Virtual Life Drawing: a joyous pastime for beginners and maestros
By Sylvie Wilkinson
I can’t draw faces or feet, but I can give a pair of breasts a good go. This became clear after I took up virtual life drawing class this week.
Lockdown’s tiresome reign has given way to countless new creative hobbies. Scrapbooking, colouring and crocheting are among the many activities bored souls have taken up to busy away lost time. On the hunt for something new, I came across online life drawing classes. Given that this is something I’ve never attempted in person and my lack of artistic ability, the jump seemed absurd. But after a moment of consideration, I couldn’t think of better initiation: no pressure, no judgement and if it all went wrong I could simply close my screen and disappear into the night.
In the days leading up to the class, I worried. What if I show my drawing and everyone laughs? What if I offend the teacher through an inexplicable use of blue felt-tip? Or worse, what if it’s an undisclosed tradition for the newcomer to model? Before I managed to talk myself out of it, Saturday night had rolled around.
My first class was with Adrian Dutton’s East London Life Drawing. In non-Covid times, Adrian organises classes in four different spaces, including in Bethnal Green and Hoxton. At present, the classes take place virtually – there are multiple options throughout the week and they last for two hours. Tickets cost £8, or £5 for students and healthcare workers.
Adrian set up his classes in 2003 after graduating from the Royal Drawing School. Ensuring beginners in his class feel comfortable is key: ‘We have a reputation for creating safe and friendly classes where people can meet friends and develop drawing practice.’ He assured me that all you need is a piece of paper, a pencil, and willingness to give it a go.
‘Despite following an unspoken cameras-on etiquette
I felt the anonymity any beginner craves’
I Zoom-dialled in at 7pm and before long we’d moved into drawing our model’s 25 minute pose. There were 37 of us in the group, so despite following an unspoken cameras-on etiquette I felt the anonymity any beginner craves. It is rare to find an activity both fun and therapeutic. We were largely left to our own devices, though Adrian occasionally chimed in with stories about the history of art and life drawing.
It became clear to me that life drawing is as much about the process as the final product – the quality of your art is almost incidental. This is important to Adrian: ‘Not everyone wants to be great at drawing, many just want to work on their skills and enjoy themselves […] people play tennis on the weekend, but that doesn’t mean they want to play like Andy Murray!’
To look at my first two attempts, you’d think I’d never seen a human face before. I managed to make my beautiful model look like two versions of Anthony Hopkins, one asleep and one awake. This didn’t matter – I had enjoyed myself tremendously and tried something new.
Adrian gave us the opportunity to hold our drawings up to the camera, but there was no pressure to do so. The other artists had interpreted the model using varying tools and surfaces to create vibrant, unique drawings. There was a strong bond between them and an overwhelming sense of community; the way they spoke to each other was with genuine interest and warmth. This also applied to the way they spoke about the model – the group described the ‘soft lines’ of her body and skill of her poses.
For Adrian, this community spirit is one of the most important aspects of his classes: ‘The pandemic has pushed people in different ways, but the most significant impact I have encountered is isolation. Joining a group like mine helps tremendously in tackling this.’
A few days later, still glowing with my newfound artistic prowess, I attended a different class with North London based group The Jolly Sketcher. They offer two hour classes multiple times a week costing £5 for a basic ticket, as well as some free sessions lasting 30 minutes.
The classes, hosted by Tanja Hassel, brand themselves as fun and friendly drawing sessions for all, with a specific focus on welcoming beginners. For this class, our professional model had tuned in all the way from Paris – how glamourous! I’d started to get the hang of things and even attempted a bit of shading. I didn’t have much technique and started again more than once, but the process was as peaceful as my previous class. The only real difference was our model kept his pants on (I decided not to read into my disappointment about this).
As with Adrian’s class, I was struck by the sense of community – I can confirm they were indeed a jolly group of sketchers. I got the impression many of the attendees saw this group as a key space for social interaction and somewhere to chat with old friends. Again, their art was original and varied and they even spoke about buying each other’s work.
Tanja said when the pandemic hit, she worried about what it would mean for her drawing group: ‘I thought that everything I had built in three years would just fall away and I would go bankrupt, but online drawing has meant an expansion in the community with artists joining from all over the world.’
As with Adrian, Tanja sees virtual life drawing as something everyone can and should get involved in: ‘All that matters is that you have fun and take a short, relaxing break from your usual day […] It is just wonderful to see people’s drawings improve week on week and to see their confidence grow.’
At times, the classes felt radical, or even political. Equally, due solely to my beginner’s embarrassment, I felt I’d taken part in something rather silly. The truth is, online life drawing classes can be all of these things at once; it is up to you what you get out of it. Ultimately, the intimacy of drawing a person you’ve never met and will never meet creates a closeness we have all been missing. I would urge everyone to give it a go – there is nothing to lose and a great deal to gain.
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