Posted by: Carolyn Schlam

I have been drawing my whole life and these days my work is mostly concentrated on the human figure. I draw from the live model on a regular basis and then often translate these drawings into more complex paintings in the studio. Though the results of these studio paintings would probably be deemed by most to be more advanced, more complex certainly, and more “finished”, none has the immediacy or perhaps even the sensitivity of the quick drawings from life.

And there is no comparison in the experience. When it is good, drawing from life is a magic carpet ride, a flight in a hot air balloon. It can be, I dare say, rather like great sex, deeply satisfying while at the same time often feverish and even stressful.

I had such an experience this past week. Let me set the scenario for you.

The model was a lovely girl, but I felt her to be somewhat troubled. It is amazing how much you can read when you study a model. And you get it in an instant. People who are complex or ambivalent are more interesting to draw, because the artist cannot but strive to capture that dialectic between the beautiful outer and the inner currents. The most difficult thing to draw is a very conventionally beautiful, seemingly vacant person – you find yourself imitating the beauty, which is impossible and wind up only with the vacancy.

Anyway, this girl had something. For the last pose of the day, she took a pose that was just captivating. We had 20 minutes. How to capture all the impressions and sensations in those short passing moments? The clock was ticking. A feeling descends akin to panic. But I must stay calm. There’s too much at stake and I have to try.

We begin. The room is still, no one makes a peep. And I am feeling it, I am getting it. Her form seems to move through space and define it. There’s poetry in her pose, volumes of nuance, conflict, struggle.   If I can only capture it.

And then the bell rings. It is over. No more chances.

I calm myself and stare at my paper. Did I get it? A little, yes. I’ve got a little dollop of the incredible complexity and beauty. What a ride. Can we go again?

Often, when the thrill is so high, the drawings are not the best. The desire is too great and the artist’s own feelings get in the way. When you think about what we’re trying to do when we draw a human being, it’s a wonder we can do as well as we do. We are delving into the disciplines of physics, biology, psychology, and religion all simultaneously. With a bunch of lines and some filling, we are trying to capture the architecture of the physical world, the structure of the human form, the inner reality of the person and the meaning of their soul. How is that even possible?

It is possible through our feelings. When I feel the line, it travels through and defines space. When I feel the structure, my shadows tenderly caress skin and bone. When my eyes are not just copying, but feeling, I can snatch the psyche, the individuality of my model. And when I love, truly love, what I see and feel, I can pierce the realities and reveal the soul.

That is drawing, that is art, and it is the most fun thing to do in all the world.

It never gets boring, because try as you might, you can never quite get what you hoped for. The feelings are always bigger than the drawing. But the drawing points the way to the experience, and if it works it captures the spontaneity and essence of that moment.

Working from life on a clock like this encapsulates the thrill of being an artist. It’s because we have no time to think that it works. We don’t have time to criticize or judge ourselves, or think about what other people would say, or what they would like. We have to do and we have to be and we have to do it NOW.

Oh, if only I could do all my work in such a free and direct way. I promise to remember this when I am working 10 hours on a painting and getting nowhere. It’s great the model can only hold the pose for 20 minutes; she’s doing us all a favor, saving us from ourselves. After 3 hours of working like this, I’m feeling relaxed and satisfied- it beats a yoga class, meditation and glass of wine all rolled into one. Time for lunch.

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