Naked models, charcoal dreams

“Open Figure Drawing Classes, Tuesday night 8:30-10:30.” This is one of those flyers that usually would have made me stop, think for a second, then move on. But before leaving for college, I was urged to do those things which had always seemed too scary, or too strange, so, when WEEKEND asked me to check out the class this week, I couldn’t say no. Tuesday night I set off for the School of Art, notebook and pen in hand.

The floor of the basement room in Green Hall is scarred with smudge marks from multiple pieces of crushed charcoal, and the garish fluorescent lighting strangely contrasts with the smooth jazz music playing in the background. Not sure of what to do with myself, I perch on a stool in the corner while people steadily trickle in through the door. Silent, I watch as they struggle to lift hefty boards onto rickety metal easels. The models are sitting cross-legged on the podium in the center of the room, casually chatting. She is garbed in a turquoise robe, he merely in his button-down shirt.

By 8:45, the room is packed, easels arranged in a tight circle around the center platform. Sam Messer, Associate Dean of the School of Art and the host of this drawing session, walks to the center of the room.

“This is not really a class,” he says. “It’s just a place to draw.”

With those simple words, he retreats back to the ring of easels, and the models disrobe. The harsh fluorescent lights are turned off and replaced by ones of a softer yellow, warmly illuminating the two models on the pedestal as they take their first pose. He sits on the ground, shoulders slightly hunched, back curved and face downcast; she stands beside him with the haughtiness of a classical statue, her hand on his head, face turned in profile.

Instantly, I hear a swishing noise as multiple pieces of charcoal make their first marks on clean paper. Some artists aggressively attack their easels, and dark strokes

immediately coalesce into the form of a human. Other artists are more hesitant, using feathery lines to lightly outline the figures.

Messer, simply clad in jeans and a white T-shirt, walks around the room, offering quiet instructions. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, each artist deeply engaged in his or her own work. I can see the posture of the man in front of me, whose thick strokes quickly fill the entire paper, loosen in tandem with the rhythm of his arm: shoulders drop, stance relaxes, and the marks become longer and less controlled.

As Messer comes back around towards my corner, he stops expectantly by my stool. I look up from my notebook, and hear myself timidly ask him if I might draw myself. Before I know it, I’m standing in front of a large easel, charcoal in my hand, listening as he gives me brief instruction on basic proportions.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a piece of charcoal in my hands; it feels foreign and strange. With terse, anxious strokes, I attempt to maneuver the unfamiliar instrument in my hands. Clumsily, I try to capture the angles of the model’s shoulders, the curve of his back. Messer continues his circuit around the room and returns to my easel. I glance at him guiltily, turning the charcoal in my palms.

“You’re holding that charcoal like you were writing in that notebook,” he says, sounding slightly amused. He takes it from me and shows me how I might manipulate it to form more bold and fluid strokes.

With the side of my hand, I smudge out my earlier attempts, and seizing upon his advice, try and capture the model’s new pose: languidly reclining with his back to me, reading a book. This time, I concentrate on the music, clearing my mind of the distractions that had dominated my thoughts the preceding hour, focusing instead on my charcoal sweeping over the paper.

Nothing exists outside of my drawing. By the time the models finally get off the pedestal to take a break, my hands are coated in black dust from smudging and shading, and I am left puzzled as to how the time passed so quickly.


Though my final sketches exhibited all the skill of a mildly gifted 10-year-old, being able to think about nothing but drawing, just for a moment, was surprisingly cathartic. Messer provides a venue where everyone, artistically gifted or not, can come to be consumed by making art. This class is whatever you want it to be: an intense study in how to draw the human body, a chance to learn basic sketching techniques, or simply a place to unwind after a long day in the grind of classes and schoolwork. I just might have to go back next Tuesday.

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