From Ambivalence to Conviction: Why I Teach Figure Drawing and Painting

Guest blog by Elise Richman, Associate Professor of Art at the University of Puget Sound 

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Painting has a checkered past and I’m not referring to the modernist grid (pardon the bad painter humor).  Consider how aligned it has been with the rich and powerful and the ubiquitous paintings of passive female nudes on display at every major art museum.  The sheer number of paintings representing pink, fleshy female nudes reclining on velvet drapery, splayed across pastoral landscapes, and twisting with all manner of cherubs, centaurs, and gods astounds and confounds me.

The glazed gazes and languid limbs that populate countless paintings and drawings too often manifest the power differentials that direct the male gaze. This cultural and historical legacy looms in my consciousness when I teach figure drawing and painting.  However, I have come to realize that this legacy of passivity is perpetually diffused by the active process of engaging in figure drawing and painting in the classroom.

The act of drawing and/or painting a real human being involves a relational way of thinking that sees the human form as an active anatomical structure and a vital, dynamic organism. My ambivalence about engaging in a tradition that has contributed to the objectification of women has shifted into a conviction that by seeing anatomical structure, analyzing interconnected proportional relationships, and striving to perceive form as truthfully as possible students activate a historically passive subject.

Several years ago I wrote a list of strategies for thinking about gesture drawing.   As I drafted my list, I realized that there is an intricate and interwoven connection between process, attitude, and meaning.  Recognizing the reciprocal relationship between observer and observed, process and product, and analyzing and empathizing infuses the act of making art with meaning.

Here is the list I compiled:

  • Responsiveness to observation and/or emotion
  • Fusion of conception and perception
  • Capturing the energy of the subject
  • Creating a major, overall structure
  • Expressing empathy for the subject that is visual and kinesthetic
  • Expressing visual relationships, weight and movement
  • Providing a sensory form of identification with the subject
  • Conveying the totality of the subject’s essential nature

This list represents the values that make figure drawing, which is most conducive to gesture drawing, important.  When capturing the essence of the figure with as much immediacy and responsiveness as one can muster, technique fuses with empathy and the hand, heart and head unite to capture the energy that reflects that dynamic vitality of each and every pose.

For a great group advocating feminism in art check out the Guerrilla Girls website.

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