A little over five years ago, my dad and I decided to start our own figure drawing sessions out of my parents' home on Tiffany Street near downtown Guelph. I had freshly graduated from the Animation program at Sheridan, and still had steam coming from my fingernails from all the drawing I did while there! My dad had retired a year before and also wanted to get ‘back in the ring’ with art-making rather than art-teaching. We had been attending an open figure drawing at our local art store, Wyndham Art Supplies. It was a great space to draw, with a nice half circle around the model (ideal, especially for the model who doesn’t have to rotate constantly), nice lighting, and friendly conversation occasionally. When the six-week sessions ended, we felt that the stopwatch of decline would begin on our drawing skills and would only revive when the next six-week figure drawing class began in the following season. Eventually we decided to try running our own figure drawing sessions on a consistent basis, and make it a drop-in so that if anyone felt the spontaneous urge to draw, they could.
At first, it was a pretty humble affair, and now, it’s still a humble affair! This is part of the magic of it. There were many times when we thought of expanding into a bigger space, to allow more participants, so that we could make it cheaper for everyone - a tempting thought. However, we realized that it’s actually a rare thing to be able to sit in someone’s cozy living room and participate in an activity which is usually performed in large, somewhat cold, concrete halls, with each artist having plenty of space between them and the next artist. We’ve realized that this just isn’t our vibe. It’s in our home, it’s cozy, warm, and you might have to share a couch with a stranger. Like the many new long tables in cafes that allow many strangers to sit together, our venue is conducive to meeting new people and sharing ideas or advice. Sometimes I see it as a microcosm of the conflicting opinions between ‘private property’ and ‘cooperative living'. I believe that the way our drawing sessions work is ultimately rewarding and fun particularly because one shares the space with different people each time. I wish more of our society was conducive to meeting new people; sometimes it seems that everything is still built for the ‘individual’ first and foremost.
When we began our drawing sessions, we had a small list of models we knew were reliable, and we knew quite a few artists in town who were interested in drawing. I’d made a new group of friends who were attending the University of Guelph at the time, and like many students, their eyes were open to the world, curious and itching to try new things. Many of them came to draw, and some of them even tried modelling. However, we wanted to ensure that our models would be fairly paid. My dad and I decided from the beginning that if it wasn’t going to be financially sustainable, we weren’t going to do it. Another rule that I’ve kept in my back pocket is that if it’s not fun, we also shouldn’t do it. My dad and I have always seen it a bit differently, but I think this helps to create the creative equilibrium that is necessary for it to work. I see it as a service for our community, and not as a money-maker or profit-oriented enterprise. Any additional money being used for art supplies, easels, boards etc. for the artists, but that’s about it. It’s just fun, and I think when cool, cozy events like this in someone’s home begins to ‘become a business’, it’s bound to ruin the vibe. I think the people who come to it feel the same. There’s something nice about knowing that this offering is authentic and singular, the minute it becomes a ‘brand’ or a chain, a certain part of it dies, for me at least.
Despite my determination to exclude the "woes of capitalism", we have managed to keep it relatively sustainable, and consistently active for about five-and-a-half years at the time of this blog article. This is no small feat, I can tell you! There were many times when our attendance would drop, so we’d cut the night short (which also meant less pay for the model, something we always try to avoid). We’d just hope that things would get better, or we’d drive about to put up more advertising posters around town. Occasionally, we’d get a bump of attendance if a University of Guelph Art Prof. mentioned us to their students, sometimes to assist in a particular assignment. It’s always nice to see our interested local studio art students show up in a surprise group. Ultimately, we only need four participants to break even, which, again, is good enough for me. I just want to keep drawing. Which leads me to this question I often get from others.
It’s a good question. There is such a multitude of ways to develop one’s artistic skill these days, especially considering that art has become an increasingly indefinable thing. Much of the objective “skill” and “quality” of art, especially in “conceptual art”, isn’t the same as it used to be. Nowadays art has many sub-genres, each with their own unique rules and qualifiers for good and bad. For those who’ve held strong to the classical way of drawing, there are plenty of new Youtube channels with timed models posing, so why not just study from those? My response is similar to why I still think it’s worth going to a post secondary school rather than just learning online: we don’t just go to school to learn skills. The people who just raised their eyebrows at this are probably also the same people who read a book “for information”. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but ideally you should expect to get far more. You will learn about literary style, cadence, pacing, diction, the author’s views of different aspects of the world, and if you’re paying attention, who the author really is. These additional benefits aren’t always conscious, but the phrase “more than the sum of their parts” comes to mind. I find it’s the same with school. It’s great to learn skills; they’re useful for a future career, but saying the entire purpose of school is about skills is a very direct, simple, and ultimately reductionistic view of it. We also go to school to meet new friends who are doing things we like doing, we might go on dates, we’re in a new setting that brings about a slew of new thoughts, we’re expanding our personal identity, figuring out what we need in life, what we don’t need. School is still very much a rite of passage for many, however bureaucratic and institutional we may judge it to be. Worth mentioning too, is that some people even end up with their future spouse from school. These aren’t the typical reasons for going to school, but nonetheless they do happen occasionally, especially if you are actively participating.
So back to the question of “why do figure drawing?” Many reasons, here’s a simple list:
Since you’re in a new setting, away from your home, you may be able to find a deeper focus. Many have said it’s very meditational.
If you come out regularly, it becomes a nice community of people to keep up with, and maybe even see around town. I’ve made many friends from these sessions.
We’re all gathered with a specific intent: to capture some essence of the pose that the model gives us. It feels good to be united with others who also have difficult challenges to solve.
We often chat and share stories, ideas, approaches to art, talk about music, the news. It’s a light social atmosphere. You might leave with a list of things you’re excited to look up.
We have treats at break baked by my mother! This often ranks pretty high up there, competing only with ‘the drawing itself’ for reasons for coming.
You temporarily don’t have to worry about anything else. This ranks highly as one of my favourite reasons. I’m a huge advocate of mono-tasking (I even wrote a blog post on it here), of concentrating deeply on a single task. It’s a great counterbalance to our bustling, busy-minded culture. The excessive pressure to multi-task all of the time can feel crippling, especially if you want to express yourself creatively. Drawing is a great antidote.
It’s really beneficial for clearing your mind, another aspect that our busy culture lacks.
Rocky-therapy. Our 12-year-old Corgi, named Rocky, is basically our figure drawing mascot, and he puts a smile on many a face.
These are just some of the reasons why I like figure drawing. I hope what it communicates is that there is so much beyond just the drawing. If you’re happy to simply improve your skills, then you might find it easier to just draw from The New Masters Academy channel on Youtube, or any of the other online resources. However, I hope that from reading this, you’ll see it differently. I mentioned many times the ‘artists’ who attend our Tuesday sessions, but I use that term inclusively, meaning, anyone who comes out is participating in the act of ‘artmaking’ and is therefore an artist. Most of our participants just want to try it, and are beginners. I encourage anyone to come and try it once or twice. If they like the experience, some will buy a 5- or 10-session punch card, so they can come back whenever they feel like it, and not have to worry about up-front cash. No matter who you are, and how much art you haven’t done in your life so far, I hope you’ll push yourself outside of your comfort zone, and come struggle with the rest of us for a Tuesday night sometime soon. It’s never easy, but we share in the difficulty of it in solidarity, all wondering how the hell Leonardo or Michelangelo did it. It’s never been a more valuable activity to try, since so much of our minds are full of all of the different tiers of to-do lists. While drawing, you may still feel this creep back in from time to time, but it often leaves as you focus on the single concentrated action of moving a stick of conté on a piece of newsprint.
If this article has peaked your interest to try it, I hope to meet you at our home one Tuesday night in downtown Guelph - for more information, see my Guelph Figure Drawing page, visit this article for First timers, or send me a message!