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Drawing a life

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I think I can remember my first ever life-drawing class in college during my foundation year of drawing theory. A bright high-ceilinged room surrounded by white-papered windows. Talking Heads were on the cassette deck, I am sure of this even if I am winging the rest of this paragraph. A bunch of kids, all away from home for the first time, way too cool to show their nervousness — but we could barely look at one another, we were so self-conscious. Most of us set up standing by an easel on which we had our drawing board and our ‘big-paper’ – we’d been told in advance what to purchase for the class. A few of the latecomers sat on the floor. In the middle of the room was an empty wooden dais. We waited in trepidation. Then we sharpened our pencils, again, and waited some more.

At the stroke of the hour in walked Mac. Mac was a seriously iffy looking, sketchy Dundee individual if you ever saw one. The kind of sketchy where if you were drowning – and he was on the riverbank – you’d look around for another option. He was probably in his early 60s with a full head of slicked back black hair, and a slept outside — seen everything — hard drinking — 20 smokes a day, face. I remember thinking “I hope that is the lecturer.” No such luck.

Mac hung his long tweed herringbone coat over the back of a chair and proceeded to get nonchalantly naked. We were all suddenly very busy sharpening our pencils, or looking in our bags, or studying something on the ceiling (There is an unwritten rule that you don’t stare at the model until it is time to stare at the model in drawing class). The next time I looked down from the ceiling Mac was sitting on the dais in a pink silk robe, rolling a woodbine between yellowed fingers, with his old-person toes, with their curved grey nails at the end of a pair of the bluest-white legs I had ever seen thrust out toward me. As he lit up and inhaled, his cheeks disappeared into his face, and his cool blue eyes met mine, and he gave a barely perceptible wink. He had seen it all before.

Mac had the clean muscular delineated body of a comic book super villain. There was not an ounce of fat on him. His hands were huge and worn and deep brown in color like his face, the color ended abruptly at cuff and collar. It looked a lot like he was wearing a white vascular lined body stocking. When he dropped his robe for the first pose, there was an almost perceptible sound of eyebrows raised. I instantly felt sorry for those in the front row. Mac was probably very popular when he was younger. Over the next four years of schooling I must have drawn Mac a hundred times. He was a pro.

I have a great deal of respect for those who can bare themselves in the buff to a room full of strangers. It takes a peculiar mix of bravery, honesty, and well balls to stand naked and allow your self to be examined and scrutinized, in every, very-intimate detail. Plus sometimes it is cold in those rooms.

As intimidating as drawing naked strangers for wannabe artists can be, it forms the fundamental core of good drawing. It is essential. If you can master the human form in all of its asymmetrical intricacies, proportional trickery and lighting subtlety, then you can understand and draw and paint anything. Which is why it is the main part of any good formal artistic education. It is also I think, good for the soul.

Whenever I move to a new place, and I move a lot, I seek out the life drawing classes in the nearby communities. In colleges and universities, in individual homes, community center basements, church attics and local art galleries around the country naked people parade themselves for the elucidation of others. For the less than artistic, this may make you slightly uncomfortable (phone the police, George), but for the rest of us, rejoice for you are not alone.

Since coming to D.C. my first discovery was the Washington Drawing Center. It is near enough to the office that I can go on the way home. The session, held in an enlarged crawl space in the vicar’s attic of the Church of the Pilgrim near Dupont Circle, is best described as intimate. Each Wednesday night the eaves are crammed with regulars and novices pinned together around the outside of a model almost close enough to touch. I mean I don’t even need my glasses for this one.

Some people find this a particularly challenging drawing situation because those sitting to your immediate right or left can see exactly how rubbish you are, and that kind of attention can make even the most confident pencil pusher wobbly. But they are a very welcoming group, and there are snacks in the breaks. Here are a couple of my sketches from Wednesday nights.

The nights I have attended they have used the 1,2,5,10,15 method. A half dozen poses at 1 minute, then six at 2 minutes on up a final few at 15 minutes. The short poses frustrate you, but remove the tight self consciousness so that by the time you get to the long poses it seems like you have forever, and you’ll be warmed up, flowing and unpretentious. At least that is the idea.

Great sessions. You can find out more about the Wednesday night group and their other weekly classes here.

Washington Drawing Center –

On Sunday afternoons, a small group of local artists meet for a nude model portrait session in Frederick, Md. at the Griffin Arts Center. The set up here has the model, or on occasion models, hold a single pose for a 20-minute session, then repeat the pose for six of these sessions. Most of the artists are serious painters there to work on their color theory and form but there are a few twitchy sketchers like myself.

I tend to use the session to stay on top of the craft and I usually create a series of six different 20-minute sketches moving my chair a little each time so I don’t get too precious over any single sketch. For me speed is always the goal. And this venue is nice and large so moving around doesn’t generally get in the way of the painterly types. The models have so far been very good. These are a couple of sketches of a model with a fabulous back tattoo.

Founded in 2012, The Griffin is a center for the whole community covering all aspects of arts. It contains visual art studios for local artists to work and develop, gallery space for exhibits and is often used as a venue for other artistic endeavors like poetry readings, music and even yoga. A bit of a gem really. You can see their full calendar of representational artistic classes here.

Griffin Arts Center –

And the thing about drawing is that you have to do it to become good at it. And you can only do so many self-portraits in your bedroom. So get out and find a regular life-drawing class. It is a great way of learning the skills, remaining challenged, and finding out that you are part of an eclectic community of artsy types. Yes you are one of them.

One of the things I learned way back with MAC in Dundee is that when you draw someone naked you are drawing a whole life. And sure drawing slim, fit, young people can be fun, but give me the older, the gnarled, the withered, the worn, and the experienced body every time.

This is more than just life drawing, this is sketching a life.

Got a question on fashion or tact or even drawing? Ask me. Got a drawing? Send it in to

If you are out there and doing stuff I need to see then please do send it along. I’ll post it up here on the Washington Post’s best Urban Sketching blog.

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