Starting in January, 2011 "First Page" will be a regular column feature in The Writer Magazine. Look for it!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Painting the Nude

I remember the first time I was confronted with a nude model. I was a freshman at the Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, nineteen years old. The drawing studio was on the top floor of an old building with arched windows. I stood behind my drawing horse—a wooden platform with a graded surface—with my newsprint pad ("penny paper," we called it) and charcoal sticks and pencils. This would have been in September, but I remember the studio being cold, perhaps because come November it would be an igloo, with us all huddled in winter coats and scarved, our breaths fogging an atmosphere already murky with charcoal dust. Ms. Helmann, our instructor, didn't let us draw faces or genitals. "Distractions," she called them. "No lines," she used to say. "There are no lines in nature, just planes and shadows; a line is a concept. We're not here to draw concepts. You can do that at home."

One thing I remember about those drawing sessions: they were not the least bit sexy. No matter how good-looking the model was (and some of them were quite good-looking), after staring at them long enough through curtains of dust, with eyes aching, feet sore, and fingertips blackened with charcoal, you grew blind to abstractions like "beauty" and "woman," which was the point. You got so you only saw light and dark, shapes and values, negative and positive spaces. That these shifting patterns of light and dark added up to a beautiful girl was beside the point; anyway you were too busy drawing to notice.

Most writers, when writing about visual artists, what they do, and how they think while doing it, get it all wrong. For one thing they assume that the artist is consumed with the significance and meaning of his subject—which may be so, but not while he's working. While painting or drawing he's concerned with one thing only: seeing. He's measuring shapes, shadows, proportions. Labels don't exist. This is as true whether the subject is a haystack or Marilyn Monroe.

Of course, the artist may be an amateur, or a charlatan. That is the conclusion pointed to by this first page, since—first of all—no serious artist tackles his very first nude in oil on canvas: he'd have sketched her first, many times. That he's already gotten around to "jabbing paint into her eyes" also raises suspicions. By then our tongue-tied Picasso would have had to at least sketch in the rest of her, and should have calmed down. As for his speechlessness, it seems as suspect as his art. To have talked her into posing for him in the first place, he must have a way with words, or is his affliction triggered only by those "surfing" freckles?

Much that seems forced here might be alleviated given the proper context. But since we're given no context, we can't be blamed for imposing our own. Are they in his studio, or her boudoir? Is he a professional, or an imposter? Whose idea was it to paint her in the nude? Nor do we know, apart from his stupor and her freckles, who these two are, let alone what they mean to each other.

Imagine how much better all of this might have worked were we told from the start that he met her the week before at the Brass Jail, a local bar where, under the influence of one tequila shot too many, he foisted himself off as a portrait artist (N.B. he installs mufflers for Meineke, but he has doodled on a napkin or two). Over a few more drinks he talked her—and himself—into a commission, for which in the intervening days he has invested a small fortune in paints, brushes, easel, et cetera, and even squeezed in an art lesson or two. And now—

Well, you get the idea. And you get the scene, too, which isn't so bad after all, now that it comes with some context.

1 comment:

  1. I disagree with the critique, I liked this piece, it sparked my interest. The details you mentioned were indeed missing, still I wanted to know more about the artist and why he was so uncomfortable. I also like the humor, the author's inner dialog was funny and drew me in.