It’s life drawing, but not as we know it

It’s been a few months now since ATYN stopped running sessions in Dundee and there’s no word yet when they’ll be starting again beyond “new venue to be revealed in 2017.” After a while I started hunting around for any replacement sessions nearby, but nothing clicked – Letham Life Drawing on Wednesday nights clashes with work, and while the St Andrews Art Soc sessions sounded promising I heard nothing from them after getting in touch. What’s a figure painter to do?

Well, here’s an answer, but brace yourself. It turns out… there are pictures of naked people on the internet. GASP!

Okay, so the world wide web and a lack of clothing isn’t exactly a new thing. But while there’s plenty of digital skin out there I’ve no interest in creating artwork based on imagery or video made for titillation (stop sniggering back there, Molesworth) which I thought was all the naked internet had to offer.

However! Turns out there’s a couple of different studios producing videos of life models posing nude with not a leer in sight. An online art school, New Masters Academy, have uploaded videos of both clothed and nude models to YouTube, initially in HD, now in stunning 4K detail. I say video, but they’re actually still photos – exceedingly good ones, shot against a mid-grey background, with strong (but not overwhelming) contrast and the poses are superb. When you’ve been life drawing for a good while (since 1995, ye gods) you get to recognise how experienced a model is by their poses, and these are up there with the best I’ve seen. Here’s the most recent of the 34 nude sessions, from May 2015.

There’s a YouTube playlist for the clothed model sessions (there’s 15 of them), and there was one for the nudes but bizarrely it’s vanished in the last few weeks. Still, if you scroll down the list of NMA videos, you should eventually start seeing Daily Life Drawing Session or DLDS videos – unless they get deleted too, which would be tragic.

Impressive as NMA’s 34 videos undoubtedly are, they pale (at least in terms of quantity) with the life drawing videos uploaded by On Air Video to YouTube under the Croquis Cafe playlist. The number of videos is jaw-dropping – 173 at time of writing – with a wide variety of models (variety in gender, age, body shape, ethnicity) and a new life model video added every week. For free! Staggeringly generous. The rest of On Air Video’s uploads are worth a look, including their 360 videos (one model, one pose, seen from 10 different angles – stonkingly useful if you’re considering sculpture) and various guidance videos on figure drawing. They’ve even had a couple of sessions where the model poses first unclothed, then clothed in the same pose, to get a better feel for capturing how clothing sits on the human form. Here’s the most recent of their standard sessions, from a few days ago:

Both NMA and Croquis Cafe videos take the same approach as ‘real’ life drawing sessions, with initial poses of 1-2 minutes to loosen up, then 5 minutes for more detailed work. Of course, there’s an added benefit in being able to pause a pose for as long as you need it, or to return to that exact same pose another time, knowing that everything – pose, lighting, expression – will be exactly as it was. Unlike NMA, the Croquis Cafe videos are actual real time footage of the model posing for the length of the pose rather than static photographs, and therefore just that bit closer to the real experience of figure drawing.

That’s all very well and good, but a human figure on a small scale can easily lose detail and scale – which is why I’d previously dismissed the thought of working from photographs of nude figures. However, both NMA and CC videos are shot in 1080p HD – streamed to a good sized telly and the figure doesn’t look that much smaller than if you were sitting towards the back of a real life drawing session – plus, you’re getting the best view of the pose every time. I’ve used the YouTube-stream-to-TV method a few times when drawing on paper, but the majority of my home-based life-drawing since starting in November has been on the computer. I’m fortunate to have a 27″ 5K screen, which means there’s enough screen real estate to have these videos running almost at full size (thanks to the Popout for Youtube extension on Chrome) with space left over for my digital painting software of choice. And while I don’t yet have a pen display monitor (or, better yet, iPad Pro – a boy can dream), I’ve got a decent-sized graphics tablet – though the visual disconnect of working with a graphics tablet (ie, drawing down here, results up there) remains a hurdle.

For these sessions I tried a few different apps – Corel Painter, Affinity Photo, Sketchbook Pro – but they’re almost too good for the fast, immediate work that 1 or 2 minute poses require, and the results were a bit stilted, over-thought. Much to my surprise, Mischief has proven the perfect fit, despite being one of the cheapest digital painting apps out there (even the free version ain’t bad).

The unique feature of Mischief is the infinite canvas – rather than a set canvas size, it stretches out infinitely and artwork can be zoomed in & out of without any degradation in quality (it’s a vector drawing app cunningly disguised as bitmap painting, a world away from Adobe Illustrator). This allows for a level of freedom and spontaneity, knowing that you’re not suddenly going to run into the edge of the canvas. Conversely, the relative lack of options in terms of brushes (particularly compared to the mighty Painter) means I don’t spend ages trying to decide which would be the best fit for this particular pose. I’ve two brushes that I tend to use, and increasingly I just plump for the same one every time.

So, here’s what I’ve produced digitally since I started having intermittent goes at this in late November 2016, mostly on Mischief. I think there’s a definite progression as I’ve learned what does and doesn’t work best in this digital medium, alongside a growing confidence in working from a filmed model rather than the real deal. I’ve not produced so much on paper from these videos yet – a few attempts, but no great shakes – but thinking about knocking out some quick oil paintings on canvas board working from these videos. There’s also some longer-term thinking to be done, in terms of finding ways to make ‘sellable’ artwork from digital painting like this, particularly if ‘real’ life-drawing sessions aren’t around the corner.

Digital, 30 November 2016 –
Digital, 1 December 2016 –
Digital, 2 December 2016 –
Digital, 3rd December – and
Digital, 6 December 2016 –
Digital, 16 December 2016 –
Digital, 6 January 2017 –
Digital, 16 January 2017 –