Placing marks on paper can be a tense task at the best of times, but when the task is to “record” my response to the life model standing before me, I feel daunted. As a novice in life-drawing (I began classes in mid-2015), I continue to feel conflicted between:
(1) wondering how I can be “truthful” to, or mindful of, the subjective essence of the person I see standing before me (on this occasion, a male life model with Graeco-Roman classical looks), while
(2) feeling self-conscious that I am regarding the life model as an object, as a composition of so many momentarily inert parts. His arm is positioned like so; his left leg carries the weight of his body while his right leg is poised more lightly; one hand is here while the other hand is there; his head is angled just so.
I can only draw what I most immediately see. Of course, how I deploy my mark-making skills to illustrate or record or convey my responses to what I see is another conversation to be had.
But let’s start with an acknowledgement of certain constraints: Life-class protocols require that I, as the drawing student, remain impersonally detached from the professional life-model. He is cloaked in a shroud of anonymity. (Whether this level of detached anonymity protects the life-model or exposes him to exploitation is yet another question to be mulled over). I cannot talk to him nor ask questions of him. I cannot intrude into his private realm of hopes and dreams, nor into his day-to-day burdens and joys. And conversely, the life-model cannot speak to me, nor intrude into my personal realm.
The individual in portraiture, however, is usually not considered the model but, rather, its sitter. Models, by contrast, tend to be anonymous. Not their inner individual personality but their outer form, their bodies and poses, are depicted in representation. Models have no particular face because they have no individuality. ( Van Alphen. 2005. p.143)
In class, the life-model’s relationship to all the students is not only detached and impersonal but also exclusively mediated via a third-party, eg., the lecturer. The lecturer is the only person in the studio to have an overtly immediate and direct relationship to the life-model. He is the only person in the studio with the authority to talk with the life-model. He negotiates the life-model’s postures and their timing, and then in turn, he relays the results of those negotiations to us, the students. So, my drawing of the life model can never be an authentic “portrait” of him, as portraiture surely implies a relationship of sorts, based on knowing (or knowing about, eg through media and other sources of knowledge) the person being portrayed.
(I digress here to reflect briefly on the parallels with the “othering” of people with disability that arises from ableist societal detachment from, and alienation of, people with disability, which in turn results in further proscribed boundaries around people with disabilities, such as having their life decisions about where they live, what they do, and even who they might have relationships with, made by a third party).
My drawings here – ie the marks I made with charcoal on butcher paper in this particular exercise – can only be an indication of my present day skills in copying, seeing, responding to, and reflecting about the professional poses of the male life-model standing before me. They do not reveal anything about the “man’s life” at all.
However, I also see now that I have fallen into the mistaken, limiting belief that “mimesis” is merely “imitation”. Van Alphen (2005) argues that
Aristotle’s Poetics, which is the source of the concept of mimesis as it is currently used, employs the term already in an ambiguous sense …mimesis implies much more than passive copying or rendering. Mimesis is creative, and the re-presentation becomes a “presence” in and of itself (p.146).
I like the challenge that this ambiguity throws out to me as a drawing student. My most immediate challenge is to be more creative in my mimetic responses, to experiment with different media, techniques, and scale (ie extending the breadth and sweep of my mark-making from discreetly proportioned A4 paper to mammoth, explosively proportioned papers – as big as I dare!).
Van Alphen, Ernst. (2005). “Facing Defacement” in Art in Mind: how contemporary images shape thought. Chicago and London. The University of Chicago Press.