Learning to Look – Lessons from the Life Drawing Class

Sketch of people snoozing on the grass in Seville, Spain

Seeing the unseen – snoozers in the grass.

I often get asked how on earth I made the transition from Fine Art student to travel writer.

But I have come to realise that the key to creating both beautiful words and beautiful images is learning to look. Much emphasis is placed on the final product – the storyline, the opening paragraph, the composition, the message – but this is all simply the end result of looking properly, thoroughly, without bias or expectation. A storyteller – visual or verbal – must first be an observer.

Life drawing of woman holding an umbrella. Pencil on paper.

Drawing without looking at the page, or removing pencil from paper. Not quite in proportion… yet somehow quite human

At art college I signed up for life drawing classes. The temptation is to stare at the vast white page, delicately balancing the charcoal marks, smoothing things out with a putty rubber, forming a leg which bends like a leg should bend, a hand which is clasped like a hand. It’s frustrating work. But during the classes, looking at the page was forbidden. We were to trace a line across it while following the model’s exact outline with our eyes: the curves, the angles, the lumps. There are strange corners on knees, bulgy knuckles, twisty toes, foreshortened forearms. Fingers bend unexpectedly, buttocks flatten across stools. I ache to look at the sooty line that slinks across my page, in painfully slow motion. A balloon of belly fat, a crescent breast. Nipples and navels are strange satellites as I lift my hand from the page and replace it in their assumed location. Nostrils land on necks, one arm hangs limp by a shin.

But when my time is up, when I finally turn my head, what I see is not an abstract mess. It is not in proportion either, but somehow that is irrelevant. The details are there. The black lines are unquestionably human. The hand – always impossible to recreate – is a hand, and the leg curves gracefully into a foot. Expressions are captured, wonkily, Picasso-like, on the side of a face – but what expressions.

I drew not what I thought I should, or what would look attractive or balanced on my white page. I drew, unwittingly, what I saw. I studied the model and her flesh, intently, unwaveringly, to the point of not seeing her as a person but as a composition of light and shade and curves and negative space. And it showed – on my page I have captured her essence. She is there.

Experimental life drawing of woman

Life drawing without looking at the page.

Writing is much the same. I can weave words and thumb through my thesaurus, I can write what I think needs to be written – but the only way to really capture a place is to look, without looking away. With so many hours spent in front of a screen it’s easy to forget that. It’s easy to become obsessive about what I am putting on the page – and not what I am actually writing about in the first page.

Pen and paper drawing of a donkey in Marrakech, Morocco

Sketch of a donkey in Marrakech, Morocco. Luckily he stayed still long enough for me to capture him.

So I picked up two old sketchbooks. They were not filled in the life drawing studio, but on some of my earliest travels, over ten years ago. Even at the time I was aware of the difference between what I was doing and what the photographers around me were doing. The saw a scene, snapped it, and moved on. But sketching, sitting down for 45 minutes in a single spot, seeing the coil of a window plant, the way a stone step had been polished smooth and saggy in the middle, a tarnished tile stood out from the hundreds around it – I was the one actually seeing the place, and observing the details I needed to truly describe it.

So, as tempting as it is to see 20 things in a day, I need to try and just look at two or three, and evoke their essence on the page. Writing isn’t so different to drawing, after all.

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