What would our curriculum be if we didn’t cover the time-honored subject of drawing naked people? Being that we are in a high school, and being that I want to keep my job, we do our drawings with subjects that are clothed; the fact that they are clothed does not change what ideas and concepts I am trying to get across. What are those concepts? What are those ideas? What are we trying to teach, and why do we utilize figure drawing? For me, it comes down to four concepts that I think are vitally important when teaching high schoolers:
As a teacher, the most important skill I want my students to have is the ability to draw what is in front of them. I could go on for a while about why, but to simplify, I will say this: The ability to draw what you see is the basis for all other forms of art. Once you can do this well, you will be more successful in every area of art.
Building on the concept of observation, the best way to get better at drawing is by practicing drawing. Figure drawing gives us the opportunity to process with a ton of different materials. If you spend two days with conte crayons, two days with charcoal, two days with oil pastels, and two days with chalk pastels, you feel more comfortable with a variety of media and have added a lot to your skill repertoire. Comfort leads to confidence, and confidence leads to better drawing, irrespective of material.
A lot of my students are used to working from photographs they’ve taken, and figure drawing flips the script for them a little. All of the necessary visual information is still there, but perhaps the “right” answer is not. Students need to make the decisions themselves about what they are seeing and how to depict it. There is not a reference from which they can work–it would be the equivalent of not having answers in the back of the book. When students make those decisions, they have to look, they have to think, they have to learn to see. Figure drawing is a great way to begin to develop these abilities.
As an art teacher, one pressure I put on myself is to prepare my students for studying art at the next level–whether it be community college, a university, an art school, or otherwise. Anywhere my students go, they will likely be drawing models when they begin their drawing classes. Allowing them to develop figure drawing skills, experience the routine of figure drawing, and learn how to be successful with these drawings gives them an advantage over many of their future classmates as they move on.
A Few More Thoughts/Logistics:
Posing is not always the easiest thing in the world. And sometimes we’re not excited about it. Right, Andie?
I will generally have two or three students posing at any one time, just so the entirety of the class’s attention is not on one person. This allows for a little bit more of a comfort level for those who are posing, and a variety for those drawing–they may not like the pose of one model, so there are other opportunities for subject matter. For long poses, I encourage the model to get into a comfortable position so they will not have to move–it’s important to stay still through the entire drawing time. Sleeping on a (new and clean) mophead is never a bad idea:
Daily Figure Drawing Schedule:
Begin with gesture drawings–5 or 6 quick poses, about 15-20 seconds each.
Sometimes short poses–1 or 2 drawings, 5 minutes each
One long pose–the remainder of the class period.
We have 47 minute classes, which is never enough to finish a drawing. It is, however, enough to get a good start toward a finished drawing.
The 3 Week Schedule:
We generally follow that daily schedule every day for two weeks, rotating so everyone poses one day and draws the other 9 days. For example, a class of 30 students would need to have 3 students posing every day through the 10 day rotation. I’ve created a specific schedule some years, and other years I’ve drawn names out of a hat every day. I don’t have a preference, but sometimes a schedule can help create some interesting drawings; students who know they will be posing can dress up, or wear specific clothes that can be challenging to draw.
In addition, we try out new materials every day. For example, if you do two drawings each day during the week, a different material for each drawing:
Monday: Charcoal and Conte Crayon
Tuesday: Graphite and Art Stix
Wednesday: Chalk Pastel and Oil Pastel
Thursday: Watercolor and India Ink
Friday: Choice of Materials
Switching each day allows students to experience all of the materials, helping them to determine with which they will be most successful. They develop their skills with those materials a little more on Friday, then they will be confident going into the next week. During that next week, they can keep working with those same materials or continue their explorations with different media. Students’ goals will determine exactly where they go and what they do with their supplies, but the variety generally allows them to experience some success.
An important point about experiencing that success: Emphasize that not every drawing has to be spectacular. I’m fine if their first 20 drawings are terrible. Sometime, in the course of two weeks, I just need four good drawings. The bad drawings are part of the learning process–there is no pressure to make everything great. Sometimes it takes 7 or 8 days to really get the hang of it, and that’s fine. We just simplify–zoom in, focus on fewer details, concentrate mostly on composition–and eventually, with enough practice and enough help, the success follows.
Finishing the Process
After two weeks of drawing, I will have students choose their best 5 drawings–they then have 3 days to work on their own to touch up, refine, and do what is needed to make them look like completed pieces. We will then run a two-day class critique that highlights the work of each student.
For juniors and seniors, this is a great way to add to their developing portfolio–5 new drawings in 3 weeks is not something that they can usually accomplish otherwise–and show their observational drawing skills. Figure drawing is an important part of the skill development process, and a great way to begin the year.