Putting your life on the line

life drawing 7

At some stage in their career, a Brisbane artist must come into contact with the infamous and inimitable David Paulson. Ryan and I signed up to his weekly life drawing class at the Brisbane Institute of Art (BIA, or as the man himself affectionately calls it, the Blind Institute of Art) in February. It’s been a challenging semester, and worth every effort.

Paulson openly divides his class in two: those who can draw and those who can’t. Those who can’t draw, he is uninterested in expending wasted energy on them: rather than teaching them to draw, he teaches them how to manipulate design, how to simplify, how to make interesting pictures. Those who can draw, he isn’t interested in improving their technical abilities: he wants to give them more tools, to give them obstacles to overcome, and to stretch them to be more confident and creative drawers. Paulson doesn’t send his students home with lovely resolved pictures—that is not the role of the classroom. He gives us eyes—he shows us what to look for, and where to find it, and how to coax it out.

life drawing 1

In fact, Paulson’s main task with Ryan and I is that he’s concerned that we are being too academic. Our accuracy is costing us a liveliness, a life in our drawings; it’s interfering with the beautiful design inherent in the soft C-curve of an arm. We’re not taking liberties with the near-verticals in the figure before us, near-verticals begging to be recorded as strong actual verticals. We’re not telling enough lies–we’re letting the boring truth get in the way of a good story. Hiding behind extra details only distracts us from the powerful simplicity available to us, from which we can hang additional information later, if we must.

life drawing 2

Week one, Paulson took great pleasure in teasing me to loosen up. Stop drawing outlines! You’ve never seen a trapezius! Look at that lumpen, hairy yeti! Edge-copiers beware, you’ll be sent to the Main Roads Department where your map-drawing skills might actually be useful. Hairdressers are likewise in the wrong class. The insults flow thick and fast; Paulson is not a man to praise a bad effort, and not shy of doling out colourful criticism. The end of day one, I came away thoroughly confused, unable to draw in Scott’s class later that evening. Scott trained extensively under Paulson, and consoled me thus: There’s nothing for it—it’s just hard, you’ve just got to keep at it, keep trying to synthesise  all the knowledge and keep looking for your voice. You’ve got to remember what it is you see and what makes you want  to draw, and to get so wrapped up in the looking that you forget about your drawing as a drawing.

life drawing 3

Week two, my lines are facetious, and I’m drawing scones and jellyfish. Paulson implores us to look, teasing us about the beautiful model wasting her time standing in front of a bunch of people who won’t even look at her. I thought I was trying to make a more simplified drawing, but I came to realise that if my drawing was simplified, it was only to keep in line with what I was able to see. In fact, I am only capable of seeing so much, and I have to go easy on myself. Adding details makes for a more demanding visual investigation of our model; I can start more broadly and investigate the overall design elements first.

life drawing 4

Paulson demonstrates this idea thus: ‘This is the most important lesson you’ll learn in your life,’ he says to a couple of us conspiratorially. He draws what appears to be an outline, a knobbly one, and proceeds to explain that lines have beginnings and ends and that you have to look for them. ‘Where does that go? What’s this? Wow!’ He traces muscular lumps through limbs and starts to really flesh out a person. I’m not seeing tone, though tone is a soft guide, and I’m not seeing volumes as such, though I’m hinting at them. I’m seeing the underlying structures. I’m seeing the building blocks of flesh. I’m starting to see, and I’m linearly describing things for which I have no words.

life drawing 6

I’ve thus received an antidote to my lazy drawing: I’ve realised that I’m not lost in my subject and not concerned with what my lines mean. Adequate representations of models or buildings are uninteresting objects, but drawings ought to satisfy curiosity. Beyond being a simple visual note-taking, drawing is an exploration, a private searching, not driven by the preoccupation with making a nice end product. That comes of itself, when there is honesty in the act of drawing. I’m reminded of Nelson* (p. 78):

The reason for painting or drawing from life is to gain skill. For what purpose? For itself? To make the means into the end is uncritical and suspect. The skill acquired by painting or drawing from life is at risk of circularity or even fetishisation.

Where line has always held a special trance over me, and is perhaps more expressively interesting to me than the tonal and form-rendering powers of shading, Paulson also pushed us to work with an idea that spoke powerfully to me: the idea of using line, drawing, as a notation for painting. Some days he would push the idea of ‘shape recognition’—over and over, flattening the world before us into a series of interlocking shapes, triangles between bent arms and torsos, odd shapes between backs of legs and verticals of walls. When you paint, you lay down swathes of colour in such shapes, and you can notate this by line too.

life drawing 5

Week by week, Paulson builds our confidence. His catchcry is, ‘Put your life on the line!’ He quietly implores me to trust myself and to have confidence in my marks. My drawings still lack the organised design of Paulson’s, but I am seeing the right things even if I can’t quite translate them onto the page. I see horizontals, but I still shakily bend them, and I see sweeps but I pock them unnecessarily with pointy bits. The lines on my paper begin to feel connected to me—where at first they didn’t seem to have any correlation to my brain or my hand, a frenzy of thoughtless marks appearing confusingly before me. I resolve to own those marks, and to mean them. I continue to wrestle with them.

My tuition with Paulson has come too quickly to a close. He is increasingly warm and giving as a teacher, the more you struggle and the harder you listen. My drawings are still rubbish and hopelessly uncertain, but I see better.

life drawing 8

* Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.


6 thoughts on “Putting your life on the line

  1. you brought me RIGHT back to my own figure drawing classes during art school.. although I do wish my own professors split the classes into ‘those who care’ and ‘those who care not’ 🙂 would have made things much easier!

    I also really enjoyed reading through your experiences while seeing your progression. The line quality of the figures gets much nicer towards the end! 😉 It’ll be great to see all of your progression with this, especially to find your voice through it. Great post!

  2. Ree says:

    You should check out the artist Patricia Hannaway. Her drawings are mostly gesture and she is primarily focused on capturing the essence and humanity of a person through line. Lovely blog post : )

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