Field Trips: Putting the Life, and the story, into Life Drawing

Posted on June 22, 2017

Time to fess up: I became a painter partly to escape the clutches of an anarchistic theatre collective which had come to resemble the authoritarian structures that it mocked. The idea of spending hours and hours alone in a studio mixing paint seemed preferable to spending hours and hours in meetings arguing about who resembled which authoritarian structure. That was thirty years ago, and I still prefer the alone-in-the-studio scenario. About twenty years after parting ways with the theatre and a cross-country move, I started teaching life drawing to set and costume design students. Neither they nor my colleagues were aware of my shady thespian past (until now!). What makes this teaching gig a delightful one, among other things, is that I get to escape the visual art world, which I find a bit stuffy and to which I’ve never really acclimated. The irony of course is that I’m now hiding out in the theatre department, bringing my creative life, and my habitual contrariness, full circle.

One thing I’ve learned from all this genre-hopping is that visual storytelling is visual storytelling. Sometimes it’s on a stage, and sometimes it’s on a canvas (or maybe just on a napkin in a bar). In both the visual artifact and the live performance you have, basically, characters in some kind of a setting. How they are arranged and posed in their places tells you some, most, or perhaps all, of their story. Playwrights and novelists will undoubtedly quibble, but even words are just a version of a canvas, leaving spaces in between the words for you to fill in from your own imagination.

Every year my drawing class spends most of our first quarter learning how the character, the person part of the story is constructed, how to separate what we think we know about people from how they actually look, studying human anatomy, learning to discern the shapes and forms and lights and darks. After about ten weeks of this we begin to venture out of the studio, plop a person in a setting, and see what stories arise from the collision and collaboration of model, place, artists, and even passersby.

What I’ve also learned from years of teaching this class (and other plein air classes), is how many fabulous underutilized spaces there are in a city, open to the public, with unexpected views and sometimes even tables and chairs. At the Washington State Convention & Trade Center, we had most of two food courts to ourselves, ensconced in majestic corporate modern architecture and interior landscaping, and overlooking freeway interchanges, parks, and city streets. Most people didn’t even notice the model posing perfectly still across the room from us.

Just outside the capitalist Convention Center is a socialist-brutalist-style wonder, the pragmatically-named  Freeway Park. A person dwarfed by the massive gray geometry evokes a narrative of isolation, of a cog in the bureaucratic machine, or perhaps a defector.

A few weeks later, it was onward to the toxic monument to Seattle’s industrial past and hippie present, Gasworks Park. Our lovely model chose a floor-length gown for the occasion.

The big open space gave everyone a chance to get really far away from the model, and place her in a sweeping, long view of the big green cartoonish hill and city in the farther distance.

The passersby who do notice that someone in their path is holding perfectly still perhaps ask themselves the same questions we ask as we compose our drawings: Why is this person in a long black dress standing on yonder green hill? Did she walk out of a formal occasion that went bad? Is she coming, going, lost? From the future, from the past?

The colors and compositional and material choices all put different spins on the answer.

There are also large, unnamed objects that frame a figure and the landscape and seem ready-made set pieces for our little plays.

Not all of our model/actors are human. We spent one morning among the creatures of the Woodland Park Zoo, some of whom obliged us by posing out in the open where we could draw them; others lolled like lumps in trees or ponds.

At the Olympic Sculpture Park, Richard Serra’s Wake is more like an opera set. The rusty undulating behemoths dwarf the human subject but also lend her a bit of their monumentality. One could squeeze more narrative out of the situation if the model were able to interact more closely with the piece, i.e., touch it, but the Seattle Art Museum frowns on that. I have it on good authority that the artist would disagree with that policy.

Student drawings of Richard Serra’s Wave

The format, the cropping, the scale, the feeling of air or claustrophobia, even the shade of red can be interpreted in wildly different ways.

Of course, no tour of Seattle is complete without the Jetsonian kitsch of the Space Needle. Being just downhill from it, most of us were able to fit the whole thing into our drawings from the low angle. It is itself a character, giving the human character someone to play off of.

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