Figure Writing, 101

On a Saturday morning, eleven resident writers and I gather in the Vermont Studio Center Life Drawing Studio. We fan out behind easels and tilted tabletops, straddling wooden stands dotted in dried paint. Wilhelm, a resident artist, has agreed to pose for us. He relaxes on the mattress, knees up, back resting against square and round and striped pillows. He is clothed, hungover from last night’s revelries, watching the back window through glassy eyes as we, the writers, experiment with seeing him and observing the details of his hair, his glasses, the cuffs of his sleeves pressed up against his elbows.

As writers, we don’t often get permission to stare at our subject. Maybe we see our intimate partners day-to-day, our close family members, but it’s easy to lose the objectivity and distance needed to turn those examinations into character. People-watching is crucial to the writer, but it often involves hurried, furtive observations of passers-by, snippets of conversation overheard only in passing. The long gaze at the stranger’s figure, the opportunity to linger over the contrast between hair and forehead, the curve of the ear, the pinky finger that twitches just slightly—this is well-worn ground for artists, but for writers, observing the figure is something new. On this hazy Saturday morning, an experiment I’m calling “Figure Writing” begins. An artist has given a roomful of writers permission to observe him for thirty long, luxurious minutes, and, together, we embark in a magical sort of way on a journey within our rural Vermont idyll.

I begin with Wilhelm’s surface features. I describe his dark head of hair, his round glasses, his dark eyes and haze of beard. One of my goals this residency is to work on sensory details. In this figure writing session, not only am I filling my page, but, after each written line, when I look up to gaze at Wilhelm, I notice something new, something beyond what I could have seen in a passing glance or a shy hello. As I turn to his rumpled black button-down shirt, his navy shorts and bare feet, I then begin to construct a character. I linger over his lips, letting myself riff on how they balance his face. I write about his wedding band and its reminder of a life beyond this room. In the second pose, when one of the residents allows her service dog to hop on the bed with Wilhelm, I begin to see a story. This is a man and his dog, very recently a boy and his dog. Falling asleep after a long day of… walking? Hunting? One of the poets interprets the same pose and creates a scene of domestic life—Wilhelm is resting by the fire with their dog, wakes when he hears the poet come home, and tells him in a sleepy voice there is a roast in the oven. Maybe there is wine chilling. Maybe dancing light from the fireplace plays over Wilhelm’s features, and the poet has captured this in a brief thirty-minute session.

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Figure writing is a variation of the observations all writers must make. It comes, though, laden with tension. Staring at a model while sitting in a room full of other writers doing exactly the same thing is an invitation to intimacy, to a heightened state of awareness. Suddenly, the color of the hair isn’t just black, but a dark brown black, and the glasses are a balance between the hair and the dark eyes—brown irises and black pupils. Figure writing is collaborative, a joint effort among a group of writers and a willing subject. It disrupts our normal state. We gaze, with others, at the shoulders, the knees, the bare toes, and this gets us out of our heads, our frozen, flat-screen-editor-heads. It distracts us just enough to let the words come in. Rush in. When we aren’t looking at the page, but rather, at the subject, the page breathes.

On Sunday, Lauren poses for us. A few writers show up, the others perhaps sleeping in after another late night of campfire and dance party. The room is quieter, brighter. Her face is tired, like Wilhelm’s, but she sits erect, as if there is a rod of steel running through her core. Lauren’s first pose mimics Wilhelm’s first pose, knees up, eyes staring out the window, but her head is upright, her blond pixy-cut hair suggesting a more monochromatic palette than Wilhelm’s contrast of brown/black hair, eyes, glasses and light summer tan.

A previous conversation with Lauren at the laundromat begins to infuse my description. Instead of sitting on a mattress in a studio in rural Vermont, she is looking out over a plain in South Africa, seeing dandies at a funeral in whiskey-burned suits wearing mis-matched shoes. Or she’s looking into the future, seeing her brother’s next split from reality, hearing the voices her brother and now her sister hear, but untroubled by them. Lauren’s next pose is more inventive—she’s on her back with an inflated exercise ball between her legs. For me, she is dangling from a trapeze, twisting and spinning as she arcs toward an imagined partner, Joseph, who is reaching out to grasp the bones and ligaments of her ankle. From there, an entire story of Lauren and Joseph emerges, all while she spins along her ankle/knee/hip axis in absolute stillness.

In Basic Figure Drawing Techniques, editor Greg Albert explains, beneath two sketches of a figure seated with his head leaned forward, that, “True seeing means ignoring logic and responding to what our eyes tell us.” The head is typically above the shoulders, Albert explains, but in these sketches, when the head is in its “typical” position, the image is skewed. In the Life Drawing Studio, we have unhurried time to observe our subjects, to ignore the logic of what a young German painter should look like on a Saturday morning, and instead, to see the wrinkled shirt, the bare toes, the lips that pout with lack of sleep. From there, it’s possible to take an imaginative leap and begin a story of a young man and his dog, dozing by the fire, a roast in the oven. Or a trapezist caught mid-arc, awaiting her partner’s steady grasp as the world spins below.

Finding “flow state,” a phrase I’m borrowing from Madison Smart Bell’s VSC craft lecture, isn’t magic, but it also isn’t exactly logical. On a Friday morning in Mason House, Bell opened his lecture, not with talk, but with guitar chords. Over bars of a blues riff wafting from his portable orange amp, he explained flow state, which he said is akin to the trance-like state graphic artist Linda Barry teaches her students to achieve through drawing spirals of never touching lines. These spirals are necessary so the students can then get on with the work of making art. Stepping into the Life Drawing Studio is perhaps another way to find flow state. We’re working collaboratively, and we’re seeing what’s there, right in front of us, but that which is usually obscured from our view.

Artist Robert Irwin, who experimented with sensory deprivation in an anechoic chamber in the 60’s and 70’s, is famous for his insights on seeing, and how we’re actively a part of what we’re experiencing. With regard to what we see, he says we must let go of our preconceptions. In a 2010 interview, he explained, “If a good piece of […] art has […] real potential to it, you have to let go. You have to give yourself a chance to play with it.”

I return, alone, to the Life Drawing Studio on Monday. Steve, a professional model with a shaved head and big blue eyes, is reclined in a white robe on the mattress. He hops up when I enter, the only person come to observe him on this early morning. He introduces himself and wants to know what position I’d like him to take. I ask for two fifteen-minute poses of his choice, wanting to replicate as close as possible the sessions with Wilhelm and Lauren. Then I begin writing in my notebook. I stare at the lines on the page, not wanting to watch Steve disrobe, a little afraid of what I might see while his body is in motion. I describe the room around me without actually raising my head to see it; I describe the silence. Steve has been still – he has been quiet – for several minutes.

It’s time to look up.

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To my surprise, unlike Wilhelm and Lauren, Steve is standing tall upon the mattress. And, of course, he is fully naked. Facing me. So, I start with his eyes, his shoulders, his arms, and when I am relaxed enough, I look at his hips, his penis and testicles, his legs. Except for his eyebrows, his body is completely hairless. I begin to create a character. I enter my flow state. I let my preconceived ideas about the human body fall away. I see the similarities between his testicles and my infant son’s, swollen at birth. I see the lines of Steve’s shoulder and torso and how they align with the skylight, and I imagine him being pulled through the window. Because Steve can fly. Like a bird. Or an angel. Or Peter Pan. Of course, Steve can fly, and I get it now because he’s allowed me the time to look, uninterrupted, at his body. He’s let me see what I can see.

James, the poet who wrote the domestic scene of Wilhelm and the dog, has asked if I can find a pair of artists to pose for us, suggesting it might be easier to write about a relationship if we have two figures on the mattress, as we did with Wilhelm and the dog. So, in a final Saturday session, Dan, a sculptor, and Renske, a painter, pose for the writers. In their first position, the two sit away from each other, cross-legged, facing the windows with eyes averted. I write how it feels like a morning of sex and argument. Then my scene changes to a brother and sister arguing about handling the details of their father’s recent death. Dan has been out drinking the night before while Renske has been sifting through stacks and boxes and receipts, alone. She doesn’t want to do it anymore, and he’s no help. He says, “Burn it all.” She says, “He was your father, too,” and he says, “I don’t give a fuck.” But he does care; he’s here because their little sister is away at college, and she shouldn’t have to be here, so Dan came out of guilt, out of love for his little sister, but Renske, the oldest, is demanding. This is how she’s always been. He feels less of a man, less of a person, when she’s around.

For their second pose, the two face each other, legs slightly entangled. They look into each other’s eyes, or as close as they can approximate for fifteen minutes. I start the time, and immediately a story begins. The poet, James, writes this, “Begin at stacked knees, black scuff / of paint on her skin. Trace his hair / to the hip, this angle of torsos—his / back, reclined, exchanged for hers leaning forward [….]” In my own narrative, Dan is thinking about kissing her, he wants her again, but she needs to talk. His buzzcut dark hair, his flexed triceps, his dark eyes and slight beard, controlled, patient—these all contrast with her angles and sharp edges, the wisps of hair falling across her brow, the swollen lips. Each of her ears is a tiny curve, a seed, a knurled nut, and his ears are shells. He is earth; she is flight. He is solid; she is air, fluttering, an elemental who must wander and return when she is ready, and he is fine with that. He waits, patient for his skittish lover. Her lips, they give away the depth to which she feels, which is why she must leave. Lightning jolts through him and dissipates in the ground below his feet, but she is a bundle, a frazzle of sizzles and feathers if she stays touching him for too long. The bird tattoo on his shoulder is for her, just out of his view so he’s never looking directly at her. She can fly to him when she’s ready; he’s always waiting, the skin right there on his shoulder patient with the ink of her, the feathery hollow-boned skyward creature that she will always be.

I read these words to Dan the next evening. We sit in matching wooden rocking chairs on his porch as the sun sets to our left, cars lazily passing in front of us. “That’s me,” he says.  “You got it.” He leans into his chair and tells me how, when he looks in a mirror, he doesn’t really see his reflection, but an oversized version of himself. He has a medical condition that keeps him from seeing what I see, what everyone else sees when they look at him—a handsome, solidly built young man with kind, dark eyes and a shy smile. He lost seventy pounds this last year, he tells me. The t-shirt he’s wearing gapes open below his arm, and I see more tattoos—a prism, a stag. He takes a shaky drag on his e-cig and tells me thanks.

On Tuesday morning, I let Wilhelm read my figure writing notes. He immediately discerns where I describe, where I begin to tell a story. We recline on red-stained Adirondack chairs in the shade near the Gihon River, and he tells me of an introductory exercise in which artists draw a face from a photo or a postcard, once right-side-up, then again upside-down. The inversion of the postcard pushes the artist to really look at the image, to situate the eyes and nose and hairline, not where they should be, but where the artist observes them to be. “You get the chance,” he says, “to do a sensitive mapping of the subject with the eye, not the brain.” It’s this “sensitive mapping” that opens the door for surprise. As poet Robert Frost says, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” We need surprises. We need to look, to stay awhile and let our gaze rest on a subject. Map the surface details. Be surprised, and then let the story unfold.

 Lania Knight's first book, Three Cubic Feet, was a 2012 Finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Debut Fiction. Her stories, essays, and interviews have been published in The Missouri Review, Fourth Genre, PANK, The Rumpus, Jabberwock Review, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. A story is forthcoming in Quiddity. She was a Resident Writing Fellow for the month of July 2015 at Vermont Studio Center, and she currently teaches as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Gloucestershire.

Works Cited

Albert, Greg. Basic Figure Drawing Techniques. New York: North Light Books. 1994. Print.

Carone, Angela and Maureen Cavanaugh. “Robert Irwin at Quint Contemporary Art.” These

Days on KPBS. Interview with Robert Irwin. 10 Mar 2010. Web. 24 July 2015.

Frost, Robert. “The Figure a Poem Makes.” Web. 27 Jul 2015.

Wood, Warner James. “Life Drawing: Couple.” 26 Jul 2015

 

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