Foundation Course Diary – Entry 9

Follow a beginner on their journey through the foundation course.

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” Confucius

Sacred & Profane Titian

Sacred and Profane Love, Titian

This is my final week and I resist the temptation to paint; not because I do not long to cross the final frontier of the foundation course, but because I know that I will not enjoy it as much if I do not master my drawing first.

On reflection, the course is as much about learning to know yourself as it is about drawing and painting. I have learnt that I need to be less fearful of mistakes and less blocked by the illusion of perfection. I have also realised that learning is not a race to the finish; nor is there anything to be gained from comparison. If I am going to compare myself to anyone it might as well be to The Great Masters, at least then there is something to really work towards!

So, in the final week I take a more modest but equally exciting step. I move from one side of the studios to the other and cross a different dividing line. For the first time I am working from life, who would have thought it could feel so different!

The model is beautiful. She sits serenely on the edge of a stool, her skin pours over her form like crystalline water over rock, smooth and without a single blemish. Her gaze hangs in the middle distance, with no particular urge to travel anywhere. She betrays no discomfort in sitting nude in front of a group of painters; instead her figure melts into a space that seems to have been moulded for her. She is symmetrical like a diamond. Her shoulders slope and broaden creating a line from cheek to shoulder to elbow before beginning to taper in, skimming her thighs towards her knees and finally brushing her toes.

There is a sense of excitement that comes with tackling a live subject for the first time. I want to recreate that fluidity and strength of character on the page and this urgency drives me to work faster and more boldly. Of course I do not come close to doing her justice but I feel more relaxed in front of the easel.

Inevitably I cannot work fast enough as the session is punctuated by regular pauses to give the model time to rest. After 20 minutes an alarm clock rings, and the stillness breaks. Suddenly the air seems thick and stuffy and I can almost see it nudged aside by the stirring of those in the room. Our model moves swiftly to drape herself in a dressing gown, faded and reminiscent of the ones worn by 1950s Hollywood stars in their dressing rooms. In one seamless action she reaches for the mobile phone and with this the final thread snaps.

The class has been a revelation, it is clear to me now how demanding drawing from life is and the skill required to do it well. But, this spurs me on. I may not have progressed a pace with my peers, but I have taken stock of every bend in the road and enjoyed (eventually) the process. I look forward to more in the term ahead.

Foundation Course Diary – Entry 8

Follow a beginner on their journey through the foundation course.

“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint’, then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” Vincent van Gogh

Wheat field with Cypresses, Vincent Van Gogh

Distance and time have served me well. I have regained composure and begin class in combative mood. There are those who tread too cautiously and cling too closely to the rules and there are those who embark on everything with reckless abandon. I fall into the former and, to this extent, am my own worst enemy because I prefer to beat myself up over the small faults rather than pushing through. But there come a point at which you must commit and take risk in order to improve.

So this week I adopt a different approach: I will drive swiftly through the four stages, from boxes to shadow shapes, without too much pause for thought. Having completed the study I will then be able to evaluate my weaknesses in context and understand where to focus my energies.

I tape the paper to the board, dispel any idea of a small study: one cast, the whole piece of paper, no holding back. I am working in two values – all or nothing. It is liberating and exciting and I am impatient to meet the challenge. In this frame of mind momentum builds quickly, my out stretched arm beats time from the shoulder and conducts precise but sweeping lines of charcoal across the page. Perhaps the gesture is not quite right and my rendition does not do justice to the smooth, ethereal beauty of the subject but there is progress nonetheless and so much more pleasure!

Ann often says that an experienced artist uses many different skills and techniques simultaneously where as a learner takes them one at a time. Then there comes the moment when you are ready to bring them together; at first stumbling and then through trial and error the skills are sharpened, personal style emerges and with that the confidence to stand back, admire the view and yet continue to ask more of yourself. I have a way to go but for now I get it.

I feel more resilient after a satisfying session and stride with purpose across the car park. At the far end I pass a student thumbing a cigarette anxiously; I see in his face the same anguish I experienced seven days ago. Yours too shall pass, I think to myself, but it is easier said than believed.

Foundation Course Diary – Entry 7

Follow a beginner on their journey through the Foundation Course.

“Go on failing. Go on. Only next time, try to fail better.” Samuel Beckett


No. 91674, Rothko

Black is the only word that comes to mind today. An iron grip has been tightening around my mind and stomach for the past week and I cannot face yet more frustration and imperfection. Failure may be the greatest teacher but it is also a hard pill to swallow. So this week I opt for distance, in the hopes that I will return in a week with restored determination.

Foundation Course Diary – Entry 6

Follow a beginner on their journey through the foundation course.

“Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.” Edgar Degas

Ballet Dancers, Edgar Degas

I love returning to the studio. Opening the door onto worn, wooden floors, an assortment of art equipment and an array of work at different stages of completion is like stepping back in time. It is almost like taking up position in one of Degas’ paintings of ballerinas; only fine artists rather than dancers surround you.

Ateliers, it turns out, date back to the Middle Ages. They were the mainstay of an artist’s training until the 19th century. Here, a clutch of aspiring artists would work alongside a master, learning through practice and the exchange of knowledge. These teams of craftsmen created some of the most celebrated paintings in Europe, as well as growing to be respected artists in their own right.

However, the tradition died out and with it part of the camaraderie of the artist’s life. Today an artist’s lot is perceived as a solitary one; but it need not be. In fact, arriving at Lavender Hill Studios for the first time you could be forgiven for doubting the myth of the lonely and impoverished artist. Though many still struggle to balance the books, the support and guidance offered by a spirited and like-minded peer group is priceless.

This week I set up my easel next to a student visiting from France. She is here for the week and keen to learn a different method to the one taught at her art school. Although much of our time is focused on the exercise in hand, it is nice to be able to swap notes with your neighbour.

I stumble through my French and pick up some useful jargon as I go. Soon we are pondering the question of proportion and gesture, puzzling over which are the weight bearing lines. I have had a great deal of difficulty in defining how the hips and shoulders tilt, it seems that my instinct is the opposite of what is anatomically possible. It is hugely frustrating, but made more bearable for being able to talk through the logic (or not) of the problem.

It is also a helpful reminder that there is no absolute. There is of course proportion, line and volume, but it is possible to find different interpretations within this framework and everyone at some stage struggles to find their way. Painting is not just about innate talent, as Ann says: the talent is walking through the door; and Scott corroborates: last man standing. Learning to draw and paint is about hard work, practice and perseverance and being part of a community makes it so much more enjoyable and instructive!