As artists, we can find beauty in a roll of toilet paper.
Maybe the ribbon has unraveled in elegant turns, or the light has turned the white paper into an exciting puzzle of tones. We catch a glimpse of it just sitting there, and we compulsively start to work out how we would show that little bundle of cheap paper on a canvas.
In a split second, a roll of toilet paper has seduced us.
When we work from life—whether we’re drawing a still life or painting a scene—we’ve got a million problems in front of us. They’re primarily problems of perception: How dark is a shadow? What’s the curvature of a shape? We squint and concentrate. We’re looking and thinking. It’s a mind-driven process.
But when we get the chance to work from a model—a living, breathing, feeling human being—we enter a new realm of making art. We’re not just going off of what we see and think anymore. We’ve got to evoke our own physical experience of having a body, too.
When I dropped in at the Boston Figurative Arts Center for the first time a few weeks ago, I hadn’t worked from a model in several years. I’d been painting infrequently, mostly working on landscapes and still lifes. I could remember that working from a model was somehow different, I just couldn’t recall how, exactly.
First, there’s the shock of nakedness. When you haven’t worked from a nude model in awhile, it takes a just a minute or two before you can relax and forget that she’s naked. Once you’re in the habit, it seems perfectly normal for an unclothed person to stand still in front of you while you stare intensely.
Once I became comfortable with the nudity, it came back. I remembered what was unique about working from the figure.
The body isn't like other objects. It has a gesture. It feels. And when you see it sitting or standing or leaning in a certain way, you know how it feels. You hit the squishy, fleshy spots in a specific manner with your paintbrush—maybe an easy stroke, sopped with paint—and for the tight, weight-bearing places, you make a hard, sure dash on your canvas. You might dig with a sharp mark on the bony angles, like elbows and ankles.
On Saturday, after we finished our afternoon session with Ansu, I lobbed the question to everyone: Why paint the figure, why is it different than other subjects?
Marc, who usually paints landscapes, said he paints the figure because “there’s something to be said for upholding a tradition, especially one that’s older than Western culture.”
I asked Osama, who is primarily a still life painter, how painting a live model is different than painting, say, a still life of a mannequin.
“I would do a mannequin in 10 minutes,” he told me.
The biggest challenge is getting flesh to look like flesh, Osama said.
“It’s not just ochre and red and white, you have to have atmosphere,” he said. “Skin has blood and veins, it has cool colors and warm colors.”
Damon said that the figure is like 40 still lifes put together, and that there’s “so much complexity, even though it’s, in a way, simple.”
It’s true, our initial approach to a figure is the same as a still life. You must make the usual, tedious calculations: How will I compose the page? At what angle are the hips tilted? What’s the true shape of that foreshortened foot?
But here's the delight in working from the human figure: Even as you work through those calculations, you're dancing over your page because your understanding of your subject is biological. You get what it feels like to be a person with a body, sitting on a cold folding chair or perched upright on a pillow. As you pore over every block and shadow, your image is laced with an innate empathy for your subject.
The figure gives you a unique challenge—can you let your own experience of having a body inform how you show the model’s? When you succeed, your art will give that same feeling you had to the viewer.
The figure is the only subject that we have a chance of understanding on such a physical level. After all, we may never know what it’s like to be a roll of toilet paper.
The images used in this post were created on February 26, 2011 by Mike Pina and Damon Lehrer, respectively.