A semi-autobiographical account of my battle with the human form.
copyright © Mike Slocombe 1998
Why bother drawing?
Jeff Collins was fifty five years old. He'd lived in the same comfortable flat since the early sixties, in a fashionable location off the Kings Road, not far from his workplace at the Chelsea College of Art.
There he worked as a senior tutor, holding life-drawing courses and teaching art history. He enjoyed his job, his fellow tutors, and the stability of a regular wage, although he sometimes found himself wishing that he'd had more time to continue the experimental work of his youth,
Steve came from the Luxford Council Estate, a rough tower block complex rotting on the outskirts of Wandsworth, and cycled the 5 miles to college every morning. He'd taken a lot of stick from his friends when he told them he was going to Art School, but he felt excited by the chance to further his talent, and didn't mind not having as much money on the weekends.
He was drawn into art after growing up with 2000AD comics and spending hours messing about on his Amiga home computer. He loved the bright colours that shone out of his monitor screen and was fascinated by the incredible animations and graphics that were possible on such a cheap computer. He liked going to college, except on Mondays. That was when Mr. Collins took the life drawing class, and he hated it intensely,
Mr. Collins arrived early Monday morning and set about getting the easels and paper ready for the class. The life model arrived on time and he considered the best place for her to sit. He was intrigued by the Autumnal sun casting long shadows across the bare floorboards, and looked forward to seeing how his students would interpret the shifting light. He unlocked the cupboard at the back of the small hall, and set out the boxes of charcoals and pencils. He felt good and hummed an old Frank Sinatra tune to himself,
Steve finally pulled himself over that last hill before freewheeling into the college yard. The journey always seemed longer on Mondays, and the desire to stay in bed stronger. He'd had a great weekend, going out raving on Friday night and spending all Saturday working on graphics for a computer game he was doing with a friend. He tried to think positive thoughts about the day ahead as he locked up his bike and walked into the hall. He grunted a half-hearted "Morning" to Mr. Collins and took up his position by the far window. At least he'll be able to see something else apart from the model for the next four hours. God, how he hated life drawing!
He couldn't see the point in spending hours and hours staring at some nude stranger lying on the floor in an "artistic" repose. If you wanted to capture someone that perfectly, he thought, why not just take a photograph and not bother with all that horrible charcoal stuff? Most of all, he hated the reverential silence that for some reason was deemed essential for life drawing. He felt it was like being at a funeral or something, only worse - at least you didn't have to use charcoal there.
"OK, everybody, you've got one hour with this pose" enthused Mr, Collins, quietly satisfied with the pose he'd arranged. The room fell silent as the students focused their attention on the middle aged, slightly plump model that was reclining on a pile of cushions by the window. Mr, Collins sat down in the corner, quietly observing the way the sunlight was catching the falling charcoal dust around the easels, and letting his mind drift back to when he was at college. In those days, you had to attend life classes every day, and were expected to produce huge portfolio's of life drawings every term. He'd loved his college days and a wry grin momentarily flashed across his face as he remembered the one model with piercing green eyes that he'd developed a crush on.
Periodically, he'd take a stroll around the easels, murmuring encouraging words to students, or helping a struggling pupil with their drawing, As he walked towards the far window, he suddenly heard a faint, but irritating, high pitched repetitive beat. The closer he got to the window, the louder and more insistent it became.
"Steve! Please take those infernal earphones out and turn that machine off!"
"Fuck it" growled Steve under his breath, "that's all I need".
He'd got away with listening to ambient techno at the last two life drawing classes, and now Mr, Collins would be right on his case. The music had been just about the only thing that had stopped him from falling asleep, and now he'd have to stand in silence. Boring, tedious, solemn silence. God, how he hated this. He fiddled with his pencil case and looked down at his drawing. It looked OK, I suppose, you could see the resemblance to the person sprawled out in front of him, but he felt nothing for it. If it were to spontaneously combust in front of his very eyes, he couldn't give a shit.
He looked around the room, followed the rays of sunlight to the big blue sky outside and watched a distant plane carve a white streak through the faultless expanse. He wondered where the plane was going. He thought of distant lands, lonely plateaux, and unclimbed mountains, and imagined himself stepping off the plane onto the hot Tarmac of a small African island. He pictured gentle waves lapping against a pure-white stretch of deserted sands, the sounds of palm trees rustling in the cooling breeze, and the distant chink of his cocktail being prepared.
Or there again, he thought, perhaps the plane had been hijacked by a crazed Russian gunman, sweat dripping down the neck of his white nylon shirt as he stood in the aisle of Flight 2473, an explosive device in his trembling hands. The plain clothes cop close to terrorist weighs up his chances when...,
"Steve! are you having a few problems?" "Er...sorry, Mr, Collins, I'm having a bit of trouble with her..er...left arm".
Mr. Collins patiently and expertly explained how Steve had not quite caught the line of her lateral head triceps and needed to emphasise her clavicle a little more. Steve looked on in a mixture of admiration and bafflement as his tutor skilfully sculpted new shapes into the drawing, injecting life and form in a myriad of expert pencil strokes.
After a few minutes, Mr, Collins stepped back and asked Steve if he could see the difference that a little more attention to detail could make. Steve tried to sound enthusiastic, but the truth was he just didn't care what happened to his drawing. He mumbled something about not really relating on a personal level to the subject, and suddenly Mr, Collins came alive, "Exactly my boy, exactly!" he exclaimed, "that's what it's all about! It's all about how you relate to the subject. lt's about your interaction with the model, l want to see your emotions and feelings in your work!"
Steve thought about it. He understood the arguments well enough - about how important it is to study the human form, and how you need a real understanding of the body to be able to draw people. He acknowledged that life drawing disciplines you into the art of truly studying the subject and learning all about perspective, foreshortening and other skills.
But the inescapable truth was that it bored him shitless. Why do tutors think it's so important? Surely it's better to embrace the new technology and expand the creative horizons than to sit entrenched in the past? The time it took to draw an arm he could have created a new computer animation, or learned a new image processing skill. There's kids out there just 16 or 17 who've never seen the inside of a life drawing class who are already earning a living at producing computer game graphics. They've logged on to the white heat of an artistic revolution, a Technicolor collision of old and new, creating artwork that couldn't have existed at any other time on this planet.
Mr, Collins could see that Steve hadn't paid any attention to his words. He'd seen his sort before, all full of ideas and attitude, and in too much in a hurry to learn the essential basics of drawing. Without that, he felt, how could he ever really communicate his ideas? To him, drawing was the absolute cornerstone of artistic creativity, something that had to be learnt before you moved on to any other sphere of the arts. They were the building blocks to comprehending and interpreting the world around you. He wished that Steve could understand this and realise just how crucial these skills were to any artist, no matter what medium they were working in.
Steve glanced over at Mr, Collins, a tall thin figure silhouetted amongst a sea of easels, and thought of him as a dinosaur from another age. Like an disused railway station next to a motorway, or a lighthouse stranded by reclaimed land, he carried on scribbling with pencils and crayons whilst the world was changing around him at an electrifying pace. Steve wanted to be part of the Internet generation, he wanted to communicate his ideas globally and address issues that mattered to him.
Fuck splurging oil paints about a canvas when they're driving motorways through ancient woodlands and half the world is starving! To Steve it didn't matter if things weren't perfect- all that mattered was that the idea, the emotion and the feeling were communicated. Most of his favourite musicians - punk bands and techno artists - weren't that competent as musicians, but what did that matter? The Clash got to number one in the States with an album full of mistakes but who cared? It always seemed to him that once bands got "good", they started making shit music. No, Steve liked the raw sound and visuals from the street, and felt it far more important to capture the energy of the moment with whatever tools were around - he wanted to be at the party, not talking about it. Shit, if all the artists in the world had waited until they "got good", we'd be stuck with a world of bleedin' Genesis albums!
Steve flipped over a fresh sheet on his easel, and felt his imagination kicking in again. He looked up at the white exhaust trails slowly dissipating into the cobalt stratosphere and began to think about the computer graphics he'd seen at the Rave...
Mr, Collins looked over from the corner of the room. He saw Steve once again staring out to the wild blue yonder, pencil in his month and his feet quietly tapping to an imaginary beat. "One day", he thought, "he'II wish that he'd paid more attention here"
(c) Mike Slocombe/urban75 1995
© Mike Slocombe 1998
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