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Brian Simpson shares lessons on life drawing

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[May 15, 2014]  LINCOLN - At the invitation of the Logan County Arts group, Bloomington artist Brian Simpson traveled to Lincoln on Tuesday evening to discuss techniques of life drawing. More than a dozen local artists gathered at the Salvation Army Keest Center to hear Simpson’s presentation.

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 movements.

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?

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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 rendering.

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 gathered artists.

  • 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.


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