Monday, 24 October 2016

Life Drawing (titter ye not)

Life drawing, you know ....where a model sits in front of everyone in the nude... the premise of so many hi-lar-ious sitcom scenes, sketches and tv adverts. A proper giggle, isn't it? Well, no actually, which is why an email I got several years ago shocked me so much.

To begin at the beginning, drawing from life, that is, drawing or painting anything that is actually there in front of you, is undoubtedly harder than drawing from a photo; your brain has to convert a 3D experience into two flat dimensions, the slightest change in viewpoint will drastically alter perspective, and sometimes your subject will wilt, wither or move in the wind.

Within this, drawing a portrait of a person is even harder. An obvious issue is that your subject probably won't stay still. A definite wriggle is not such a problem; the danger is the slow and subtle slump. I once attended a class where we were instructed to paint a portrait one feature at a time, with no drawing and, importantly, no initial mapping out of the body and face. Unfortunately we realised after two hours that our (expensive and supposedly professional) model had been slowly turning in her seat throughout the session, and as a result the entire class' output was an exercise in Cubism with every portrait depicting features and limbs painted from different angles.

On top of these practical problems are the additional psychological hurdles; we all know it is Rude to Stare. New students of portrait painting find it surprisingly hard to examine another person's face in calculating and objective detail. And if it is hard to study someone's face, consider then what taboos we come up against when dealing with Life Drawing: that all encompassing euphemism which means, essentially, drawing or painting a fellow human being with no clothes on. (NB for it to be Life Drawing it has to be the model who has no clothes on. If the artist is the one with no clothes on then that is just weird and doesn't, as far as I'm aware, have a specific name.)  We are all carrying around several thousand years of conditioning that, unless you work in a very limited and specific set of professions, you Do Not Look at Someone's Bits.

Pile all these issues together and a Life Drawing session can be as exhausting as a gym workout. The levels of concentration are tremendous and are multiplied by the brain trying to do mental back flips and normalise the idea of a complete stranger lying naked in a contorted pose in a brightly lit room full of clothed people who are (hopefully) not there for sexual titillation and without anyone admitting it's weird. I find it interesting to observe the behaviour of artists in a life class; people often become either exaggeratedly studious (I am a serious artist), excessively casual and jokey (I'm not uncomfortable AT ALL) or affect an other-worldly lack of awareness (model, what model?). On one occasion I saw an artist cross the room by stepping over the prone model as if she were an inanimate object. I can understand how his coping mechanisms led him to do it but it was still bloody rude. Yes you get better at coping and less unsettled the more sessions you attend, but the dichotomy is that you really cannot assume a level of clinical detachment without losing the emotional involvement that is necessary to produce art. In order to produce a portrait you can't stop responding to the model as a living, breathing.....naked... human being.

This is why I sigh heavily when I see yet another tv sketch set in a life class, but that irritation is tame compared to the email I mentioned. In it I was asked to act as the tutor for a new venture offering 'Leisure' life classes. On further enquiry these turned out to be hen parties where tipsy women would 'draw' a nude male model. Hysterical, no? When I expressed concerns that this cheapened art and was disrespectful of the models I was told that they were fully aware of what was involved, that no-one was making them do it and that they would be paid the going rate. Now where have I heard those arguments before? Needless to say I didn't accept the booking.

(Oh and by the way... if you have read this far and think I was overreacting and being prudish, please substitute 'stag parties', 'tipsy men' and 'nude female model' in the previous paragraph. Maybe then it doesn't sound such a jolly jape.)

To end then, if you are an artist, or indeed a model, who takes part in life sessions, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts. (Would you have taken that booking?). If you are an artist who has never tried life drawing then DO IT - it's a fantastic challenge and will shake up your work. If you are an art lover, then I hope that having read this you will see nude studies in a different light and perhaps have a refreshed appreciation of what goes into them.

All illustrations are my own pencil and watercolour sketches made in short pose life sessions.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Offset printing - transferring a design to multiple blocks

When creating a relief print with two or more blocks, one of the first challenges is successfully transferring the design onto each block so that together they will create a image. Perhaps the most obvious way of doing this is to take a tracing of your design and then use carbon paper to copy it onto each block. There can be drawbacks with this method though. For one thing you need to be very precise; if you draw 1 mm outside the line on one block and 1 mm inside it on another, you end up with a difference of 2 mm which can be enough to make a real mess of your print.

But sometimes you just won't have a  master drawing which is definite enough for you to use it to make each block. Perhaps you have drawn your original design straight onto your block, or perhaps you started with a traced design but have adapted and changed it as you carved that first block. This is where the offset printing technique of transferring a design comes into its own. Here's a quick guide to how it works with a woodcut print.

After carving the first block, it is inked up quite thickly (probably more than you would do for an actual print). You don't need to worry too much about stray bits of ink on the cleared away parts.

This is then printed onto thin paper (eg newsprint). This can be done quickly and easily by hand with a baren when using such thin paper.

Immediately, while the ink is still wet, this thick gungy print is laid face down on your second block. (Make sure it is lined up exactly the same way as your first one). The back is rubbed hard with the baren to transfer the ink onto the second block.

And now you have an exact replica of your first block reproduced on the second one.

From here you can start marking where you want to cut the second block.

In this example, which will be a two block print, I have carved the lighter coloured block first. This provides the structure of the image and the second darker block will be the added details. Sometimes it will be more appropriate to carve the dark second block first, when this is the one with the main features of the image while the lighter colour is looser background stuff like water or foliage. In 'Black Swan and Cygnets' (below) I carved the black block first and then used that to tell me where the lighter parts should be on the second block. When making the actual print, the second lighter block becomes the first block, and the dark block carved first becomes the second block. (Confused? Welcome to the world of printmaking!)

Now that you've got all your blocks carved - there might be more than two - you can tweak and refine them as you make proof prints. As with all carving of printmaking blocks, it's good to start off with simplified shapes and then develop the details; you can always carve away more but you can't put bits back.