Intuitively drawing the human form

The human form is at once totally familiar and endlessly varied and complex. It is also always dynamic, even at rest. Drawing the human form is very challenging; when thought about there are an overwhelming number of aspects to ‘get right’.

One approach to drawing a person is through a structured system of measurements, usually involving holding out the drawing implement at arms length and with one eye closed using the thumb to measure relative lengths and check angles. This can allow certain points to be hit and a somewhat ‘accurate’ version to be filled-in in-between those points.

Another approach, and the approach I’d like to discuss, is to simply draw what you see and see what you draw and in this way come to know. This is an intuitive, bodily approach to drawing rather than an intellectual one.

It is an approach that has no problem with movement, in fact is movement. One living form responding to another, rather than a type of photographic seeing and attempt to freeze a person into an image. It is a fluid approach without the mental stoppages of structuring and geometry; after all, we grow, we aren’t built.

It doesn’t deny the focused awareness, hand-eye coordination and nuances of materials to be learnt, practised and eventually internalised. They are integrated into the practice but are of secondary importance to the spirit into which it is entered and carried out. This spirit is one of open curiosity and kinship with self and other.

We are not cameras…

The invention and uptake of photography can be seen to be a manifestation of the attitude that we are separate to and have dominion over our surroundings. This dissociative and acquisitive mentality is implicit in the phrase ‘taking a picture.’

Photographs freeze and isolate. They are a way of imprisoning reality, understood as recalcitrant, inaccessible, of making it stand still (Sontag, 1979).

In the early days of photography, the differences between how the human eye and the camera ‘see’ were much remarked upon. Photographic distortion, as it was called, was no longer talked about once people began to think photographically.

For me, drawing is about how we see, and I align with the approach of Paul Cezanne who said, “Painting from nature is not copying the object, it is realizing one’s sensations.”

Drawing can be a process of realisations; it is to become aware of and manifest, in a situated and embodied way, what is present in myself and before me, moment by moment.

To focus on producing a final image that is a copy of what I have seen would be to attempt to take a snapshot, to become a camera. It would be to attempt to freeze life and, in another acquisitive phrase associated with photographic thinking, ‘capture’ what is present.

Drawing another person can be thought of as the meeting of two living processes to create something that has never existed before. All that is needed is to see and to make some direct responses. That sounds simple but is surprisingly hard for the discriminating mind to allow. We are conditioned to not only think photographically and to wish to make reality stand still, but also to think in terms of separate parts.

We want to draw an eye, or a leg and we know from experience how these things should look. But when we learn to look and really see we will realise that they are nothing of the sort and nothing like what we think they look like. We may also come to realise that seeing is itself a dynamic process so that even when we’ve managed to focus in on that knee and really see it, what we see subtly shifts in our awareness constantly. Furthermore, anatomical divisions such as head and neck, ankle and foot are inventions, artificial divisions that we have created to be able to talk about them and do things to them. Exactly where, really, does the head end and the neck begin for example? To see and draw someone, I feel, all of that must be gradually forgotten.

Concepts like shapes, foreshortening and proportions are also unhelpful because they are ideas for the mind to get stuck on. The method I am suggesting consists of ‘preserving the absolute fluidity of mind by keeping it free of intellectual deliberations and affective disturbances of any kind’ (Suzuki, 1959).

In practice, I draw blindly (not looking at the paper when I make marks) and rapidly to minimise conscious interference and attachment to an outcome. I may start with some simple line gestures (the remains of these can be seen in the examples below), but I don’t look at these again and am not beholden to them. Rather, they are manifestations of how I have started to tune in to the person in front of me. I may also step back at intervals to see where I am in a drawing and to make simple decisions, but I save deeper thinking and formulations for when the drawing session is finished. This means when I am drawing I am just drawing. Drawing blindly enables me to gradually unify my hand and eye — body and mind. Allowing this to happen can mean I approach a state where I am not aware of drawing, of holding anything in my hand. I am simply seeing and responding.

Suki is a Japanese word, meaning any space between two objects where something else can enter. In Japanese swordsmanship as influenced by Zen Buddhism, a mental suki will be created as long as the swordsman is logically minded. This space or hesitation, will be immediately seen and exploited by the opponent.

In drawing, I believe a suki can be created in the same way when the conscious, intellectual mind interferes with the seeing and responding. It is then a drawing of a series of ideas, rather than something direct. It may also be detected by the viewer and the figure may look stiff or ungrounded, or mechanical rather than organic. After all, each of us is an expert in the human form, whether we realise it or not. This is not to say there is anything like an idealised form to which we instinctively compare. Rather, if we are speaking in visual terms and if we have a working visual system, we know from our whole life’s experience how human beings appear in space.

What has surprised and encouraged me in this approach to drawing is that even when things are ‘wrong’, in an academic, or photographic sense, the image can still be successful, I feel, in a kind of living sense. How those ‘mistakes’, if out of the spirit described above, can contribute a vitality and movement to the work. I feel that this speaks to the dynamism of living processes, including the nature of perception, which is continuous, rather than being a series of freeze-frames of definite edges, as the world of photographic images would have us believe.

What has also surprised me and in which I am very interested, is how little is required sometimes in terms of a response i.e. marks, for a drawing to live.

Suggestion can be more powerful than a fully ‘finished’ drawing as it gives space for the viewer to have an experience from within themselves - it honours and involves the viewer in the work, rather than merely trying to send them a fully formed message. It also honours the subject in a humble appreciation that they cannot be fixed and captured in an image in all of their living complexity.

References

Sontag, S (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin

Suzuki, D.T. (1959) Zen and Japanese Culture. Reprint, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2019

I live in Cornwall in the UK and enjoy drawing and writing