Course: Figure Drawing

InstructorMichael Markowitz

Location: San Francisco

Price: $500, 22 weeks

How to explain this class?  I doubt Michael would even want me to, but there’s so much in this class for artists that I think it requires at least some exposition.

To start, you have to interview with Michael before you’re admitted to the class. Don’t worry. It’s not a skills assessment. You can be an absolute beginner, like I was.  But more for Michael to communicate his expectations and suss out your commitment. He wants commitment and a three hour class every week for 6 months pretty much demands it.

The space is a cluttered movie set homage to artistry. It looks just like the space you would imagine a mad genius works in – charcoal drawings, pencils, pencil sharpeners, charcoal nubs nestled in crevices, newspaper print paper, track lights and work lights pointing in different directions casting intricate shadows and easels of various sizes and orientations surrounding a small platform for the nude models. The whole scene is covered in a light coating of black charcoal dust.

The class norms are straightforward. Show up on time, buy your newspaper print, gather up the sheets and staple them together on one end, attach them to an easel, bring your own charcoal sticks, sit or stand, and shut up. NO cell phones. Of course.

He starts with a bit of a lecture packed with lots of axioms you will think sound trite until you start drawing and think about what he’s said. Then he brings out the model – male or female, usually nude, introduces them, and then asks them what music they want him to play.

Then in the quiet and cold of the studio, the music creeps along the ceiling and fills the space. The model drops her robe (they’re usually women) and you’re faced with all your concerns, beliefs, and thoughts about nudity and the body. Once you manage that hurdle, you’re brought to the charcoal in your hand and the blank paper and the exhortations of Michael from time to time to draw your experience. Not the body outlines – like a murder victim, but follow your eye. Follow your eye!

You don’t know what to do and that’s the point. We’re primed to avoid the “I don’t know” experience. You will never know what to do. Just do it an integrated way – do it because it feels right.  Act on urge and impulse and see what happens, Michael says.  You’ll follow some urge and it will lead you astray. So what? Don’t copy – your aesthetic can’t be found in copying.  Everyone has an innate ability to be expressive – even you.

It’s difficult, at first, to not be self-conscious. The new place, the nudity, the perceived greatness of the other students in the room. But eventually, you’ve put charcoal to paper and made your marks. After a few minutes, Michael stops the model’s posing and asks you to step back. Look at what you think is good and what isn’t. Not other’s work. But yours.

He asks us and invariably, we hate our drawings.  Why do we hate our drawings?  Michael explains that the drawing becomes something to us – a reflection. And what is it reflecting back to you?  A lack of presence, a willingness to be taken in by your idea of what drawing is. To change, to create something different or more, you have to engage.

Whoa. Not what you’d think a drawing class would involve. Self-actualization? Yep. According to Michael, you may not have technical ability but you do have the capacity for expressive marks. Drawing is not figuring it out – it’s more experiencing something and expressing it.

He goes on to explain that when you hate a drawing there was likely no connection with it from the beginning and lacking connection, you defaulted into a process. That program or process called “knowing how to draw.” If you’re in such a hurry not to look at what you created – what does that mean about your relationship with it? Drawing will get away from you, he tells us, so you have to interact with error. Maybe you can’t un-muddy your drawing. Maybe you un-muddy your drawing by making it more muddy.

That moment you don’t know what to do? Sit with it. You get to that place because you lost creative collaboration – you are no longer feeling – no longer feeling what is pleasing or displeasing. Don’t flip the page and start over. Deal with the problem.

But I want to be better you may lament. Michael says the expectation that you’re going to make a great drawing is naïve. This expectation comes from wanting to be more than you are – be who you are and then grow from there. Be willing to let anything happen. Stop deferring experience. Let it come. Don’t try and avoid it.

And that was just from the first class.  There was more. But when I looked back at the notes I took after class each week, I noticed for the first time that he was teaching us the same thing over and over again – using different approaches – all through the medium of charcoal drawings.

It just takes a long time to realize what he is saying. And by realize I mean incorporate it. It’s one thing to listen and think you’ve learned, it’s another to embody it and that’s what drawing forces you to do. Take it in.

In one exercise, he asks you to partner with a classmate and you take turns watching each other draw. It’s one of the more difficult exercises for many students because you can feel exposed. And that’s the point. Your partner watches you draw for a while and lists the things you do when you draw. For example, do you anchor the page with your left hand? Do you always apply the same pressure? Do you start at the same point on the page in every drawing?

Your partner presents you their list and then you switch partners and observe someone else’s drawing.  After, you immediately think about how you can vary your moves, and if you step back, you realize your patterns apply to other relationships – to an intimate, to work, to the world.

The class connects to your life and your life connects to the class. In fact, it shows up in what you draw. There are no hard lines.  You and your drawing are in a relationship and what you bring to any relationship shows up in this relationship.  That was the big aha moment for me.

This isn’t art therapy. It isn’t learning how to be creative – though helpful in that respect. But as simple and complex as a drawing class. If you trust the experience it reveals a lot about yourself to you. If not, you’re taking a drawing class with a feisty little man named Michael.

If you do submit, however, you will start to see your patterns, your defaults, the ways you avoid, and even the ways you engage. You don’t get better and better. You get better, then worse, then worse some more, then better, then worse – forever. The trick is to not let the first time it gets bad throw you.  It’s like the old adage – falling down is an important part of learning how to walk. And the next time you don’t know what to do, you’ll remember Michael’s words:

“The next time you don’t know what to do, do something bold.”