The Undressed Art: Why We Draw

The Undressed Art: Why We Draw

by Peter Steinhart


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To draw is to understand what we see. In The Undressed Art, writer-naturalist Peter Steinhart investigates the rituals, struggles, and joys of drawing. Reflecting on what is known about the brain’s role in the drawing process, Steinhart explores the visual learning curve: how children begin to draw, how most of them stop, and what brings adults back to this deeply human art form later in life.  He considers why the face and figure are such commanding subjects and describes the delicate collaboration of the artist and model. Here is a powerful reminder that no revolution in art or technology can undermine our vital need to draw.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400076055
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/13/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,008,994
Product dimensions: 5.14(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.56(d)

About the Author

Peter Steinhart is a naturalist and a writer. For twelve years he was an editor and columnist at Audubon, and his work has appeared in Harper’s, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones and Sierra. He has twice been a finalist for a National Magazine Award, and his essays have been widely anthologized. He has published four books, the most recent of which is The Company of Wolves. He lives and draws in Palo Alto, California.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Eleanor Dickinson's line is lively and lyrical, a flute passage from Vivaldi, confident and sunny. It flows from the end of her felt-tip marker in curls and ribbons to divide form from formlessness, to mark the places where light glances and clings, to define the subtle curves of life. It is a remarkably supple and observant line, full of information, full of understanding of how a wrist curls or a finger bends, broad where shadows collect, finer as light intensifies, broken and invisible where light dazzles. It comes into a kind of miraculous life, born from the tip of the pen bold and finished, yet continually moving, continually revealing and describing: the back of a middle finger folding delicately away from the light, rounding down and darkening to the fingertip, then turning sharply where its contour meets the last knuckle of the index finger, now thin again in the light, down again to the index finger's rounded tip. By and by, a hand-or its contour-has appeared on the paper, and to my eye it has the exact proportion, the weight, the texture, the strength, the experience, the life of the hand across the room.

The hand across the room belongs to Yoshio Wada, a small, seventy-eight-year-old Japanese-born man with stooped shoulders, strong sinewy legs, close-cropped gray hair and a red and weeping blind eye. He is seated on a faded beige divan that angles out from the wall of what used to be the dining room in Dickinson's 120-year-old San Francisco home. Behind the divan are cloths and draperies pinned to the wall to provide a backdrop for the model at Dickinson's weekly drawing-group sessions. Wada is lit from one side by three floodlamps clamped at various heights to a stand. His right side is washed in yellow light, his left fades into shadow.

The seventy-eight-year-old model is nude. He is not seductive, not in any way Rabelaisian. His body has a seriousness, a dignity, a flawed but compelling humanity. It tells a story. As a young man at the outset of World War II, Wada had been interned with his family in a series of relocation camps in the American West. He had hoped to become an artist, but his drawing materials were taken from him. At the conclusion of the war, he was deported to Japan, where he had no family to take him in, and for two years he wandered the streets of Tokyo, looking for food. Eventually, an aunt who had remained in the United States arranged for him to be returned to California. He enlisted in the United States Army, but he was not permitted to touch a gun, so he became a medical corpsman. After that, for thirty years he worked in San Francisco as a hospital orderly. In his sixties, he took up watercolor painting. Unable to enroll in local art schools, he began modeling, because it was a way to eavesdrop on the instruction art teachers gave at those schools. Without knowing any of his personal history, the six artists who form a ten-foot semicircle around Wada are busily drawing his pain, his determination, his glacial patience and battered wisdom.

Dickinson lifts the marker tip from the paper, sits back and looks at the drawing. At seventy she gazes through alarmingly big eyeglasses-lenses the size of tea saucers, behind which her eyes are searching and impassive, perhaps the eyes of a surgeon. Shocks of dyed white and red hair drop over one side of her forehead, small exclamatory marks above an otherwise unconfiding face. She dresses in gypsy mode, favoring full-cut, dark-colored prints and the sturdy, comfortable shoes of one who works standing up. She is not given to lavish smiles or quick laughter. She doesn't offer unbidden opinions. She conveys the impression that all her attention is directed outward, that she has no self-consciousness at all. It is a characteristic I think I see in other artists in drawing groups, and I wonder whether it expresses a kind of selflessness or, just the opposite, is a mask designed to cover an overly sensitive self-consciousness.

Dickinson is one of the deans of figurative art in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has taught drawing at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now called the California College of the Arts) for thirty-three years, and her work is represented in many museums and private collections. The state of Tennessee is honoring her as a native daughter of rare artistic accomplishment with a retrospective exhibition in Nashville. She is always teaching, leaning over to look at my drawing, reminding me to measure, suggesting I leave some lines out or place the figure more effectively on the page.

She holds up her pen and uses it to measure off proportions on Wada's figure. Then she holds the pen over the drawing to mark off the units of measurement. She has said to me, "The ability to measure and the ability to see negative space are the greatest assests in drawing."

These are not the kind of words one expects from artists these days. Since the middle of the twentieth century, abstraction and expressionism have been the lodestones of fine art, and drawing has been diminished and disparaged. Commercial design and illustration these days is largely done on computers. When you ask the marketing director at Strathmore-a producer of artist papers for more than a century-what's new, he talks about a surge in sales of papers made for use with inkjet printers. At many art schools across the country, students may go through a four-year program without taking drawing or painting courses. More and more of the curriculum in art schools and more and more of the content in galleries and museums is video art, conceptual art and installation art. Less and less is actually based on drawing. And if you do get training in drawing, you're not all that likely to use it professionally. A local art instructor says he guesses that fewer than 2 percent of art school graduates go on to make a living as painters or sculptors or portrait artists or muralists. An apocryphal estimate passed on by artists in these drawing groups says only 4 percent of art school graduates go on to make a living as artists, and fewer than 20 percent go on to make art at all.

The place of drawing in the arts has declined to the

point that one of the major current debates among artists is over whether accomplished draftsmen like Ingres or Dürer or Michelangelo or Caravaggio used optical devices to trace projected images. Some leading exponents of the theory are, perhaps not coincidentally, abstractionists whose own drafting skills are limited.

But it could be said that a kind of renaissance of figure drawing is occurring. It is not something you'd note in the galleries or museums, for it is practiced, more often than not, by amateurs.

Drawing from live nude models used to be something one had to enroll in an art school to do. Today, one does it in community art and recreation centers, in fine-art museums, in privately operated ateliers and in home studios and living rooms. The number of places that offer classes in life drawing seems to be steadily increasing. In just about any city and in many suburbs you can find a drop-in drawing session, where, without advance reservation, you can pay a modest model's fee and draw from a live model for two or three hours. You can draw this way, for example, at the Minneapolis Drawing Workshop, the Truro Center for the Arts in Castle Hill, Massachusetts, the McLean (Virginia) Community Center, the Hui No'eau Visual Arts Center in Maui, Hawaii, the Northwest Area Arts Council in Woodstock, Illinois, the Tampa Museum of Art, the Art/Not Terminal Gallery in Seattle, the Art Museum of Missoula, Montana, the Community Hall in the Boulder Crossroads Mall in Colorado, the Creative Arts Center of Dallas, the Scottsdale (Arizona) Artists' School or the City Market of Raleigh, North Carolina. David Quammen, who models in Washington, D.C., knows of two dozen drop-in groups in the Washington, D.C., area. In New York City, there are Minerva Durham's Spring Studio, the Art Students League, the Chelsea Sketch Group, the Salmagundi Club, the Society of Illustrators, the National Academy School of Fine Arts, the Tompkins Square Branch Library and many others. You can find drop-in drawing groups in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Hong Kong, Bali and Jakarta-indeed, all over the world.

There are at least eighty different drawing groups meeting weekly in the San Francisco Bay Area. They range from small, very private gatherings of four or five artists in someone's living room to large public drop-in sessions meeting once or twice a week in community centers. A group I have drawn with in Palo Alto for fifteen years sometimes has more than fifty people crowding into the city's Art Center, jockeying for space and a clear view of the model. There are Berkeley housewives' drawing groups and there are gay men's drawing groups-even a gay-men-drawing-naked group. There are recreational groups meeting after-hours in lunch and seminar rooms at high-tech companies in the South Bay. There are life-drawing classes offered at the Bay Area's twenty colleges and universities, as well as programs at the three major art schools and a handful of smaller private ateliers. There are regular at-work sessions for the various film-animation studios and electronic game designers that have sprung up around the bay. It is possible to draw every day with a different group and to go on visiting new groups for four weeks before one either drops from retinal exhaustion or has to repeat a group. There are individual artists who hire their own models privately. All of this intense interest in depicting the human form supports at least two hundred professional artist's models, some of them managing to make a living exclusively from posing. There are two active and successful models' guilds in the Bay Area, through which schools, drawing groups, animation firms and individual artists can hire skilled and experienced models.

Says Betsy Kendall, a Berkeley chef who draws with a small group of friends regularly at her home, "There's a figurative tradition in the Bay Area. There's enough figurative art that you can look around and get inspired."

If you judged by what hangs in the galleries around San Francisco's Union Square or New York's Madison Avenue, you would have no idea that any of this was taking place. The artists in these drawing groups acknowledge that pictures of nudes are hard to sell. Says Norman Lundin, who teaches drawing at the University of Washington, "It's a loaded subject. Any time you present a nude you've got the message of sex hanging around it. To escape that is difficult." On top of that, to many people nudes suggest out-of-date art. Says Minerva Durham, who has taught drawing in New York City for twenty years, "New York is the known center of art, so you have a lot of things going on. But I think figure drawing has struggled here. Figure drawing is considered passé." She is talking about the galleries and the fine-art schools. Outside the schools and the galleries, something else seems to be happening.

If there is a renaissance of drawing taking place, it is not driven by the art market, but by something inside the artists themselves. It is driven, I suspect, by something innate and human, by a constellation of long-standing behaviors and impulses shaped as much by human nature as by culture.

Look around Eleanor Dickinson's studio, and you'd get no clue as to why these people are here. Each one of the artists is wrapped in a bubble of concentration, silent, absorbed, alone. There is little conversation in these groups when people are drawing. There is little talk about the nature of the work going on during the breaks, when the model usually dons a robe and sits quietly on a corner of the stage, stretching sore muscles. And while the models can be articulate, perceptive and precise about what it is that they are doing, it is hard to find artists who can explain what they are doing when they draw.

Part of that inarticulateness, I suspect, arises from a lack of clear consensus among artists about what constitutes good art. Part arises from the fact that every artist is an individual seeking a deeply personal vision, and all visions are different. Part arises too, I think, from the fact that artists have varying degrees of access to words, that many of the most visually inventive and expressive are not correspondingly adept when it comes to using language. There are visual minds and verbal minds, and they do not record experience and store it in memory the same way. And part of the inarticulateness arises from the fact that only a few of us consider ourselves successful enough as artists to profess a confident understanding of what we are doing.

Part of it, as well, is the intense concentration we apply to seeing what is there in front of us, on applying the right pressure to the drawing implement, on finding the forms in the model and placing them in the right proportions on the paper, on relating the figure to the background, on finding the lines that really count. It's not an easy thing to do, and, to all of us, good drawings seem supernaturally rare. Robin Schauffer, a Cupertino housewife who returned to school to pursue an art degree and has been drawing seriously for six years, says, "I don't look on my figure drawings as art. I look upon them as my scales and arpeggios. They're not good enough yet to say anything about the human condition."

We are less engaged in producing than we are in practicing. It's a refrain that runs through the work of even the best draftsmen and draftswomen. We do it not because we're good at it, but because there is some prospect that if we keep doing it, eventually we may be good.

That last idea is one that has run through the minds of many of the great artists. Hokusai declared at the age of

seventy-three: "From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the form of things. By the time I was fifty, I had published an infinity of designs, but all that I have produced before the age of seventy is not worth taking into account. At seventy-three I have learned a little about the real structure of nature, of animals, plants, birds, fishes and insects. In consequence, when I am eighty, I shall have made more progress, at ninety I shall penetrate the mystery of things, at a hundred I shall have reached a marvelous stage, and when I am a hundred and ten, everything I do, be it a dot or a line, will be alive."

At seventy, Edgar Degas told Ernest Rouart, "You have a high conception, not of what you are doing, but of what you may do one day: without that, there's no point in working."

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