The naked truth

When you try your hand at life drawing you reveal more of yourself than you would if you were posing nude. Sally Staples joins a weekend course
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The Independent Online
Zoe Williams is lying naked on a low divan while a dozen people wander round her checking out the best angles. All over the walls of the art studio are half-finished images of Zoe - some bearing an astonishing likeness and others doing her no credit at all.

It is intriguing that one artist's pencil has produced a sylph-like stunner while another has made this beautiful young girl look like a she-elephant. Does this bother the model? Zoe says not.

"Being a life model is a bizarre process, but as a fine art student I have done life drawing myself and I do understand how the students feel. They are terribly judgemental about their pictures, and I think you reveal much more of yourself when you put something on paper than you do standing here with all your clothes off.

"I am the only naked person in the room and they are drawing me, but at the same time I cease to be a person. They are drawing what they see. It has nothing to do with the real me. I think there is an idea that a life model should be romantic or Bohemian in some way, and if that is what people see then that is what they try to create."

The students on this weekend life-drawing class at West Dean College in Sussex range from a retired GP in his eighties to housewives in their twenties. Some have artistic backgrounds or some drawing experience; others, like Helen Binnie, are complete beginners.

"Life drawing is challenging," she says. "There is a terrible burden on you when you look at this beautiful girl and then try to translate what you see on to paper with just a pencil. You begin by feeling it is impossible to do it justice. It is easy to be discouraged, but the teaching here is so good that no one can feel disheartened for long.

"The great thing is that as you struggle there is always something you manage to do well - even if it's only a bit of the model's neck. Just one curve that has come out really well can make you feel uplifted. It is only when you really look at a human body that you realise how incredibly complicated it is. Trying to translate all those angles and shapes is a huge challenge."

Tutor Valerie Wiffen, a graduate from the Royal College of Art and the author of a Reader's Digest guide to figure sketching, is full of enthusiasm and keeps her class working fast. On the second day of the course the model assumes live poses, holding each one for two minutes and then returning to each pose five times. This encourages the students to concentrate hard, and they discover that in a short time they can achieve more than they thought.

"Life drawing is difficult and it is hard to keep a grip on dimensions and proportions," says Valerie. "But I want my pupils to learn tonal drawing so they will shade wherever they see shadows. It is easier for beginners to be literal and to draw what they see rather than to edit visually. The idea is to include as much information in the drawing as possible and the short poses help them to do this. When working quickly you learn to make choices, which is enormously valuable."

Carol Craig. a housewife from Surrey, has tried sculpting but never life drawing before. "I wanted to have a better eye and this course has really inspired me. Val doesn't mind repeating points over and over again until they sink in, and gradually things have come together.

"At first all I wanted to do was lines. Then I learned how to look and I realised how difficult it is to put what you see on paper. Now I have started shading and using tones to got the effect I'm after."

John Carrick-Smith, a Londoner who works for a bank, thoroughly approves of Val's emphasis on tonal drawing, although in trendy circles it is derided as rather old-fashioned.

"Val is good because she doesn't impose her method on you; she pulls out what is already there and helps you develop. I think it is important that before people try the Damien Hirst technique they should understand the basics of drawing and painting."

While the students are preparing to work on the 90-minute study of Zoe, Val encourages them to spend time choosing their position so that they have the angle that they want to draw. "If you're not sure about the pose, spend five minutes on several thumbnail sketches and then decide," she says.

"If you give a good grounding to students, technique is not a problem. Their own technique is the best. I try to give people individual pointers as to strengths and weaknesses. I won't allow them to throw away work in a fury when they think it has gone wrong. So long as you can rub out if you see something that is clearly wrong, move it and go for a battle- scarred winner. It is better to have dragged something into exactitude than to live with a drawing that you know in your heart is a flop.

"I encourage them to experiment with huge variations in what they draw, with different scales and a change of eye level. I try to teach the students to be brave, to stand back and look for a comprehensive image. The knack is to throw the whole thing together fast and then worry about detail.

"The negative shapes of where the model isn't must match the positive shapes of where the subject is. And I try to get them to think in terms of shade rather than lines. You don't really need a line unless you're drawing a barrier between different tones."

Val Wiffen's life drawing residential weekend course costs from pounds 156 and is run by the Department of Continuing Education at West Dean College, West Dean, near Chichester in Sussex (01243-811301). Val also teaches at Missenden Abbey, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire (01494-890295).

'Figure Sketching' by Valerie Wiffen is published by Reader's Digest, price pounds 15.99