I had never seen a nude model. Naked was the reality but in art school they don’t call it naked model, they use the more polite description. This drawing class was a requirement for a B.S. in Art Education. There was no getting out of it, I had to sit at my easel, along with twelve other students, and await the models arrival. Candice was late for the first session. I think all the girls were secretly hoping she wouldn’t show. I can only guess what the male students were thinking. When she finally walked through the door I was surprised at her demeanor. She ascended the platform with confidence, casually disrobed, and lowered her faded kimono gently to the floor. I was stunned at her physical appearance. This female model must have weighed 350 lbs. All I could see were rolls of flesh billowing over pillows where she assumed her pose. I wondered, “How does she have the guts to sit for us being so big!” I didn’t dare let on what I was thinking and feeling. I looked straight ahead in fear of meeting someone else’s eyes. “Oh, this is going to be a challenge,” I thought. Jaw bones, hip bones, leg bones connected to knee bones, there weren’t any bones, at least none which were visible. Drawing was hard enough, now I had to “imagine” her anatomy under pounds of fat.
My position in art school was precarious. I had originally planned to get a degree in Elementary Education. About half way through the required courses, I enrolled in a Beginning Art class to fulfill the Fine Arts requirement for a B.S. in Education. After just a few projects, the instructor approached me and said, “Kay, have you ever considered majoring in art? You have talent.” I was flabbergasted because, although I had always loved creating abstract forms and designing colorful costumes, I couldn’t draw realistic figures and objects. I didn’t feel I was a “true” artist. He said, “You can learn to draw. It is a skill that takes time, patience, and practice. It will help you in your career and in your life.” I am not sure I believed him but I did know I loved being around the art department. I felt at home with artist’s tools and the more creative aspects of education. With the teacher’s support, I changed my major to Art Education.
I struggled through the Life Drawing class. After that first day of shock at seeing a naked fat woman, I was able to start focusing on my renderings. They weren’t good, in fact, they were awful! I couldn’t draw what I saw before me and I didn’t know how to sketch figures from memory either. I was panicked! I had changed my major to Art and my confidence was slowly being eroded because of my poor drawing skills. I was also frustrated because just as I would get “into the drawing” and barely mark the whole figure on the page, the teacher would ask the model to change her pose. This rapid-fire changing of positions happened every ten minutes. It was driving me crazy. My drawings looked like monkeys, fat monkeys. It was embarrassing. I managed to get a C as a final grade, probably because I showed up on time to every class and it was obvious I was making a serious effort to do the work.
In the Ceramics, Design, and Painting classes I excelled. I made nothing lower than an A for four semesters. As my graduation approached, I realized I was just beginning to understand art and needed more schooling. I was accepted to Graduate School at the University of Missouri on probation, with the full knowledge that this art school expected their graduate students to be able to draw, and draw well. C’s were not acceptable and grad students needed to make A’s with a scattering of B’s. I decided to “go for it” and would face the drawing situation later. Little did I know what was in store for me and it had nothing to do with charcoal and paper.
I skated through the first semester at the top of my class avoiding drawing. Soon, I had to face the music. I enrolled in Mr. Bill Klapp’s Drawing class. Bill was one of the most amazing artists I had ever known. His drawings were breathtaking and his craftsmanship was superior. Mr. Klapp would set up displays with various shapes and textures and leave them up for an hour. He encouraged us to take our time observing the objects closely before we began to draw. He also allowed the nude models to stay in one pose for the whole period taking rest breaks periodically. This helped; I had more time to concentrate without the worry of being rushed. But, my drawings still weren’t up to par. I repeated the problems of my earlier classes with just a slight improvement. Bill called me to his studio one day and came right to the point. “Kay, you need to do several drawings for extra credit. Start with elemental principles, drawing the basics like cubes, cones, and spheres. If you don’t improve I am going to have to give you a D.”
Terror seized my soul. There were six weeks left in the semester and I was still on probation in the art department working toward an advanced degree. I went home and prayed. I was talking and reflecting out loud, “I need help.”
I am not sure I was open to believing that God would answer me, but I did hear the words in my head. “Take your time.” It felt like I was moving methodically in slow motion. One step at a time I arranged two blocks, two eggs, and a lemon on a table. I glued them down so nothing in the display would move or change. I shut the blinds and angled a spot-light to create strong shadows to accentuate the forms. I marked the spot where I chose to sit and prepared to study the Still Life. I didn’t care how long it took, I was determined, on my own, by myself, to learn to draw.
I chose pencils which were supple with a soft lead instead of charcoal. I felt I had more control with a tighter, finer line. The paper was heavy weight and top quality. I knew I needed proper tools to enhance the picture. I didn’t have an easel at home so I used a drawing board propped up against a chair. I nervously sat and waited. It was important just to “plow into it” but my hand was frozen. I didn’t know where to begin. “What do I put down first?” I thought. I wasn’t able to make the commitment to draw the likeness of my arrangement on the table. I had succumbed to fear.
I watched myself go into a panic. My hands were slippery with sweat and I could feel the pounding of my heart. Two hours must have gone by without being able to lift a finger. My eye sight was blurred from staring so intently at the objects, which exacerbated the dread. Finally I was able to begin measuring the relationship of the eggs to the cube and approximate their size. With a straight, out-stretched arm I used my thumb, as I had seen many artists do, as a measuring device. I lightly sketched an outline covering 3/4ths of my drawing paper. My breathing became less labored and I felt I had made a particle of progress. I expended this same type of energy every day for a week. I was exhausted. I asked for guidance from God, the universe, my higher power, whoever was listening. Again, I heard words, “Don’t just look, SEE!”
Within a few short minutes I began to have the “experience” of seeing the Still Life. It seemed as though a veil was lifted exposing three dimensional forms pulsating with energy. The interplay of light and shadow bounced off the table. I saw, I really saw, the beauty inherent in those inanimate objects. The details literally came to life. It felt like I had been shown the next step to awareness. The process was illuminated. I no longer was going to focus on worry and from that day forward I let go of the fear of drawing.
For the next few weeks I put pencil to paper and created amazing realistic drawings. It was as if I had been doing it all my life. I finished the Still Life and did another in pen and ink. Several of my friends agreed to pose for me while they studied for finals. I took my time, was patient, and practiced my newfound skill. Using a variety of media, I was able to put together an impressive body of work before the deadline.
The day came to present my drawings to Mr. Klapp. I anxiously approached his studio eager to show him my improvement. It was as though I was returning from a secret mission ready to share my discovery. I carried the art gingerly through his office door and unwrapped each piece spreading them out on the floor. I had managed to complete twelve drawings. My feelings were genuine; I was proud of myself.
Bill Klapp quietly and systematically examined the work. He was speechless. After what seemed an eternity, he looked up at me and said, “What happened? How did you do this? I never would have believed this Kay, that all these are yours, except I recognize your style of drawing. You can’t plagiarize art. You have just gone from a D to an A in six weeks. Congratulations.”
“I learned how to see!”
My new ability of SEEING enabled me to appreciate the human body with all of its imperfections. I had the opportunity of drawing Candice, the model, many times before I graduated with a Masters Degree. I grew to love the fluid lines of her figure and some of the best drawings I ever did were of her. She inspired me to study the Renaissance artists in depth.
The lesson I learned that day I have applied many times in my life. When I yielded to fear I was swallowed by quick sand, unable to function. Now I allow myself to believe it is possible, whatever my goal. I take the time to examine the details, watch, and experience. I am grateful I saw the light. What about you?
P.S. Remember to give yourself breathing room. While focusing on the in and out of your breath you create the space of calm. This is where fear dissipates.