Lamy fountain pen and black ink. I used to swear by an artist’s felt-tip but have come to prefer ink on paper for its smudge-ability and inconsistency; I enjoy the fight. Just as I enjoy keeping one step ahead of the blunt pencil by having at least 20 sharpened (with a Stanley Knife, never a pencil sharpener). I only use soft pencils for drawing long poses when I’m in the mood for that kind of exacting task. I prefer to be quick and intuitive rather than slow and studied.
I keep all drawings.
This is a dictate handed down by my later mother who did her MA in Fine Art at Durham University in the 1950s. Quentin Bell was one of her tutors – he was a lecturer there at the time.
I will just show a few here to illustrate the progress. I know that plenty of my efforts fail, so will just do another, and another, and another until it starts to look and feel right. This is what is meant about getting your hand in … like a gymnast or dancer practising moves before a session.
After another go like this and taking note of the instruction to be capturing the essence of the pose I went for something smaller.
From these the idea was to take a pose and work it up as a single art piece, as bathroom tiles, wall paper or some such as the Charleston artists did (not the reproduction tea towels and place mats you might buy in the shop).
From here, whether or not the model was posing (which felt impolite and potentially a waste of a rare resource) we were invited to take a pose and work it up as a pattern, shape or draft for an artwork. I had a few goes with a single, double and various other repetitions and combinations.
And a single pose with colour – something I’ve rarely ventured into using!
This was a breakthrough moment for me. I’ve only ever thought of a life class to be a period of work that delivers its only outputs at that moment, on the day. That any reworking of something would be a lesser thing – akin to copying from a photograph. How wrong I am. Of course artists are forever gathering up ideas on pads of paper or working with models and items in the studio to work up into a distinct and separate work.
For lack of ink and seeing a set of blue sheets of paper to use up I went for white charcoal and produced a series of five multiple sketches on single sheets, followed by a few single images.
I was beginning to feel confident with what I was able to express with a few simple lines. The skill is to let the hand/arm draw what the eyes are seeing and the brain is feeling. Experience, practice and growing knowledge of where the bones and muscles are helps.
We were then invited to return to a favourite pose and work on this. The model kindly took a number of poses as requested including the ‘crossed arms above the head’ which I favoured.
We ended the session with a seated pose. Enjoying using the white charcoal pencil I had only grey or green darker papers to choose from.
A single pose for 35 minutes I did four sketches in each trying to do little more than get the entire figure on the page without making it too small. I then added the colour based on the model sitting under a bright orange/red heater in the barn where we are working.