Throwing Open the Life Room Doors: Life Drawing with Young Artists

April 30, 2018

Life drawing has long been considered the best way for art students to learn about the human figure and hone their observational skills, and whilst this remains true today, our approaches to the life room have changed radically; no longer the stuffy domain of academic study, it can be one of the most vibrant, varied and productive areas of art education. Here, Rachel Mercer, Young Artist tutor, Drawing Year alumnus and gallerist explores the unique nature of drawing from life.

YA Life Drawing

Young people remain naturally enthusiastic about drawing and fascinated by images of people; schools across the country are filled with paintings, sculptures and drawings by students, depicting themselves, their friends, family and their heroes… Fantastic! However, the contemporary ubiquity of photography and the ease of finding images online has now created a tendency for students to approach drawing as a mediated activity. Of course drawing from photographs and secondary images is one way of making work, however working directly from life encourages students to learn some of the most useful and creative aspects of image-making.

This is why life drawing is still as important as ever and why, as a tutor, I want to enthuse students, to enable them with skills and understanding and to broaden their minds; I aim to open doors and give the students the confidence to find their own path.

 Joe Heffernan Life Drawing

Drawing by Joe, Young Associates

Drawing can use the whole body and all of the senses; it can encompass stretches of time; capture an instant or combine disparate moments; it can distort and invent space, or create immersive illusions of reality; it can be rigorous or free-wheeling; it can be closely observed, or drawn from memory and the imagination; it can be naturalistic, abstracted, narrative, analytical, emotional, gestural, formal, playful, musical, energetic, meditative or measured. Amazingly, it is possible to teach this wide and wonderful variety of approaches all within the bounds of the life drawing class.

 YA Life Drawing

Because the life room is a controlled environment, the tutor can choose to focus on varied aspects of drawing, tailoring the set up to encourage particular ways of working in each class. In all cases, we are not really drawing ‘real life’, but an actor in a staged situation. This can be odd at first however, in this strange, unreal environment, we can practice and learn in ways that aren’t normally possible. These lessons stay with us and can be applied to everything we observe ‘in real life’, informing everything we create throughout our artistic careers.

 Life Drawing, Emma

Drawing by Emma, Young Associates

Sometimes the life room really is like a theatre. Lighting, plinths, furniture, fabrics and props can be arranged to create different spaces and atmospheres, using colour, texture, projections and shadows to create visual drama and stimulate the senses. I often like to encourage students to conjure a narrative or emotional context for their drawing, and to combine what they can observe with other elements drawn from their imagination.

At other times the set up will be very simple; an unclothed model in the centre of a sparse room. This might be useful to focus the students attention on the subtleties of human form and anatomy, or to concentrate on how to depict a figure in space. When drawing in real life, observing people on the street for instance, a student must be equipped not with just a knowledge of the figure but also an understanding of how to position figures in space, considering relative distance and composing the drawing accordingly. To help them develop these abilities I may encourage the students to draw the model from head to toe, to include a suggestion of the floor and surrounding walls, and to consider the height of their own viewpoint and their position in the room.

Life Drawing Shoreditch 

I am proud to be tutoring at the Royal Drawing School, and being a part of a team of people who are upholding and reinventing the life room tradition, ensuring that young artists are inspired to embrace drawing in all its varied and expressive forms. When our students leave each class excited about looking and drawing, they carry that enthusiasm into the future and will hopefully pass it on through generations to come. Life drawing certainly isn’t dead, it’s livelier than it’s ever been

Would you like to try life drawing? Why not try our Drop-in Life Drawing for Young Artists (14 - 18) on Saturdays from 10am - 1pm (£10). Students have the unique opportunity to draw from the unclothed model and there will be a variety of poses both long and short from a different life model each week.

For more information click here