Bringing a Beginner's Mind to Life Drawing

To begin 2019, I dropped into a life drawing course. It was amazing to step back into the studio and pick up my charcoal.

Life Drawing in Aldgate and Shoreditch

Life Drawing in Aldgate and Shoreditch

The supply table, try something new

The supply table, try something new


  • Figure drawing from a live model is challenging and rewarding. It’s a great way to learn to draw. Because drawing the figure is so tricky, drawing anything else afterwards becomes more comfortable.

  • Drawing from life instead of photos provides its own set of unique challenges, including foreshortening and a limited time to capture the sketch.

  • The sense of community from a drawing group is lovely. The meet-up I attended offers optional instruction, which can be helpful if you get stuck or are not sure how to begin.

  • Having a facilitator for a creative activity can help the participants let go and enjoy the process. I felt guided and comfortably challenged following Tim’s suggestions and pacing.


About My Experience

I grabbed my A3 drawing pad and my pencil case and made my way to a community centre not too far from where I live in East London.

When I arrived at the art room upstairs, it was already full of participants, and the model was fixed in a pose in the centre of the room, encircled by chairs and easels.

As we filed in, Tim gave a quick tour of the space, including an overview of the art supplies and the tea and biscuit table. Paper was available for 20p a sheet, and drawing materials were free for us to grab and use. The table was overflowing with pastels, pencils, and charcoals.

I took a spot in a chair on the far side of the room and pulled out my drawing pad. As I looked up at the model, I realised it had been at least 10 years since I had been to a figure drawing session, probably a few more. I decided not to count, and put any nervous energy aside. I started with a few quick gestures with a soft pencil, then grabbed my vine charcoal.

The model was in a fixed pose for 10 mins or so and I warmed up by sketching a few gestures of the same pose drawing from right to left across the page. I found the lines moving through the core of her body, not worrying out how they looked on the page. I am left-handed, and when I draw, I move from the right to left to avoid too much accidental smudging.

Maybe it was the spirit and energy of the new year, but people kept streaming in, the room, scooting the chairs closer together. Tim announced his policy not to turn anyone away and welcomed the newcomers. A full room is neither good or bad, he said, it just means the energy is different. Now we were all fair game. He suggested we sketch each other and use the fullness of the room in our compositions.

As the model found a different pose, gracefully moving her arms above her head, I looked up and noticed the lines created by the fluorescent strip lighting hanging from the ceiling. I started there, and let her form show up as I moved down the page.

I started doing life drawing when I was in high school. My art teacher, Mr Coniglio told the class about a life drawing workshop held every Sunday evening above a bar in downtown Buffalo. On Sunday evenings, my friends and I would drive from the suburbs into the city, hopping on Route 33 to take us downtown. I remember those nights feeling like small adventures.

When I got to university, life drawing was a required activity in our first year drawing class. Sue Gussow was our instructor. The classroom was a high-ceilinged room filled with the sweet smell of oil paint. We’d file in with our cumbersome pads of newsprint flopping beneath our arms and each find a spot at the oversized easels. Sue moved around the room, giving us instructions that were abstract, yet somehow worked.

Moving my hand along the page as I traced my eyes down the bare arms of a stranger didn’t make sense until I looked down at my newsprint and a figure stood there, a woman gently posed on the page. How do you teach someone to draw?, I would wonder.

I ended up teaching life drawing to high school students a few years later when I volunteered for a program at my university. I would use Sue’s prompts as I moved around the room. Would they trust me, would it work?

Tim suggested we try a different angle, and a few people moved from chairs to easels. We switched to a more extended pose, and I went back to pencil. I found myself looking at the spaces around the model. The diamond shape between her arm and hip, the gentle wave that moved down her neck and around her shoulder.

We moved into quick poses, and I flipped quickly between the pages of my sketchpad. I looked down and saw a pile of ridiculous scribbles. Sue would have given me hell, I thought.

Follow the signs to the art room

Follow the signs to the art room

Easels and seats filled the perimeter of the studio

Easels and seats filled the perimeter of the studio