The sketch show: Can television teach you to draw like an expert?

As a week of life drawing classes begin today on Channel 4, one-time art student Gerard Gilbert picks up a pencil to see if television can really teach him to draw like an expert
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The Independent Culture

A long, long time ago, I somehow managed to obtain a B grade in my art A-level without actually being taught how to draw or paint. If memory serves me correctly we were left to our own devices, with Radio 1 in the background to get our creative juices running (the smell of turpentine still evokes memories of David "Kid" Jensen and long Wednesday afternoons). I don't recall any words of technical advice however.

That's not say I'm naturally talented, and perhaps we did learn through practice or by osmosis, although I do recall a judge at our annual art open day dismissing my mural of some classmates as "naive". If he meant untutored, then he was right, and apart from a few evening classes in my early twenties, I haven't attempted to etch a life model since. So it was intriguing to learn about a new Channel 4 series, Life Class, in which a different model would pose for a different artist each day, and by extension for us back home. Older and wiser, could I crack it now?

Today's "tutor" is the painter and sculptor Maggi Hambling – Colony Room regular, carouser with the late George Melly, and a lesbian who prefers to be called a "queer". If anyone would supply no-nonsense practical advice it would surely be her. So sketch pad and pencil out, and somewhat nervously (it's not everyone who has their first public exhibition in a national newspaper) here we go. After all, as Hambling says: "You may not end up as Michelangelo but it's worth having a go."

The model, a strapping chap called Matthew Oghene ("he has a most fantastic set of curves, you must have noticed") and who is apparently much in demand in these circles, gracefully flits into a succession of rapidly changing poses that Hambling informs us are "a way of getting your eye in ... ".

Too fleeting for me I'm afraid, and I've only completed a rough outline before Hambling is saying "Thank you, Matthew," and he is limbering up for a different pose. I'm already considering cheating, and hitting the pause button, but will I still be drawing from "life"? It's perhaps a flaw with the whole concept, underlined when Hambling adds that we at home are "only seeing flat image" on our TV screen ... "only a photograph", and she has already dismissed photography as being produced by "a ruddy machine". Still my high definition Sony Bravia TV is a decent-enough ruddy machine, and I'm hitting the pause button.

"Nothing in nature stands still," says Hambling, and on fast rewind Matthew seems to quiver like a thoroughbred, but that's by the by, and I have more important problems. My proportions are wrong. The torso belongs to a much shorter man than the legs and his eyes are where his forehead should be; my three-year-old daughter draws more vivid, well-proportioned faces. Hambling again: "You've got to (realise) that you're only making some pathetic little attempt at getting something as beautiful as the human form on to a piece of paper." Too right there, Maggi.

Drawing hands is famously difficult. Mine look like crab claws. But Hambling is urging us not to get bogged down ("you spend half an hour drawing an elbow and then realise it's in the wrong place") and to keep flowing. "Get the feel of the S-bend with Matthew's body – with the curve of the back coming through to the stomach and back to that wonderful bum". Is it my imagination or did Matthew's eyelids give a little flicker at that point?

Matthew's bum isn't quite so wonderful in my picture. Hambling's own sketches are on the expressionistic side and so, you could say, are mine. But apart from advice on where to place your easel (it depends on whether you're a right-hander or left-hander), there's still a dearth of practical advice. "It's all about energy" and "the thing is to empty yourself" are all very well, but I guess I was after technical advice on shading, proportion and other such earthbound matters.

She does however drum home one overriding general point – and that is the artist must always keep an eye on the model. It's once you start concentrating on the paper instead of your subject that "the lies begin". I still can't make out if my sketch of Matthew is an honest stab at the truth or just a tissue of lies, but I have been inspired not to keep my pad mouldering in a drawer for another 20 years.

Where to start? My wife doesn't like most photographs of herself, let alone my cack-handed sketches, while my daughter doesn't sit still for more than three seconds. Ah yes, the cat; he doesn't move all day long.

"Life Class" begins today (Monday 6 July) at 12.30pm on Channel 4

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