Monday, September 1, 2014

"I do not know if you bridle your pen, but when my pencil moves, it is necessary to let it go, or - crash!  … nothing more.  ~ Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Looking is the artist's constant practice for drawing… simple as that. Your eye has to look for a looong time before your pencil can make an accurate mark. In fact, you have to look for years and years, and at everything, and silently. Touch helps, too. But looking is the key. It's the homework that many people, people who want to be called "artists," overlook.

But, there had been no warning before that particular day in Advanced Drawing class, and I'll always be thankful that Larry was sitting in the drawing bench next to me. Those drawing benches… It was like climbing on a horse's back and straddling a wooden saddle. Straddling wasn't a problem because all female art students wore "the outfit" ~ a pair of "grubbies," a sweatshirt, and sneakers on our feet. Those "grubbies" - a pair of cut-off, rolled-up, worn-out jeans. I loved them, and I still wear jeans to this day. There must be something sewn into those seams that stirs up creativity… I don't know… but "the outfit" works!

The front of the drawing bench was a vertical piece of wood that you would lean your drawing board against. It was important to have your drawing on this perpendicular easel-like contraption because how else can you draw? NOT on a flat table top, of course! That perspective is distorted and makes for seriously wonky work. 

All the class sat on their drawing board "horses", circling the platform where the still life would be mounted. But this day there was no still life. The platform was empty except for a stool and a blanket on the floor. Well, it wasn't my place to question our drawing professor. He was mightier than the sword. He had a pen that graded our work!

The professor climbed onto the platform, escorting a very, very large lady wrapped in a white towel-ish robe. She was disheveled and it looked to me like she had just been rousted out of her nice warm bed!

"Today," said the little professor with the big pen who never smiled, "you will be drawing the human form… the nude human form… the form that all great artists…" But I didn't hear anymore of his words…

"Larry! Larry!" I hissed. "Is she going to take off that robe… here… in front of us? Is she going to have no clothes on? Larry.."

"Yes, she's going to be naked, Terry!" Larry grinned. 

"Completely naked?" I whispered.

"Yeah, Terry! No clothes… nuthin' on her…" Larry's eyes were wide open, very wide open. 

"Larry, I can't do this! I can't look at a naked lady! I can't..."

"Then you'll have to fail, Terry. Now be quiet… I got work to do…" 

There was this strange grin on Larry's face. His voice even sounded different than I'd ever heard him sound.

Larry and I had been in every art class together since we entered university, and we'd even had a couple of dates that first semester. But Larry and I had become friends, close friends, and finally best friends. He was a brother to me, and we were truly "kindred souls." Larry was an amazing person, one that I was so comfortable with, the sort of person that I never had to watch my words with, a person I could depend on anytime and anywhere. We both decided that we were "best friends."

Larry, like nearly every art student, was short of money. Do you know how much paint and paint brushes cost for art students? I had to sell my deeply-loved literature books every single semester to buy more books and more paint and more of everything "art." Larry took a job at a hospital, working the midnight to 6AM shift every single night! Yup, paint and brushes will do that to you…

"Psst… Larry!"

"Terry, shhhhhhush!!! I'm working," he grinned. I looked at his drawing paper and there wasn't a pencil stroke anywhere. The paper was as pristine as it had been before the subject matter was announced! Then Larry looked over at my paper, and there was nothing there, either. I still hadn't found the nerve to look at this naked lady.

"Terry, you're going to fail this class if you don't start drawing… For cripe's sakes, DRAW!" he hissed.

And I finally looked up at our model. She was splayed out on the blanket in a casual pose, but one of her legs was folded at just the right angle to hide the part I was sure that I just shouldn't be seeing! I grabbed my drawing pencil and started in. My face was glowing red for at least 10 minutes, and then, gradually I forgot she was human. It's true! I was lost in the curves and folds of her flab, the angles of her limbs, the strings of her hair…  Oh, the lines, the shadows, the rhythm of her! 

Suddenly, it seemed, the professor walked onto the platform and said, "It's break time! You have 20 minutes to go over to 'Swede's.' But be back in 20 minutes!" And the model stood up and reached for her robe. 

She climbed down off the platform and asked a bunch of us if she could come along to get some coffee at "Swede's." Larry smiled, "Sure!" 

But for me, she had changed. I couldn't look her in the eye! I was embarrassed. I was shy! She had turned back into a live human being, and I couldn't face her. 

Thank God "Swede's" was as crowded as usual, and there was nowhere to sit. The law students had been given their break about 5 minutes earlier than ours, and they were sprawled all over the booths in their spiffy suits and ties. We were art students. We were "grubs!" I suppose they thought the floor would be good enough for us to sit on!

Many models came and posed for our advanced drawing classes, and, of course, each was uniquely different from every other one… tall, short, skinny, rounded, with glasses, without glasses… all kinds of people were models. But it was the personal rhythm of each person that I studied in my looking and my drawing. Each person seemed to me to be like an original piece of music. I finally understood that drawing the human body was critical to understanding all art. That might have been where my love of art history began, I don't know. After all, I was doing the same kind of studying as all artists had done before me. The greatest artists the world has ever produced all studied the human body. And, by the time the 3rd or 4th model came to class, I could even smile at them and say, "Hi!"          


  1. Great, Terry! Very embarrassing....just imagining myself in that class made me nervous! Glad you conquered your reticence!

  2. Thanks so much. I have other stories about models and drawing classes, too. Once, nearly the entire Cornhusker football team signed up for an evening drawing class because they heard about the nude models! But that's another story...

  3. You tell it vividly yet without any more words than necessary to bring the moment to life. The few extra details--Swede's and the law students--are perfectly placed, a great contrast.

  4. Robert, your comments mean so much to me. You were one of my AP students, after all! By the way, I had to add the law students… I married one of them! :}