To kill time in our life drawing class, I join my students when they draw. It’s better than lulling them to siesta with a lecture or going around looking from behind their backs to check if the eyes on the paper still show hints of anime or if lack of shading is not making the nose or the chest even unflatteringly flatter. It’s incredible how a student can turn a beauty queen into a monster.
With more than 40 students in each section, doing the rounds like that is a redundant workout considering I jog every morning, bike to school, and walk up a hill to get to our college building.
So I excuse myself by ranting about the factory style system of the modern university and how it is robbing professors of their own studio time. Then I go into a boring lecture about the merits of the Renaissance atelier, where apprentices learn by working with their teachers. Or the ancient way of learning anatomy by dissecting cadavers and spending a lot of quiet moments in a room with a naked model. Talk like that jolts my drowsy captive audience.
On the first day of class, I already complained that we seem to be up against all odds: that we are supposed to have easels and not long tables, heavy curtains and spotlights, plaster casts of classic sculptures, and—most important—a nude model for each session.
That is how life drawing is taught in the ideal world. In the art school we visited in China, they even have a couch ready for the model positioned below a small skylight.
But then, we are in a Catholic university and I have to appease my students by saying that it’s good enough that we are allowed to draw a nude model as long as we pay for it. But models can be demanding, so students end up posing—clothed, of course. Nude sessions are reserved for midterm or final exams (perhaps the only exams they can’t wait for).
I learned from artist-friends in Malaysia and Brunei that drawing a nude is prohibited there. And so the students had to use a lot of imagination trying to draw what’s underneath the dress. Or they rely on pictures from books and, perhaps, some magazines which themselves could be prohibited.
I set my own rules too, like not allowing students to copy from photos of the model on their camera phones. Gesturing like I’m making phone a call, I tell them: “It’s life drawing, hello. You should draw straight from life!”
Technology has nothing to do with it. In fact, I also use videos of famous sketch artists in China to do the demo as I gladly leave the classroom for the canteen. In my behalf, the artists on screen show the tricks of portraiture with a dark pencil, speaking in Mandarin. But drawing is a universal language so who cares about subtitles?
Still, I have to sit with my students and try to prove that I can practice what I preach, drawing the same model, a classmate. With more than 40 students, there is always a supply of good models—faces not necessarily pretty (we have a lot of that too) but with interesting details.
For the artist, a beautiful face is one with features that catch the light in good contrast with shadows. This results in good expression, like how the shades around the mouth give the Mona Lisa a strange smile.
But last Friday, we had an invitation to sketch Muriel Orais, the reigning Miss Philippines Earth-Water (I didn’t know beauty queens now come with such long titles) in the small gallery of Kukuk’s Nest, the café near our school. Unfortunately, it was scheduled the day after our class so the students could not show up, much as they would want to sketch a beauty queen for a change. So I ended up going there myself, joining a group of artist-friends already sketching the Cebuana with Chinese and Spanish features.
What better way to draw Miss Water than in watercolor, I first thought. But I have to admit that I’m not good in this medium, so I reverted to a pencil sketch, making one for me and another for her.
So what could have been another drab rainy day was saved by Miss Water, who had to endure the heat of the spotlight, chatting with us as we tried to capture her elemental beauty on paper.
Achieving likeness and beauty in portraiture and figure drawing is a recurring pursuit in the life of the artist even as his or her work evolves into other styles. In this sense, life drawing is the artist’s life sentence. And with beauty queens occasionally posing as models, it is one which the artist would gladly serve.