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Drawing – and learning – from Life with Will Fleishell, Master Artist

March 9, 2015

It’s tough to catch teaching artist and master engraver Will Fleishell without a pencil in his hand or out from behind the printing press–so when he took some time out to answer a few of our most wide-ranging questions over a lunch break, we were especially grateful. Check out his thoughts on the importance of drawing, the benefits of working from the figure, the role of the studio community, and many more insights below–and you can find Will in-person (though don’t count on him being without a pencil) at CHAW every other Friday, facilitating our Figure Drawing class.  Click HERE to learn more and register, and experience Will’s creative energy in person…if you can catch him!

1) What drew you (no pun intended) to drawing?

Drawing has been an integral part of my existence since childhood and art is my profession as an adult. I was told as a boy by my father that if I could learn to draw beautifully I could always make a living. My dad was also a professional artist, and he was from an old German-American printing family here in DC, and growing up I never heard the derogatory epithet,  “starving artist.” Creating images and three-dimensional structures out of basically dead materials – and breathing life into these inanimate and otherwise useless objects can be a real high.  When it goes right, a drawing, painting, or sculpture can inspire and even change how we all see – we can literally change the world with art if it is seen in the right time and place. This might be a form of power- but it can also make the world better- and turn a dismal situation into a lot of fun!  Drawing is the foundation of visual art and it needs to be practiced regularly to achieve and maintain competency and fluency.

2) What do you particularly love about figure drawing?

I often make use of figure drawings to create printing plates on copper or paintings. These figure drawings by themselves are often exhibit-grade material as finished pieces ready for framing, as I have been known to spend many hours on a single drawing.  I have made ceramic plaques, carvings, and sculptures based on drawings I have done from live models. Sometimes in our open drawing I will create scenes that we carry through from week to week to form a kind of multiple figure composition. Not everyone wants to try to tackle this, but I find it makes for a lively approach and enlivens the atmosphere to try new things like this. We often discuss future ideas for poses and I ask the participants for their own ideas. Last Friday, for example, we were working with a woman who posed in ballerina’s attire based on a Degas sculpture. The best part is that it was the idea of one of our regulars.

3) What is the most challenging part of drawing from life?

Since ancient times, the human figure has been the benchmark and part of the canon of all fine art and even architecture – and  the understanding and depiction of the human figure makes it easier to ascertain and to grasp the complexities of the world and universe. Drawing from a live human being uses all of your faculties  of observation and concentration. It is a real living  person and, as such, is alive and moving and so you must improvise at all times. The improvisation is a big part of the fun.

Art and science both meet in the human figure: even medical science recognizes the study of the human appearance. A doctor who regularly attends open drawing told me that now that he knows about drawing, he could likely learn as much about  human anatomy by drawing from the figure than most medical schools can teach with books. Figure drawing and study has a very long academic tradition in the western world, and is also recognized in other cultures as critical. Aside from these larger issues, the great works of art in the past  were all based on some sort of  human  pictorial centerpiece – and artists love to work drawings from pure study into their own more elaborate and complex compositions. It is akin to a scientist pursuing pure research – the purest form of inquiry. The most basic approach to learning is observation. Once you master even a part of it, it keeps drawing you back and you cannot get away from it!

Painting and line drawing from life or imagination is my own love and joy in art. Sculpture and three-dimensional art is also a form of perfection – I would love to pursue this more but space demands limit my access to the practice of sculpture. Figure drawing is a perfect form of exploration for new art ideas and compositions. Printmakers, painters, and sculptors who are enamored of classical art find solace and truth in the human form and in the elegance of a finished beautiful drawing.  I am  particular about observationally-based art and do not work at all from photographs for my own art. Understandably in the real world at large – when doing a portrait or commission, for instance – photos must sometimes  be used. But in the best of worlds, observation-based classical art is the way to go for me, personally. There are so many reasons for this that it cannot be put down in writing. The doing of it makes it all become more clear than words can convey. Observation and nature are the  ultimate and most basic sources for great art.

4) What is special about the CHAW community in your figure drawing classes?

As an additional aspect of figure drawing in a studio setting, one must not ignore the community at large. Some artists are so  ultra-focused on their own work as to hibernate into a shell and leave the world out.  All of the greatest artists engaged the world at large and became a part of it; in fact, celebrated it in one way or another. Having people around you as you are working is a healthy thing – it makes you not forget your ultimate role as an artist. Placing human figures into real settings with props and scenery is a way of making these studies relevant and useful.

None of this practice is a waste. Big things come from small things.

I always admire anyone who is willing to take time after a hard day of work to tackle a drawing and make something of it. To try something different like this is not an easy thing to do.  For myself this is a normal part of my everyday existence as I draw in some way every day- indeed, it is my business and livelihood; but, for someone new, it is a complete challenge. I always try to support these people as much as I can in the open drawing and to try to help them to bring out what is best. Positive words and feelings can go a long way to bring forth inspiration. Even if someone is inexperienced or does not yet feel that his or her work is “good,” there is always a kernel of honesty and  truth in what they are trying to convey if they are truly observing and striving to interpret what is in front of them. The people in the room working with you certainly have an influence on you. To ignore this is to pretend that you are not a part of this world. Humility is the key to advancing for all of us in all pursuits  in life. I always encourage people to get up and to walk around the room to see what others are doing.

You are not alone.

CHAW  Open Drawing offers the artist who is interested in drawing from life the chance to work from a living nude model for an extended period of time in the same pose. We have kept to this  standard for many years, as we have both serious painters  and draftsmen interested in creating more finished artworks or taking the time to seriously learn how to draw the human figure.  Some of our participants are there for practice, others for  learning, while still others want to try something new in art that they have not done before. We have had plenty of people who were drawing in high school or college, or who took lessons at one time or another, who wish to take up serious drawing again.

Being able to sit down and to focus on a single subject for 3 hours or more is not for the inexperienced, and I recommend prior drawing experience.  It takes patience and endurance. This is why we often lubricate the situation with shared food and drink, and play music on the radio to soothe the savage beast in our souls and to calm us down a bit after a hard week’s work at our day jobs.  We are not necessarily completely quiet, either – we often talk of art  shows, experiences, artists we admire or dislike, and many contemporary issues that thinking people engage with.

Hearing performances or events in other rooms at CHAW can also inspire, amuse, and excite the artists working from the figure. We get ideas from what is around us: we have had Shakespearian actors and actresses from the black box theatre  model for us in the garb of the latest play in which they had acted, and we sometimes put our models against backgrounds  evocative of historical or exotic locations.

5) Can you share a particularly memorable anecdote from a CHAW figure drawing session?

One time a violent thunder storm was raging outside while we were  working from the figure. It was a Saturday afternoon, the sky had darkened, and, in some ways, it made for a cozy time being safe, dry, and inside, doing something we all wanted to be doing. Suddenly we all heard a large and very loud CRACK just outside the window. All of us jumped and ran to the large windows just in time to see a huge branch from one of the street trees come down on a Lexus SUV. It missed the houses and buildings and no one was injured, but the Lexus was a total scrap heap. Soon, police showed up to tape off 7th street and  make it safe until city workers could chainsaw the remains and cart them away. Wow- this was a real shocker. It sure was frightening. At least nobody was hurt. Even a destructive storm can inspire the artist!

Oops, I missed my lunch break…

[We owe you a sandwich, Will!]