A Very Nice Compliment

On a warm Tuesday evening in our Laguna Beach studio, twenty artists sat in a circle around one our most gorgeous, undraped models. Most of the work created this evening would (or should) complete its mission in the trash bin. Why? Because Tuesday evenings are for practice, not for creating art, and most work is graphite or charcoal on paper. This is the equivalent of a trumpet player running up and down the musical scales.  

A few brave (or deluded) souls use pastels, ink, and watercolor. The first dozen poses last two minutes each, increasing over the next three hours until the last and longest 25-minute pose. After doing so many short fast gesture drawings, 25 minutes seems like a long time, and some pretty nice figure drawings get created at the end. Some of these may get saved for future reference, but few will ever leave an artist’s possession. If you happened to be another Picasso, some of these will sell for millions and wind up on the walls of galleries in a hundred years. 

A few of the best pros create works at this point that you might frame and hang. These guys have spent thousands of hours in this kind of practice. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers” establishes that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become a master in any field; art is no exception. My own practice time estimate is upwards of 5000 hours, and I figure that I need at least another 5K to sit next to a few of the masters I know and love.  

Many people think artists are born with this ability; they aren’t. Drawing ability isn’t talent, it is a skill developed through training and practice, and it is no different from learning to play a musical instrument. A lot of people believe they could never be able to draw well. The same people can’t play the piano, either, because they simply don’t understand the necessary commitment to the required practice. You can’t do it if you don’t love doing it. After thousands of hours of practice you look at something, your brain sends the right commands to your pencil wielding hand and it draws what you see, just like a piano whose hands hit the chords as soon as he sees a sheet of music. In either case, if you stop practicing, your skill diminishes.  

Being such a master at drawing (or playing piano chords) does not make you an artist- but it helps with many genres of art. Few modern artists can draw well. Many artists who can’t draw cop out by claiming artistic license or playing the that’s-the-way-I-intended-it card. 

Poses vary from sitting, standing, rear, side, and front, and sometimes a view seems impossible to draw. The difficult ones are the most useful ones to practice.  I find it fun and challenging to fit four or five poses onto a single sheet, and sometimes, when I’m hot, I luck up on a good composition and the result isn’t half bad: I have saved a few but have yet to hang one of them.  

I always do better with certain models; no, it’s not a sexual thing, since these include both male and female models. Some people prefer fat, wrinkly models with huge feet and lots of warts, since they present more structure and shadows to work on.  I enjoy drawing whoever is on the stand, but without fail, I do better when the model is well shaped. Once I move into “the zone” (a right brain state of consciousness, where the mind is free of time and numbers and thinks in images), I scarcely perceive that the object I am drawing is a person, let alone a nude model. Nevertheless, some deeper guide within me knows the difference between beautiful curves and ugly (to me) flab.


Five, Ten, and twenty minute drawings


Sometimes when a certain mood hits me I zoom in on a small part of the model and see a beautiful landscape. Occasionally the result is a pleasing abstract that goes well with a few clouds and mountains that complement the figure, and I go on to add color to these later.  I call these “femscapes”. 

Femscape091, 1l”x15, watercolor on paper, drawn from the model 


On this Tuesday evening I was on a roll. I even liked my two-minute drawings. By the time I was at five minutes I was happy with an entire page of drawings.  Even Jennifer and Mike, both excellent artists, who were working beside me, complimented the sheet. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I had drawn this same model already for nine hours in the previous two days, and still wasn’t tired of drawing her.

Two, Five, and Ten minute gesture drawings 


Sitting immediately across from me this evening was Fred Hope, founder and president of the association. I don’t see the other artists in the room when I am in the zone, not even the one immediately across from me, and. I wouldn’t have noticed Fred, except he usually sits at the office computer on Tuesday evenings handling association business. Fred is a well-known Laguna Beach artist, who put in his 10,000 hours of drawing practice years ago; he does this 24/7 for a living, and can draw circles around most of the people in the room. 

Seeing him there reaffirmed my belief that one should never stop practicing.  Also, I figured, “well, even after I’ve put in my 10,000 hours, I will never tire of drawing a beautiful model, so, Fred probably hasn’t either.” The thought gave me some reassurance that I would always get pleasure from drawing.  

For the next to last drawing for the evening I zoomed in on a torso, envisioning a nice femscape. With a completed torso after 10 minutes, I added a head and legs with time left for shading, not bad for twenty minutes. Now I was totally ready for the final 25-minute pose.

Twenty minute drawings


During the break, Fred approached me, handed me the sheet of paper he had been working on, and said, “ I’m outa here. Can you lock up?” The sheet of paper contained a beautiful, delightful charcoal portrait of me, working away, captured in the zone, with no indication of the subject that had me so captivated except maybe for the expression he had captured on my face.  

As the model approached the stand for her last pose and as the door closed behind Fred, I turned his work for the other artists to see and announced. “I have just had the greatest compliment I can imagine paid to me by Fred.  With such a beautiful model posing for him with me in the background, Fred chose to draw me.”

In the Zone, 12”x12, Charcoal on paper, drawn live by Fred Hope


 A few jaws dropped, accompanied by a few oohs and aahs. To a limited extent my 5000 hours has given me enough insight to understand his choice. Maybe after five more years of this, if a similar configuration arises again, I will choose to draw the dude sitting over there even if the model is just a great as Tuesday’s ………………….…………NOT!