Life drawing is the study of the body through use of models
during extended poses, usually several hours in length. While any
medium can be used, Simpson discussed his use of charcoal and pencil
to draw because of their ease of use and shading possibilities. He
also likes to draw in black and white because it simplifies the
process. He treats charcoal just as he would paint, moving it around
the canvass to intensify or shade areas of a drawing.
Simpson received undergraduate and graduate degrees in various
aspects of fine art at Illinois Wesleyan and Illinois State
University. While operating a book store in Normal, he continued to
sit down at least once a week for almost twenty years to do a life
drawing session. He said, “That was my church. I got to the point
where I had to do it.” He finally decided to become a full time
artist recently, and maintains a studio in downtown Bloomington.
By spending so many years doing life drawing, Brian Simpson said
that he was able to see the architecture of the human body and then
transfer it to paper. His skill in life drawing has helped him in
art work that has gone beyond life drawing. “The years of life
drawing have helped to develop my observation skills,” he said.
While he recommends and prefers to use live models in static poses
for his own work and that of the life drawing classes he teaches at
the McLean County Art Center, Simpson goes farther afield for some
of his work.
He enjoys attending dances to see all of the fluid movement of the
dancers, a sort of slide show of poses. In this instance, he will
take a photograph of the dancers to stop the movement at a
particular moment. He said, “It is difficult to do a life drawing
from a moving figure.”
He then will take the photo to his studio and do a rendering from
it. He referred to this as photo referencing.
He also invites dancers from ISU to his studio to study their
Simpson said that one of the most difficult parts of life drawing is
to get the proportions of the body parts correct in relation to one
another. Is the head the correct size in relation to the torso? Is
an arm the correct size in relation to a hip or shoulder?
To help with this part of life drawing, he recommends use of the
“sight method.” He will hold something as simple as a pencil at
arm’s length toward the model and move his thumb up and down the
pencil until he gets the right size for the head, for instance. He
will then use that portion of the pencil as a reference to each part
of the body to achieve the correct size with relation to the head.
Some of his students use knitting needles as the reference object.
He recommended to the audience that a life drawing should begin with
the contour of the body, and once that is on paper the artist can
build layers onto the work, achieving the correct proportional body
parts with the sight method, and then add nuance and shading as the
drawing becomes more complex.
Another important aspect of life drawing is to understand the
architecture of the body. This is where a long period of drawing
time and a static model is so important.
How does the head relate to the torso? How does a hip fit onto a
ribcage? How does the angle of an elbow relate to the head?
[to top of second column]
These drawing sessions in his class are usually two and a
half hours, but he sometimes has a model pose for six hours. He
has high praise for the group of models he uses. “I tell them
that after long periods of a static pose if they must move to go
right ahead. I don’t want to break my models,” he said with a
laugh. “The body is very complex. It is full of planes that must
be connected in the proper manner to achieve a lifelike
representation of the model, so a static pose is essential.”
Simpson also recommended the use grids to help with proportions
and the proper placement of a figure on the sketch pad. He
recommended using a single light source, which will produce a
shadow line on the model, and subsequently the drawing. This
will give the drawing another layer, making a more complex
Simpson brought several examples of what he termed his best
work. He laughed and said, “I have days when I have to walk away
from a life drawing. It’s just not working out. I did not want
you to see those.”
He ended his discussion with several important points for the
- First, does their life drawing make sense?
- Next, he said that drawing text books can be helpful, but
they are just the opinion of one person. They can be too
dictatorial, too formulaic. Everybody is different in their
approach, so formulas can’t be used. An artist must use their
own personal vision when approaching a life drawing.
- He then stressed that even after twenty years of intensive
study of life drawing, it is almost inevitable that a drawing
just will not come together. “You just have to walk away. It
happens to all of us,” he said.
- He emphasized that a person must look at what is good in a
drawing even on a seemingly bad one, and bring that aspect
forward to the next one. “Don’t go home kicking yourself and
saying you can’t draw. The one thing that is good in a drawing
may be tiny, but bringing that forward into your next effort
will create progress,” he said.
After his discussion of life drawing techniques, several
members of the audience showed their drawings created at two
recent life drawing sessions at the Lincoln Art Institute
sponsored by Logan County Arts. Simpson made suggestions to the
artists on how to improve and enhance their efforts. The back
and forth between Simpson and the artists was useful to create a
relaxed and beneficial atmosphere.
Brian Simpson teaches several classes at the McLean County Art
Center in Bloomington, including a six week beginning drawing
class. He stressed that everyone can draw and his full classes
at the center attest to the interest in it. He said he has never
failed to take a person from their first attempt at drawing,
even those who tell him they can only draw stick figures, to a
point after six weeks where the students are pleasantly
surprised at their progress.
[By CURT FOX]