McGuffey’s life drawing sessions turn perspective on its head

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Amateur and professional artists hone their drawing skills with the help of a live model at McGuffey Art Center. Photo: Ryan Jones Amateur and professional artists hone their drawing skills with the help of a live model at McGuffey Art Center. Photo: Ryan Jones

On a recent Saturday morning, C arrived at McGuffey Art Center to pose for a life drawing session held in an artist’s basement studio. She knew to expect a challenge.

Robert Bricker, the artist running the session, posed C (not her real name) and another model together in a box with uneven walls jutting out at odd angles. Bricker laced a skeleton between their nude bodies and hung a necklace made of masks around the second model’s neck. After a while, says C, she began to sweat. Her grip on the wall started to slip and her muscles shook, but she held steady.

As the models posed, a dozen or so Charlottesville artists of various ages drew, their eyes fluttering up and down from models to props to page and back again. Each week, artists arrive at McGuffey with their pads, pens and pencils, ready to capture what many consider to be the ultimate challenge in art: the human figure.

These open figure sessions are part of McGuffey’s community outreach program. Member artist Jean Sampson says that the life drawing program began about 15 years ago. Currently, McGuffey offers four life drawing sessions each week, three two-hour nude drawing sessions and one clothed-model, long-pose drawing and painting session.

A rotating cadre of models of varying ages, genders, shapes and sizes sit for the artists each week, and no two sessions are the same. On Wednesday nights, models and artists go through one-minute, three-minute, five-minute, 10-minute and 15-minute poses before digging in to a one-hour pose. Saturday morning sessions give more time to a single pose. The artists don’t offer instruction or critique, but they’re often glad to share work and techniques. “We all learn from each other,” Sampson says.

Steve Taylor, a landscape painter who attended art school and worked in advertising for many years, says the class helps him maintain fundamental drawing skills. He likes the imperative of the short poses and finding difficult angles for the longer poses. But the most challenging thing is creating a drawing “that feels like a real person in a particular place or position,” he says. “It’s not about the level of finish—sometimes a three-minute drawing can feel better than a much longer piece.”

Life drawing session host Bob Anderson says the classes can be therapeutic. “Doing real quick sketches in life drawing will break you out of a painter’s or drawer’s block, and it’ll do it really fast,” he says. When he does a three-minute sketch, for example, he uses a pen, never a pencil—that way, he can’t change a line once it’s on the page, and he’s forced to accept a fluid drawing movement.

Charles Peale sketches during a recent live drawing session at McGuffey Art Center. Photo: Ryan Jones
Charles Peale sketches during a recent live drawing session at McGuffey Art Center. Photo: Ryan Jones

The sessions encourage each artist to develop his own style. While Anderson draws the shadows to create a striking line drawing, Sampson fills her page with all of the props and the setting before drawing the model—the result is somewhat like Picasso’s Guernica, with bodies and objects tumbling with energy across the page.

“There’s something special about interacting with the environment and with the drawing coming through you and onto the page,” Sampson says. “It’s like magic.”

For an artist, the time passes in a snap, but for a model, sitting still for an hour can be just as challenging as leaning over a PVC cube, with one foot in the air, for the same amount of time.

“Any position you hold yourself in for a long period of time, you learn that it’s much harder to hold for a long period of time after you get into it,” C says.

At the start of a session, C, who has modeled at McGuffey since fall 2015, says she’ll choose poses based on what artists want to work on—hands, feet, portraits or dynamic form. She’ll slump softly in a chair or contort her body, turn her face toward or away from the light, grip a prop—maybe a chain, a gourd, a chair—with her hands.

Though C is sometimes asked to assume difficult positions to conjure dramatic tension for the artists to capture, she says she’s never been pushed beyond her own physical or emotional boundaries. She’s found all of the artists to be respectful, supportive and understanding of her limits and those of the other models. If she’s not comfortable, she’ll speak up.

The artists also protect the models’ identities by not sharing their names outside of the classrooms and closed Facebook group. If someone comes to a session and makes a model feel uncomfortable, either in the room or after, that person is not invited back. The models are making themselves vulnerable for the sake of art, and saftey is paramount.

Anderson, known for his oil paintings and intricate landscape drawings, points out that centuries ago—for artists such as Michelangelo or da Vinci, or even Picasso in his blue period—drawing or painting sought to capture the human body exactly. Today that’s easily done with a camera. “Drawing now is much more of a spiritual thing, as opposed to reproduction,” he says, insisting that once an artist can master the human form, he can do anything.

Share your own drawing technique with us in the comments below.

–Erin O’Hare

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