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'Look Closer': Figure Drawing As A Lesson In Empathy

Student Ben Goodwin sketches model Ernesto Brosa in the author's figure-drawing class, taught through Harvard University's Office for the Arts. (Heddi Vaughan Siebel/Courtesy)
Student Ben Goodwin sketches model Ernesto Brosa in the author's figure-drawing class, taught through Harvard University's Office for the Arts. (Heddi Vaughan Siebel/Courtesy)
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I take the hand of my student, who grasps the willow charcoal — soft, not medium — and together we look at the figure model. "It’s best not to hold the charcoal like a pencil,” I say, “so you can use the motion of your shoulder to draw.”

I didn’t make the charcoal but I had purchased it for the drawing class from my favorite basement art store. I removed two cellophane packets with six graceful, black twigs, unveiling the powerful dark splendor of this mundane material. "Il Libro dell'Arte (A Treatise on Painting)," written in 1437 by Italian artist Cennino Cennini, details the practice of making willow charcoal in a recipe from the 13th century.

Take some slips of willow, dry and smooth, and cut them into pieces as long as the palm of the hand, or the little finger … and fasten them together like a bundle of matches.

--From "Il Libro dell’Arte," Cennino D’Andrea Cennini, 1437

Cennini had apprenticed to the son of Taddeo Gaddi, godson and disciple of Giotto, the Florentine painter and architect whose astounding modernism and naturalism broke from Byzantine style. In a description that reads like a prose poem, Cennini teaches us the art of making charcoal for drawing: timing the burn so that the stick doesn’t crumble, making a material that leaves a velvety mark across the surface.

… first polish and sharpen them on each side as if they were tin. Then, laying them side by side, bind them altogether in three places, that is, by the middle and by each end, with a copper or iron wire.

For Cennini, painting was “an art derived from science…for which we must be endowed with imagination and skill, to discover things (concealed under the shade of nature.)” His clause about discovery and obscurity slyly focuses our attention on an age-old struggle within the artistic process — fumbling in the dark to glimpse the imperceptible.

 …fill the pipkin with them; put on an earthen cover, and lute it round with chalk or clay, so that no air can enter; and put the pipkin into a cool oven, that is, into one from which the bread has just been removed, and let it remain till morning; then look whether the crayons are well burnt and black. 

In the studio, the sharply lit model stands, bound by proximity, to his alter ego: the cartoonish balloon shape cast upon the wall behind him. So often, the metaphoric power of this relationship — figure to field — is ignored. A darkened shadow, the model’s double, is omitted or a rendered, headless torso floats. “Look closer,” I say. “Compare.” And in my head, my own teacher paces along a wall of drawings in khaki slacks, a light blue oxford open at the neck, with his arm a right angle, and his flat hand tilting like an airplane wing.

The charcoal skids across the pad and the gesture of a man remains on the paper in a soot black contour.

“Relationships,” he exhorts, "floor to chair, chair to table, window to wall.” Those are the rules I learned in order to translate, with charcoal onto paper, a convincing form into space. Those laws of drawing carried me forward with smug purpose, until one day I learned the last rule: there are no rules. There is no way to measure success, no good, no bad — only us. Humans together since the beginning of our kind, straining to notice, humbling ourselves by trying and failing, permitting ourselves our vulnerabilities, while slowly being seduced into empathy by a burnt twig of charcoal, now a magic wand.

As he leans toward his newsprint pad, the student looks at the nude male model and freezes. He sees the familiar form of a human: the same bones, eyes, hair, the same blood running through capillaries just beneath the rough outer layer of skin. And yet, he is overwhelmed, even liberated, by its newness, its complexity. Lowering his eyes from the easel, he mimics the pose of the illuminated man. He extends his left leg forward and arches his right hand above his head, imitating the model’s heraldic pose — a dance form from another era.

Then, with charcoal still held high in one fist and an eraser in the other, he pauses. For a moment, the burned stick dangles awkwardly, but with a flourish of confidence, the student waves it.  The charcoal skids across the pad and the gesture of a man remains on the paper in a soot black contour. This is the relationship: the drawing will preserve the evidence of this encounter, however fleeting — a moment when one human becomes visible to another.

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Heddi Vaughan Siebel Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Heddi Vaughan Siebel is an artist and filmmaker.

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