I first started life drawing at the age of fourteen having been accepted full time at the Sutton School of Art. I gained the National Diploma in Design (NDD) in illustration in 1952. We studied life drawing and anatomy in great detail and had excellent tutors for both. One requirement was to produce illustrated notes on all the muscles of the body with action poses showing the full skeleton. This thorough grounding of the human body has been invaluable. We were encouraged to draw hands and feet in particular. Hands can portray feeling and imply movement within a composition. Our hand movements play an important part in communication so even when the figure is stationary the positioning of hands can give the feeling of being relaxed or create tension within the picture.
Unfortunately, on leaving Art School I had to do my two years National Service. Stationed near Norwich I was authorised to attend Norwich School of Art for one day a week where I was able to do life drawing and pottery.
On returning to ‘Civvie Street’ I set up my own free-lance design studio, which kept me fully employed for the next forty years. During this time I did not have the opportunity to do any life drawing or painting. Eight years ago I made the decision to stop work and devote my time to creativity of a different kind. To get back to basic drawing after such a long break I enrolled in a life class at Putney School of Art. As I already had plenty of studio space at home I asked several of the models there if they would pose for me. I have worked with one model in particular for many years, producing lots of drawings, paintings and pastels. When you use a model that you don’t know they simply arrive, pose and then go home. There is no understanding and one receives very little input from them as a person. Working with the same model for so long, especially one who was always willing to enter into the spirit of an idea enabled me to create more unusual poses that we then developed together.
I use all types of pastels in my work. The very soft Unison and Rembrandt have a wonderful range of colours. I do not buy boxed sets, where someone else has decided the contents, but choose individual colours for a specific subject. This way you can build your own individual palette. The cardboard trays found in supermarkets are particularly useful for storing pastels. They are easy to move around, unlike large wooden boxes, and are easily replaced. The cheaper pastels like Inscribe are square in shape and harder which allows for different mark making. For fine, detailed areas I use the Conte à Paris pencils.
Pastel paper as sold is usually too small for my work. I have bought larger sheets by the ream from John Purcell but I find this difficult to put into a mount without a certain amount of sag, which can lead to the pastel touching the glass when framed. On larger works I have mounted the paper onto board or MDF as in the case of Emerging Form, which is 59” wide. Ingres faced mount board is also very satisfactory to use.
Framing pastels, by the very nature of the medium, is a tricky procedure. I have always mounted my work, made frames and even cut my own glass. I usually insert a half-inch spacer between the back of the glass and the face of the work. Even cleaning the glass can create static, drawing the pastel off the surface to form a film of dust on the back of the glass.
Charcoal and pastel can be fixed in the early stages of a drawing but I must confess I usually get so involved in what I am doing that I forget to apply even one coat. I never give a final spray of fixative, as this will make the pastel go flat and loose its brilliance.
Choosing props and backgrounds for a work is quite important. I have produced a series of chair pictures using the classic Eames, Mackintosh and Peacock chairs as well as a Victorian nursing chair.
The basketwork was very complicated to draw, so I worked initially on the drawing of the figure and only indicated the position of the chair. Afterwards I was able to spend time detailing the chair on it’s own. When the picture was complete it was framed and hung. However after a short time I decided the face was not good enough so I removed the picture from it’s frame and using a dry hand towel I carefully wiped away the face and hair completely! With the model posing it took me three hours to redraw. Liz was pleased with the result – commenting that my depiction of her always seemed to capture the essence of what she was thinking.
This picture was exhibited at the Pastel Exhibition in the Mall Galleries and won a Fine Art Award.
The Charles Eames Classic Chair (36”x 27” - 92cm x 69cm) picture was inspired by the masculinity of the black leather juxtaposed against the softness of the female form. The design of the chair gives a feeling of encirclement to which the model is responding in her pose. Prior to exhibiting this picture I accidentally knocked it over, breaking the glass into hundreds of pieces. Fortunately (unlike buttered toast) it fell face downwards and I was able to retrieve the totally undamaged picture by removing the back.
The pastel entitled Emerging Form (37”x 59” - 94cm x 150cm) was inspired by a piece of gold coloured material I found in a local store. As it was touched, amazing shapes were created. I realised if it were draped around a figure the effect could be dramatic. Unfortunately the model only had to breath to alter the myriad of folds in the fabric so I used a photo enlargement as reference for the basic shapes. I decided the final drawing had to be almost life size to do justice to the material. Using white cartridge from a roll to avoid a join I mounted it onto 6mm MDF using heat seal film. At this size I was able to not only copy the folds but also to invent my own shapes and forms using pastel pencils for all the finer detail. Because of the complexity of the fabric I kept to a simple background, using a very strong shadow to emphasise the figure. The size of the glass presented a problem so I made my own frame sections from ordinary timber to give it stability.
The Victorian nursing chair being so low to the ground, gave me the idea for the unusual pose in the picture Throwover (39” x 27” - 99cm x 69cm). The figure appears to be draped over the chair and the discarded dress and shoes complete the ‘thrown over’ effect. Again the complicated design and fabric of the chair were drawn in detail later.
To start the picture of Liz in Red Dress on Mackintosh Chair (38” x 27” - (97cm x 69cm). I first went out and bought the dress, which was covered in small printed sequin-type dots. Liz wore black sandals with straps that echoed the rails of the chair. The pose was created to reveal as much of the chair as possible. The model’s hands were positioned as if the chair were an instrument -much like a cellist would hold a ‘cello. The tilt of the head adds to the mood of the picture.
Three from One (36” x 48” - 92cm x 122cm) explores the relationship between three separate figures on a deserted beach. The outstretched arms of the central pose form a link with the figures on either side. The characteristic sunbathing positions create the feeling of hot, bright sun. I only used one model for all three poses, laying on a mattress not a beach and the towels were made up. I did however set the pose up in strong natural sunlight to create the distorted shadows (inventing such shadows would have looked inaccurate). I have painted an even larger version of this in oil, which was exhibited at The British Artist’s Exhibition at the Mall Galleries.
Working with charcoal and pastel creates an incredible amount of powder. I find a small hand held vacuum cleaner useful to control the dust and keep a bucket of soapy water and towel nearby to wash my hands. Inevitably you get covered in charcoal and pastel and there comes a time when you need to take extra care to avoid spoiling your work.
I do not refer to pastel books to learn about techniques, preferring to use my own methods. By experimenting and expanding the use of the medium I have found a way of working naturally develops. The best approach to life drawing is to use charcoal (both in stick and compressed form) and work as large as possible. This gives much more scope for drawing details such as hands and feet- so often avoided on smaller pictures! A drawing is forever changing – your hand rubbing the paper as you work either leaving marks in or taking them out quickly. Pastel is such a versatile medium - one colour can simply be covered with another to alter a tone (unlike paint, which usually has to dry before any over painting can be done).
Life drawing is very much a studio activity and I have been fortunate in having good models to work with who have also become family friends. Unlike other artistic pursuits where one is often working alone, life drawing is a team effort. The model is an integral part of the creative process and a major factor in producing a successful and enduring picture.
Bob Last MSIAD PS