Monday, September 30, 2019

Life-Drawing Retrospective

This old cowboy and I have been through a lot together.

How long does it take me to fill a 100-page, 9-by-12-inch sketchbook?

Apparently five-and-a-half years. On Feb. 28, 2013, I took a brand-new Strathmore toned sketchbook to a life-drawing session at Gage Academy (according to my blog, I completed my first five-visit life-drawing punch card that day, which felt like quite an accomplishment). Since I want to have time to take advantage of toned paper by practicing shading and highlights with dry media, I usually use that book only for poses of 10 minutes or longer, so I only use a few pages per session (I use a water-friendly sketchbook for shorter poses). At some sessions, I don’t use it at all. And I tend to go to life drawing only during the wet, cold months, not all year. Consequently, the toned book doesn’t get filled very quickly.

Last week, I finally sketched on the last page, and like each time I fill a Gage punch card, it felt like an accomplishment. As I took the sketchbook out of my life-drawing bag to replace with a fresh one, I thumbed through it before storing it on a shelf. The torn cover indicated how many times it’s been in and out of my bag. All the pages are badly warped and buckled from a water bottle incident years ago. This Strathmore and I have been through a lot together.

Unlike most of my location sketchbooks, which individually cover only a short period of time, this single book has become a retrospective of my progress (or lack thereof) over the past five-and-a-half years. (It’s very similar to my panorama landscape sketchbooks, which I tend to use mainly when I travel. I filled one in 2016 and another in 2018, and each included travels over several years.) For a process-oriented sketcher like me, it’s interesting to page through the book and observe the changes.

For example, when I compare sketches made from poses of the same duration, I can see that I am now able to get more detail or greater tonal definition in less time. Below are two 10-minute drawings from 2014 (Randy at left) and 2018 (Melissa at right). Last week, I even tried making five-minute drawings with tone using a dry medium (Conte), which I rarely do. It means my eye is getting faster at gauging and assessing form, and my hand must be moving faster, too – both skills I want to continue developing for sketching on location.

1/30/14 10-min. pose
6/4/18 10-min. pose

Sadly, not all of my skills have developed at the same rate. My single-biggest challenge at life drawing has always been, and continues to be, proportions: I tend to make the head too small in proportion to the body (look at poor Randy, above!). I have learned many times, from books and instructors, that the average human is about six-and-a-half heads tall. Whenever the model is standing upright, I always measure, sometimes more than once, to determine how many heads tall he or she is. Below left is a 20-minute sketch on the very first page of the book, done in 2013. I don’t know whether I was measuring back then, but as I’ve drawn him, the poor model is about nine heads tall (I couldn’t even fit his feet on the page).

At right is another 20-minute pose sketched just a couple of weeks ago. I recall carefully measuring Pete at six-and-a-half heads, yet now that I measure the drawing, he is more like seven heads tall. This is how it goes: I draw the head, measure out six-and-a-half heads, and make a mark where the bottom of his weight-bearing foot should end up. I also mark where the bottom of the torso should be. I draw from top to bottom, and when I hit the foot mark, I realize I am still at only about mid-calf. Drats. What happened?

2/28/13 20-min. pose
9/16/19 20-min. pose

A few years ago I took a life-drawing workshop from Mark Kang-O’Higgins. By that time, I was already aware of my difficulty with proportions, so I was trying to be extra conscious of this issue in class. During a critique, he came over to my easel, and after making a couple of comments about things he liked, he pulled out a pencil and started measuring the model (I cringed because I knew what was coming) and then my drawing. In reality, the model was the average six-and-a-half heads tall. My drawing was more than eight heads tall, and I only saw that as he counted out the heads.

Mark told me that making the head proportionally too small is one of the most common mistakes of beginning life-drawing students. He said there’s a natural tendency to get bigger and bigger as you go, so if you start from the head on a standing model, the body just gets longer and longer toward the feet. He said the exception to this tendency seems to be students who have had some portraiture experience but not as much full-body drawing experience. Those students tend to make the head disproportionately large because they are used to putting emphasis on the face.

Fascinating, right?
4/11/13 20-min. pose (I was so focused on the lovely curve of her back that I didn't see that I had drawn this model to be at least 10 heads tall!

As I leafed through the sketchbook from beginning to end, I could definitely see that my proportions have improved over time. And yet even as recently as a couple weeks ago, I still wasn’t hitting the mark. It’s good to review now and then to avoid getting cocky (and acknowledge what I need to focus on).

On the other hand, it’s also good to review for the gratification of seeing how much I have improved. I’ve seen some artists who use charcoal at life drawing immediately rub out each sketch after they’ve finished it so that they can simply use the same piece of paper for the whole session. Maybe for them, life drawing is nothing but practice, so they have no need to keep the evidence of that practice. If that’s true, they must be the ultimate in being process-oriented rather than product-oriented.

Yet I can’t help wondering why they wouldn’t keep their practice sketches so that they can have the gratification of seeing their progress over time. Compared to my urban sketches, which are meaningful and important to me as a record of the world around me, my drawings of nude models mean nothing – they are just the evidence of my practice. But the evidence of my progress is very meaningful and important. For that, I’m grateful to this Strathmore book, and I look forward to filling the next one.

Below are a few more sketches from the book.

2/22/16 10-min. pose
4/10/18 20-min. pose

4/17/18 10-min. pose
12/4/18 20-min. pose

1/17/19 10-min. pose
2/14/19 10-min. pose

9/23/19 5-min. poses

9/23/19 18-min. pose (This is the last drawing in the book.)


  1. I think you've tremendously improved since 2013, especially in the shading. One suggestion for proportions - I find counting 6.5 heads hard to do. I was taught to measure the body in halves - the top of the head to the hips/crotch is about the same as the hips/crotch to the bottom of the feet. Since I tend to draw the legs too short, this really works for me.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Michele, and I'll try that measuring tip next time!


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