I’ve been doing an experiment in a life class

101_8641 (2)
memory of my original impulse illustrated


once a week drawing heads larger than life size using bright invented colors. Each week the drawings seem radically different from ones I made in the class before, from which I conclude that I succeed in their being “experimental.” But I had more motive than just trying something new. I had a specific idea that prompted the whole thing.  It was an idea about a color.

Remembering what prompted me to attempt this experiment, I realize that I haven’t used that color yet. I haven’t actually done what I thought would be the good thing to do.

It began because I was looking at someone else’s drawing, a drawing made in a life class, it was larger than life size and was conceived tonally. The lighting of the model was strongly directional and each student’s drawing had a cast shadow that fell from the model’s chin. A row of these drawings was visible from where I stood, each with the same cast shadow. Looking at one of the drawings, the thought popped into my head, “what if instead of a dark shadow, there was a shape that was a beautiful brilliant light violet color.” I’ve written about my project before HERE.

I know I’ve been affected by my fondness for works by Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, Richard Diebenkorn and by the late works of Edgar Degas. In front of the actual model, one feels a tug toward realism — a kind of demand that you get the drawing right, obtain a likeness. I’ve been very free with color, but I feel this conflict about drawing and am never sure what I really want from the session. The artists I’m emulating were in each of their different ways, though, very free about the image.  The most notable would be Matisse’s La Raie Verte.

la raie verte Matisse
La Raie Verte, Henri Matisse


The colors are completely invented. The drawing is very sparse and bold. And yet one gets the feeling that the identity of the sitter is present. I don’t want to paint my drawings in pastel like Matisse, but I am striving to get at a similar freedom. And it’s not that I want to paint in a fauvist way, but merely that I want to see where something leads. I want to understand this impulse from the inside.

Richard Diebenkorn portrait face


When Richard Diebenkorn experimented with a similar idea (above and below), he did so quite literally, using the bold lines, summary drawing, exaggeration of drawing and exaggeration of color just as Matisse had used before him.

diebenkorn sketchbook head
Diebenkorn, page from a notebook


The arbitrariness or expressiveness doesn’t just arise from “modern art,” however.  Degas used color, light, and paint texture very expressively in fairly early works. It’s a trend that always ran like a current in his art, sometimes classicist, but sometimes romantic.

early Degas c 1870s contre jour
Edgas Degas


In Degas’s late works the treatment of the figure both in terms of drawing and color becomes very rough and exaggerated. I particularly love his late pastels for their rugged beauty.


In the life class, I feel a tension also because the other people drawing are for the most part seeking realism.  I’m the outlier. I’ve done realist drawing.

Aletha Kuschan, self-portrait using a mirror c 1987


Yesterday however my drawing was very far from realist.  I was not attempting to make it exaggerated in form, and the challenges of the particular pose were considerable: I draw the face much larger than life size so I am making decisions about proportion continually. The model is not always easy for me to see, and during several poses I’m having to look up at the model so that the pose is foreshortened.  Sometimes I can’t get back from my drawing and with my nose to the paper I’m actually looking at my drawing from a foreshortened view, having to look up to see the top and down to see the bottom. Yesterday’s drawing was definitely not what I wanted. But there’s no experiment if you’re unwilling to make something that you didn’t exactly intend. The experiment lies in the not knowing the outcome, when deliberation and happenstance meet.

one of yesterday’s drawings in pastel


It’s strange that the exaggeration that I love in the works of my heroes makes me a little uncomfortable in my own painting. I’m not sure what the discomfort means.

Do I want a greater simplicity such as one finds in Bonnard (left) and Diebenkorn (right)? Bonnard’s works evidently sometimes had very chaotic beginnings and we know also that they had quite amorphous and complicated conclusions.

Bonnard three women
unfinished Bonnard painting

I have been mulling over my experiences in the life class trying to figure out what’s the best way to go forward during the remaining sessions.  I have collected some images from the internet of things to draw at home to “practice” and am thinking about doing my next in class session by drawing the model at a smaller scale and then perhaps making the larger than life size pastel from my initial drawing (enlarging it) rather than directly from the model — or letting the first drawing be a quick rehearsal for the pose.

I just don’t know what I’ll do, what I “should” do, or even quite what it is that I seek as yet because it’s all part of this experiment.  As chance would have it, however, I did not use a violet shadow in any of the drawings I’ve made so far. The color violet was the idea that prompted the entire project.  I’m thinking that at the very least I should obtain a stick of the violet color I need and have it on hand next time to carry through that part of the idea.




6 thoughts on “Revisiting my idea

  1. Exploring beyond realism is something that I struggle with and yet I know that with my figure drawings people would remark that mine were different from everyone else’s. I think that is because I am so “done” with the classic approach that everyone seems to go for. I want to allow the figure to come from the inside out, if that makes any sense. I am more for the soul or spirit of a model to come shining through, I always felt that classical drawing is more of a style and doesn’t really try to solve anything other than a look and the mechanics of the classical look……Interesting how you are trying for something that you can’t quite put your finger on…..am I correct by saying this? Almost a unpeeling of sorts.

  2. Yes, that’s exactly right. I do not know what I want the drawing to look like. Not quite like fauvism, though influenced by it. I use the color very arbitrarily and that part goes really well. The color decisions just arise naturally even though they are exaggerations. It’s the drawing that puzzles me because I am sometimes trying to sort out difficult drawing issues (like foreshortening) but I’m also sitting there just asking myself “what is it about this pose, this face, this image that I find intriguing?” The answers to that question can be very particular — sometimes it’s one small feature that I’ll find most interesting. I am trying to think of the thing as a whole, as a picture rather than as a portrait while caught up in intriguing parts. I have no method, just drawing features as they catch my attention, scribbling ideas to ask myself initial questions like where on the page do I situate this head and how big should it be, how much of the neck and shoulders should it include …

    Matisse and Diebenkorn are more classicist than mine because in both cases they generalize and simplify and in their way they idealize the face. Classicism has come to mean “realism” for a lot of artists, but looking at the Greek golden age sculptors one finds that it’s closer in intent to simplification and idealism. Both Matisse and Diebenkorn (in these works) have dismissed much of the particularity of the face. I feel sometimes that my drawings were too immersed in particulars, too descriptive even if they’ve gone off the rails with exaggeration ….

    Unpeeling is a good word. There’s something that I’m trying to find under many layers of indecision and “what if.” It’s interesting. Yesterday was frustrating, but then we’ve had rain for several soggy days in succession. I’m not sure if it was the toil of drawing or the incessant gloomy weather that prompted today’s mulling. And it’s still raining …. ugh.

  3. I applaud your courage for digging deep and doing all that unpeeling….far more courageous than I could be. Perhaps rather than Fauvism, you are bring about”Kuschanism” unwrapping, peeling back and rediscovering what art is to you. 🙂 it has quite raining for now and the sun is trying to come out, I have this urge to go plein air painting! ugh….like chasing a butterfly! fleeting and gone…..sigh

  4. Kind words. I hope it’s some brand of courage. Sometimes it feels like I’m chasing the will o’the wisp. And that the will o’the wisp is winning!

  5. Beautiful pastel drawing of the face – somehow conveys a sort of serenity. I too struggle often with breaking away from realism and stretching the colours and emphasis to make something that conveys more than just an image. It is the end of my comfort zone as far as painting is concerned. So hard to do something that expresses but is not gaudy or too naive. Thanks for posting!

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