Way back in the twentieth century I attended an art school in the backwaters of the Eastern Cape. One of the advantages was that the Graham Hotel – with Castle Lager at 40 cents a shot – was 5 minutes walk away. Another was that it steadfastly refused the tide of innovation that held sway in big city art schools. Archaic practices like life drawing were firmly adhered to. Teaching – as invented by the tyrant Henry Tonks of the Slade art school – lived on in the deep colonial periphery. First year: pencil drawing from casts. Second year: still life painting and anatomy studies. Third year: life painting. And despite one’s youthful indiscipline, one could not help being enriched by this.
Our life class convenes on a Wednesday morning at the Hornbill Gallery. We’re middle aged, our youthful competitive urges long gone. We’re all artists of one sort or another – trying to lift our game, to hone our craft. No-one gives instruction – a level of competence is assumed. Life drawing is a wonderful ego corrective, should you need reminding of how difficult this game is. You go through a wide range of emotions; hope, curiosity, then self doubt, frustration and humility. One yearns for improvement. However, there’s no discernible upward graph: small gains are followed by smudges and reversals. That well rendered arm ends in a clump of viennas for fingers. That satisfying line is misplaced on the page: start again. But looking at the drawings later, there’s always something: just enough to keep you going back for more.
We warm up with quick, minute-long poses. Our model Kim does what she likes and we follow. Later we do longer reclining poses. There’s a conversation about these, an ebb and flow between artist and model. Unlike say, Degas or Lucien Freud, who were famous torturers of the model, this is very egalitarian. The class is mainly female; that may be why. Modelling intends to project something: sexuality, opulence, cool sunglasses. This is a presentation of one’s form, unadorned. It takes something though to survive the close scrutiny of ten sets of eyes, and Kim has it: the rare knack of being present and absent at the same time. During short breaks we look at each other’s drawings and offer encouragement or appreciation. And then we are back to the business. Look , there it is, this mysterious living thing. That neck at that angle, that hand resting on that leg, will never be exactly there again. Here it is, ticking away, trickling away, your life and mine. Get it down while you can.