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Experience / Play Life Drawing

A naked stranger soon becomes just part of the scenery at a Bowral & District Art Society life drawing lesson.

SEEN the television ad where the young man turns up at a life drawing class only to discover the nude model is his mum?

Determined not to make that mistake before taking a life drawing workshop with Noel Thurgate at Bowral & District Art Society, I check my mother is safely at home. All good. She’s there.

Still, I’m nervous as I navigate leafy Bowral to the white cottage in Short Street. I’ve interviewed artists over the years, and from Jenny Bell to Philip Wolfhagen to Ben Quilty, each say something similar … sure, I went to art school and honed my practice, but my desire to pick up a pencil and never put it down started when I was tiny.

So, on that reckoning, being able to draw is a bit like rolling your R’s. Either you can or you can’t. And I can’t. Still. Life is for experiencing, and I’ve come to the right place. Known locally by its acronym, BDAS is one of the busiest art centres and galleries in the Highlands. Founded in 1950, it cheerfully supports the wide and varied local arts community with 31 year-round exhibitions as well as evening, weekly and weekend workshops, open to all in every artistic discipline. It also holds five prize exhibitions a year and has nearly 500 active members.
Artist Noel Thurgate is our teacher. A former head of drawing at the National Art School, Noel is a five-time Archibald finalist.

“Welcome everyone. Life drawing is all about finding a suggestion of life,” says Noel as we busy ourselves behind easels with graphite pencils. I position myself behind a pleasant woman called Sonya, who went to art school, and started drawing again after 20 years of motherhood. There are 11 others here too, including today’s model, Ian, a builder. Nudity is, of course, a significant part of a dynamic life drawing workshop. If full frontals bother you, sign up for jewellery making. What’s interesting though is how quickly a nude body simply becomes a form to be studied and captured on paper. Early on, I do find myself wondering if Ian does his building al fresco, given his all over tan but his dexterity, and ability to hold a pose is commendable. We start off with a series of one-minute sketches.

“Way too often,” Noel says, “life drawing is seen as a copying exercise, and it can be deadly boring if there is a predetermined finish that you want. What we need to do is train our minds to see the curves and angles, because there are no straight lines in the human form. The trick is to look at the pose and read what it can offer you by understanding the inherent qualities in it.”

The studio comes to life as papers are attacked. But who knew a blank piece of paper could be so terrifying? Fighting down panic, I recall an artist friend’s earlier counsel. Free up your mind and your hand will follow. I make a mark and begin. The day progresses in two-minute poses, five-minute poses, 10-minute poses, 20-minutes poses as all the while, Noel talks and walks offering advice, giving guidance. I hold my breath as he appears again at my shoulder to survey my sorry efforts.

“Yes. I can see you have found the shape there, Alex. Look how Ian is holding his body and where the weight falls. That feeling of weight adds volume and helps us to see things from the inside out, rather than the outside in. Good job.”

Noel’s kindness is next to godliness, especially as I have a clear view of how a life sketch should look, thanks to Sonya’s excellent efforts. Her drawings have scale, proportion, shade, movement, even expression. Mine are something else entirely and I won’t be giving up my day job any time soon. But there is no judgment here, only camaraderie, and it’s one from the bucket list to tick off.
It was Leonardo da Vinci who famously said, “anyone can look, but only an artist truly sees”. Hmm. Maybe next time I should have a crack at being the model instead.

*ESH was a guest of Bowral & District Art Society

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