How life drawing got hip

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How life drawing got hip

When travelling to other cities these days, I use platforms like AirBnb, MeetUp and so on to find things to do: the millennial cliché. What is striking however, is how similar the kinds of activities are on offer in cities across the world. Yoga lessons, bike rides, craft beer tasting and cheese-making sessions: you name it, most cities will have them. And on this list now are life drawing classes.

Whereas once life drawing might have seemed the domain of the aged amateur artist, something for the kids to snigger their way through before decamping to the pub, it’s now – along with so many other once ‘artisan’ activities – become hip. Here I speak to tutors from London, New York and Berlin about their experiences with teaching life drawing, to help demystify the surge in its popularity.

Jamie, by London based life drawing tutor Dan Whiteson

SOCIALISING OFFLINE

Millennials are a generation of doers, so goes the stereotype, not happy with simply drinking at a pub. There seems to be a general desire to create, develop skills and self-improve. Young people today are clearly looking for more than just alcohol as a reason to leave the house.

This is not to say that life drawing is necessarily a puritanical activity – in fact the most successful contemporary iterations of it see the artistic elements combined with wine, music and chat. Dan Whiteson has been running popular life drawing sessions in London for the better part of a decade. I’ve been to one of his classes in a small function room above a pub in East London, where we drank wine and sketched to a background of a curated jazz playlist (I know, right?).

The class lasted about two hours; starting with the model holding a pose for short bursts of two to five minutes and then progressing onto longer poses which lasted 20 mins. This format, with small variations, seems to be the standard structure, allowing students to first warm up with quick sketches and then delve into more detailed drawings.

“There has certainly been a real surge in the number of classes in London with lots of new set ups looking for unique approaches to make themselves stand out from the crowd,” Whiteson says. His lessons have consistently attracted between 30 to 50 students per weekly class, predominantly 21 to 35-year-olds but ranging from school age students to the over 80s. While some of his students are from design or creative based backgrounds, Whiteson tells us his classes appeal to people from all sorts of different worlds.

Dan Whiteson’s Life drawing session at The Prince in East London

“By lessening the focus on the more serious, academic elements of drawing and encouraging a more playful, creative approach, I have been able to sustain really strong interest over a period of years,” he explains. “It is no longer an exclusive world preserved for solely the upper/middle classes, and I think that the more relaxed, informal settings and approaches to teaching life drawing helps to tap into this newfound and inclusive enthusiasm,” he says.

Julian Dieckert has seen a similar affect in his community project, Drink and Draw Berlin, which again place the art form within a social context. “Producing classical art is usually something you do alone and isolated in your studio, but we are doing something rather social by studying and drawing together, in our case even combined with drinking and chatting, which resonates nicely as a group activity or for guests who long for social interaction,” he says. “We have observed a sort of trend visiting figure drawing classes as part of bachelor parties or team building events. It seems to be on the bucket list for many people to either join a life drawing class or even be a model in one.”

Simon Leveson, founder of Drawing New York, has observed a similar trend, though he eschews the drinking and music elements at his classes and encourages the socialising to take place in the breaks between drawing.

“We take an approach which provides a focused and quiet place to draw when the model is posing, while providing social interaction at the breaks,” he says. “It allows people to focus on tricky practice of figure drawing while providing them with a space to meet each other on a weekly basis…. It is at the breaks and in conversations that you see the benefit of having such a diverse group attending together.”

Drawing New York has gained a membership of over 7,600 artists; something Leveson started just to make a bit of money on the side has growing into a thriving community.

CUTTING THE NOISE

Life drawing classes also play neatly into another popular trend today: mindfulness. The way most classes are structured makes the art form highly meditative. There’s a finite amount of time to complete a sketch while the model holds a pose, which instils a sense of urgency and this forces students to be completely in the moment. There’s no space to be distracted by notifications or let the mind wander to the inbox; which for these ‘always on’ times is a rare treat.

“I believe that for many of my students my classes represent an escape; whether that’s from work, everyday stresses, or even the noise of social media,” says Whiteson. “I think too, there has generally been a shift toward the experiential in the social media age.”

The role of social media is particularly interesting in the popularity of life drawing, because while the classes themselves are a way to switch-off, most tutors rely on social media to promote their classes and grow their communities.

“People are increasingly keen to spend money on events that create Instagrammable content and life drawing certainly fits the bill in this regard,” says Whiteson. “It’s a lovely thing to see my students posting up pictures of work they produced in my classes, and I think my own use of social media earlier on has played a massive part in me maintaining the popularity of the classes.”

At Drawing New York

CONFRONTING THE NAKED BODY

The social and meditative aspects of life drawing, in part, explain its appeal to non-artists. But even in the most progressive of societies there’s nothing mundane about gathering around a naked body to engage with it artistically. Coming to a life drawing class for the first time takes a lot of people out of their comfort zone, Whiteson says.

“There can be a real visceral reaction from some attendees when confronted with a nude body,” he explains. “It’s important for me to be sensitive to this and to ensure that as best I can, everybody is able to relax and to begin to disassociate the sexual connotation that is deeply woven into our collective social consciousness when we talk, think about or experience nudity.” He says it’s extremely rewarding to facilitate this process, and help shift perceptions.

Leveson from New York echoes a similar experience, saying it’s amazing to watch students progress beyond the “novelty of nudity” and reach a place where they begin to seriously engage with the craft.

Having to confront one’s perception of nudity adds a layer onto the craft of life drawing, making it a more appealing subject than a bowl of fruit, say. “The human form in general is of course a way more interesting subject to draw than still lifes, because we identify with it,” says Dieckert.

Whiteson believes that identifying with the subject is also a step towards being comfortable with your own body, meaning the classes are truly good for both body and mind. “This is an opportunity to not only to appreciate the true beauty of the body, but also to better understand the astonishing beauty within yourself,” he says.

“Whether it’s increased self confidence in your own skin, or a chance to open up a dialogue with your creative side, I have witnessed and felt the benefits of drawing first hand, and would urge everyone and anyone to pick up a pencil or a stick of charcoal, and get scribbling.”

More on Dan Whiteson’s lessons at danwhiteson.com, @freefromlifedrawing; Julian teaches at drinkanddrawberlin.com; More on Simon Leveson at drawingnewyork.comMore from the Body special here

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