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Nude Awakening

An onlooker-turned-artist tries his hand at Life Drawing


Every Wednesday, the Art Museum of Missoula offers a drop-in Life Drawing Class at 7 p.m. For five dollars, you are provided with paper, charcoal, pencils, a quiet and well-lit place, and someone to draw. For two hours, you must observe, (and in case it has been a while since you had to practice this skill, it consists of both scrutinizing the particulars, and understanding how each line and curve makes up the whole) and then attempt to transcribe it onto your paper.

And at first what is especially hard is the looking. Drawing demands scrutiny, close noticing, with the eye of a scientist, so that each line and shape is revealed in its correct proportion and can be thus understood, mastered, and represented. A woman disrobed, in all but a few prurient settings, demands modesty, a looking away. However, bashfully and hastily glancing at the form, you cannot see the particulars and then cannot understand the whole, and good luck trying to represent it accurately. And you must act quickly because the model cannot be expected to hold her pose forever—according to our model, Melissa “Mooncat” Mason, it takes a surprising amount of strength and finding your center of gravity and balance to maintain any pose for the requisite minimum of about 20 minutes.

It would be fatuous to say that I was, from the first, perfectly at ease sitting with the other drawers trying to capture the form of the model in front of us. The charcoal sticks felt awkward in my hand; the easel mounted on the front end of a kind of cobbler’s bench required considerable weight shifting and balancing. Hunched over this contraption, yet unable to rest my arms on anything, I applied too much force to my chalk and scarred my paper with an ugly sweeping line that was imitative of nothing I saw. I tried to erase the offending mark and smudged it, remembered then that you can’t erase charcoal, looked around furtively so as to hide my mistake, and saw the others blithely drawing and looking, contemplating and drawing, and talking with and staring at Melissa, the model who explained that without her glasses, we were just vague blurs of color—indistinguishable, really—quite anonymous. So, realizing that no one was looking at me looking at the form in front of me; I determined that however I looked was up to me. And having just figured this out, the pose was over, and my first sketch was a complete wash.

Another pose that followed looked ostensibly to be among the simplest to draw. Yet as I tentatively sketched Melissa sitting with her back to us on the floor, I saw and realized the difficulty of representing what I actually saw in front of me. It was daunting, almost overwhelming, especially considering the few crude marks I had just made. In frustration, I looked around only to see the other two drawers similarly at a loss, starting a new sheet of paper or just staring quizzically at the formal problem presented to us. I wondered aloud, “Why is this so difficult?” And Jo Rainbolt, a Life Drawing regular sitting next to me, whether about the pose or about Life Drawing or Life in general, replied: “You have to let go of your expectations; there is no right or wrong.”

And basically like a charm that worked. Perhaps I had grown more comfortable with the rectangles of charcoal, the rocking seat, or talking to someone while meticulously studying their form. But I began to look, and draw, to transpose and connect formal lines now devoid of meaning and context. I was ruthlessly proportional. I began to study the way that the light struck the surfaces and smudged and shaded my lines accordingly. I used my fingers, and the flat surface took on a second dimension. My heart rate and breathing slowed, and instead of hesitatingly searching for a place to begin, I began seeing what was next without having to look too hard for it.

Melissa said that in the four years she had been modeling, she had never been insulted, or felt self-conscious, about the way that she has been represented. “Everyone is at a different level of artistic ability,” she said, “and so there is no right or wrong, just different levels of ability to represent a form.” And that makes sense. I would never paint the night sky the way Van Gogh did, because most of the time I don’t see it that way. So once you realize that art is not truth, you are free. Your drawing is your own interpretation of the reality in front of you, and it is largely a function of several things: your physical perspective (whether you are sitting on the bench or the floor, in front or in back), your mental perspective, your ability to behold the object, and your skill at transferring what you are seeing to your paper.

The Art Museum of Missoula holds Life Drawing classes Wednesdays at 7 p.m. $5 fee includes supplies and model costs. Must be 18 or older. Call 728-0447.

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