The Undressed Art: Why We Draw

Overview

To draw is to understand what we see. In The Undressed Art, writer-naturalist Peter Steinhart investigates the rituals, struggles, and joys of drawing. Reflecting on what is known about the brain’s role in the drawing process, Steinhart explores the visual learning curve: how children begin to draw, how most of them stop, and what brings adults back to this deeply human art form later in life.  He considers why the face and figure are such commanding subjects and describes the delicate collaboration of the ...

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Overview

To draw is to understand what we see. In The Undressed Art, writer-naturalist Peter Steinhart investigates the rituals, struggles, and joys of drawing. Reflecting on what is known about the brain’s role in the drawing process, Steinhart explores the visual learning curve: how children begin to draw, how most of them stop, and what brings adults back to this deeply human art form later in life.  He considers why the face and figure are such commanding subjects and describes the delicate collaboration of the artist and model. Here is a powerful reminder that no revolution in art or technology can undermine our vital need to draw.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Richly enjoyable. . . . Lucidly written, delightfully illustrated. Steinhart considers the phenomenon of drawing from practically every conceivable angle and the result is as stimulating as it is enlightening.”–Los Angeles Times

“Steinhart is one of those lucky writers who can’t help being entertaining, even when he’s making a serious inquiry. He reminds us that there is something ‘innate and human’ about the impulse to draw what we see. I wasn’t long into the book before I felt I was in the presence of a friend.” —Edward Sorel, The New York Times Book Review

“This rare, transcendent book . . . deserves to be part of the rarefied canon of nonfiction that ventures–gracefully, delightfully–far beyond its expected scope.” –The Plain Dealer

“Fascinating. . . . The overall effect of this engaged and engaging book is to make its lucky readers feel that only by picking up a pencil and drawing can we tap into ‘a repository of wisdom and energy, purpose and comfort’ that is larger than all of us.”–The Washington Post

Edward Sorel
Steinhart is one of those lucky writers who can't help being entertaining, even when he's making a serious inquiry. I wasn't long into the book before I felt I was in the presence of a friend, with both of us kvetching about how difficult it is to do a decent drawing, let alone a good one, and how it's always a surprise when it happens.
The New York Times
Paul Di Filippo
In The Undressed Art, Steinhart has created one of those sui generis works such as Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. While its scope might not be as large as Pirsig's, Steinhart's book still speaks to many of the same issues of community, mindfulness, personal liberation and the dynamic interplay between past and present.
The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
With the triumph of photography and the retreat of representation from "serious" visual art, the place of drawing as a central and necessary human activity might appear to be under some threat. Yet naturalist Steinhart's lively and gently polemical book shows it to be positively thriving, most passionately (and unexpectedly) in "drawing groups" that meet all over the country to sketch models and discuss technique. Steinhart (The Company of Wolves) is himself the enthusiastic member of such a group, and details of their rearguard defense of drawing traditions are the affectionately rendered center of the book. Moving from his own experiences to art history, science and the lives of the artists and models with whom he comes in contact, Steinhart examines this resurgence not only as an exercise in cultural self-expression but a collective response to a fundamental human need. Along the way, he gives quick but informative sketches of the world of children's drawing, the physiology of facial recognition and the evolution of photography. But the book's true milieu is the studio, and its core subject the complex relationships between hand, brain, eye and subject in the drawn depiction of the human figure. The fascinating life of the figure model Florence Allen (who not only posed over a period of many years for everyone from Diego Rivera to Richard Diebenkorn, but helped organize her colleagues into a professional guild) shows a side of the art world rarely explored with such sympathy and depth. And if Steinhart partakes a little of the "Us vs. Them" opposition to the contemporary art world common among his peers, he doesn't make a big deal out of it. For him, a drawing bound for the fridge door is taken as seriously as a painting in the Prado. 31 illus. (June) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this meditation on the meaning of drawing (primarily figure drawing from the nude), naturalist/journalist Steinhart brings a measure of science to understanding the perceptions and actions that engage the human mind in the act of drawing. But the book is as much about the activities of the human mind spontaneous, direct, and unencumbered as it is about drawing itself. The more successful autobiographical parts of the book are based on Steinhart's several decades of avocational figure drawing. Although there is a bit of concise history about artists' models, this topic, again based on the author's experience and interviews with models over some years, is fresh and highlights the dynamic relationship that can be captured on paper. The virtues of this essentially solitary activity are focus and escape from time, but the resulting object, at its best called art, can speak to others. For Steinhart, drawing can capture our humanity and connect us to nature no small accomplishment. For general and art theory collections. Jack Perry Brown, Art Inst. of Chicago Libs. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Steinhart (The Company of Wolves, 1995, etc.) finds the compulsion to make images out to be "by turns erotic and puritanical, social and narcissistic, uplifting and depressing."The act of drawing has been given a bum rap over the past half-century, he writes; it's been diminished, disparaged, and dismissed by waves of abstraction and expressionism, by video and conceptual and installation art. Like outlaws, figurative artists hole up in small groups and drop-in sessions with zero commercial incentive, responding to some innate human impulse and seeking a personal vision like any other artist. Himself a drawer as well as a writer (previously in the purlieus of natural history), Steinhart willingly accepts that he is venturing into ineffable territory, but he seeks nonetheless to find verbal meaning in this kinship between spirit and substance, the burrowing for the hidden, the intensification of experience that figure-drawing gives to him. His thoughts are as intimate as a diary (though he will also make forays into brain chemistry in his search), often revolving around specific drawing classes. He is bracingly unself-conscious about the first flash of desire and anticipation that comes when the model disrobes, yet what he really wants to chew on is the recording and manipulation of experience, the containment of details, the way in which drawing allows a communication with the world, a connection, an empathy. He provides some terrific material on how models respond to their work and plenty of good stories about drawing classes. He appreciates the way drawing forces him to focus, while also allowing him to give himself over to an urge without apology. Steinhart searches for a coherentunderstanding of what makes him draw, but he is also at ease when he abandons rationalism and feels the graces guiding him to a moment of emotional access. An absorbing exploration of why we put pencil to paper. (29 illustrations)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400076055
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/13/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 416,302
  • Product dimensions: 5.14 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Steinhart is a naturalist and a writer. For twelve years he was an editor and columnist at Audubon, and his work has appeared in Harper’s, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones and Sierra. He has twice been a finalist for a National Magazine Award, and his essays have been widely anthologized. He has published four books, the most recent of which is The Company of Wolves. He lives and draws in Palo Alto, California.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
Allure

Eleanor Dickinson's line is lively and lyrical, a flute passage from Vivaldi, confident and sunny. It flows from the end of her felt-tip marker in curls and ribbons to divide form from formlessness, to mark the places where light glances and clings, to define the subtle curves of life. It is a remarkably supple and observant line, full of information, full of understanding of how a wrist curls or a finger bends, broad where shadows collect, finer as light intensifies, broken and invisible where light dazzles. It comes into a kind of miraculous life, born from the tip of the pen bold and finished, yet continually moving, continually revealing and describing: the back of a middle finger folding delicately away from the light, rounding down and darkening to the fingertip, then turning sharply where its contour meets the last knuckle of the index finger, now thin again in the light, down again to the index finger's rounded tip. By and by, a hand-or its contour-has appeared on the paper, and to my eye it has the exact proportion, the weight, the texture, the strength, the experience, the life of the hand across the room.

The hand across the room belongs to Yoshio Wada, a small, seventy-eight-year-old Japanese-born man with stooped shoulders, strong sinewy legs, close-cropped gray hair and a red and weeping blind eye. He is seated on a faded beige divan that angles out from the wall of what used to be the dining room in Dickinson's 120-year-old San Francisco home. Behind the divan are cloths and draperies pinned to the wall to provide a backdrop for the model at Dickinson's weekly drawing-group sessions. Wada is lit from one side by three floodlamps clamped at various heights to a stand. His right side is washed in yellow light, his left fades into shadow.

The seventy-eight-year-old model is nude. He is not seductive, not in any way Rabelaisian. His body has a seriousness, a dignity, a flawed but compelling humanity. It tells a story. As a young man at the outset of World War II, Wada had been interned with his family in a series of relocation camps in the American West. He had hoped to become an artist, but his drawing materials were taken from him. At the conclusion of the war, he was deported to Japan, where he had no family to take him in, and for two years he wandered the streets of Tokyo, looking for food. Eventually, an aunt who had remained in the United States arranged for him to be returned to California. He enlisted in the United States Army, but he was not permitted to touch a gun, so he became a medical corpsman. After that, for thirty years he worked in San Francisco as a hospital orderly. In his sixties, he took up watercolor painting. Unable to enroll in local art schools, he began modeling, because it was a way to eavesdrop on the instruction art teachers gave at those schools. Without knowing any of his personal history, the six artists who form a ten-foot semicircle around Wada are busily drawing his pain, his determination, his glacial patience and battered wisdom.

Dickinson lifts the marker tip from the paper, sits back and looks at the drawing. At seventy she gazes through alarmingly big eyeglasses-lenses the size of tea saucers, behind which her eyes are searching and impassive, perhaps the eyes of a surgeon. Shocks of dyed white and red hair drop over one side of her forehead, small exclamatory marks above an otherwise unconfiding face. She dresses in gypsy mode, favoring full-cut, dark-colored prints and the sturdy, comfortable shoes of one who works standing up. She is not given to lavish smiles or quick laughter. She doesn't offer unbidden opinions. She conveys the impression that all her attention is directed outward, that she has no self-consciousness at all. It is a characteristic I think I see in other artists in drawing groups, and I wonder whether it expresses a kind of selflessness or, just the opposite, is a mask designed to cover an overly sensitive self-consciousness.

Dickinson is one of the deans of figurative art in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has taught drawing at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now called the California College of the Arts) for thirty-three years, and her work is represented in many museums and private collections. The state of Tennessee is honoring her as a native daughter of rare artistic accomplishment with a retrospective exhibition in Nashville. She is always teaching, leaning over to look at my drawing, reminding me to measure, suggesting I leave some lines out or place the figure more effectively on the page.

She holds up her pen and uses it to measure off proportions on Wada's figure. Then she holds the pen over the drawing to mark off the units of measurement. She has said to me, "The ability to measure and the ability to see negative space are the greatest assests in drawing."

These are not the kind of words one expects from artists these days. Since the middle of the twentieth century, abstraction and expressionism have been the lodestones of fine art, and drawing has been diminished and disparaged. Commercial design and illustration these days is largely done on computers. When you ask the marketing director at Strathmore-a producer of artist papers for more than a century-what's new, he talks about a surge in sales of papers made for use with inkjet printers. At many art schools across the country, students may go through a four-year program without taking drawing or painting courses. More and more of the curriculum in art schools and more and more of the content in galleries and museums is video art, conceptual art and installation art. Less and less is actually based on drawing. And if you do get training in drawing, you're not all that likely to use it professionally. A local art instructor says he guesses that fewer than 2 percent of art school graduates go on to make a living as painters or sculptors or portrait artists or muralists. An apocryphal estimate passed on by artists in these drawing groups says only 4 percent of art school graduates go on to make a living as artists, and fewer than 20 percent go on to make art at all.

The place of drawing in the arts has declined to the

point that one of the major current debates among artists is over whether accomplished draftsmen like Ingres or Dürer or Michelangelo or Caravaggio used optical devices to trace projected images. Some leading exponents of the theory are, perhaps not coincidentally, abstractionists whose own drafting skills are limited.

But it could be said that a kind of renaissance of figure drawing is occurring. It is not something you'd note in the galleries or museums, for it is practiced, more often than not, by amateurs.

Drawing from live nude models used to be something one had to enroll in an art school to do. Today, one does it in community art and recreation centers, in fine-art museums, in privately operated ateliers and in home studios and living rooms. The number of places that offer classes in life drawing seems to be steadily increasing. In just about any city and in many suburbs you can find a drop-in drawing session, where, without advance reservation, you can pay a modest model's fee and draw from a live model for two or three hours. You can draw this way, for example, at the Minneapolis Drawing Workshop, the Truro Center for the Arts in Castle Hill, Massachusetts, the McLean (Virginia) Community Center, the Hui No'eau Visual Arts Center in Maui, Hawaii, the Northwest Area Arts Council in Woodstock, Illinois, the Tampa Museum of Art, the Art/Not Terminal Gallery in Seattle, the Art Museum of Missoula, Montana, the Community Hall in the Boulder Crossroads Mall in Colorado, the Creative Arts Center of Dallas, the Scottsdale (Arizona) Artists' School or the City Market of Raleigh, North Carolina. David Quammen, who models in Washington, D.C., knows of two dozen drop-in groups in the Washington, D.C., area. In New York City, there are Minerva Durham's Spring Studio, the Art Students League, the Chelsea Sketch Group, the Salmagundi Club, the Society of Illustrators, the National Academy School of Fine Arts, the Tompkins Square Branch Library and many others. You can find drop-in drawing groups in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Hong Kong, Bali and Jakarta-indeed, all over the world.

There are at least eighty different drawing groups meeting weekly in the San Francisco Bay Area. They range from small, very private gatherings of four or five artists in someone's living room to large public drop-in sessions meeting once or twice a week in community centers. A group I have drawn with in Palo Alto for fifteen years sometimes has more than fifty people crowding into the city's Art Center, jockeying for space and a clear view of the model. There are Berkeley housewives' drawing groups and there are gay men's drawing groups-even a gay-men-drawing-naked group. There are recreational groups meeting after-hours in lunch and seminar rooms at high-tech companies in the South Bay. There are life-drawing classes offered at the Bay Area's twenty colleges and universities, as well as programs at the three major art schools and a handful of smaller private ateliers. There are regular at-work sessions for the various film-animation studios and electronic game designers that have sprung up around the bay. It is possible to draw every day with a different group and to go on visiting new groups for four weeks before one either drops from retinal exhaustion or has to repeat a group. There are individual artists who hire their own models privately. All of this intense interest in depicting the human form supports at least two hundred professional artist's models, some of them managing to make a living exclusively from posing. There are two active and successful models' guilds in the Bay Area, through which schools, drawing groups, animation firms and individual artists can hire skilled and experienced models.

Says Betsy Kendall, a Berkeley chef who draws with a small group of friends regularly at her home, "There's a figurative tradition in the Bay Area. There's enough figurative art that you can look around and get inspired."

If you judged by what hangs in the galleries around San Francisco's Union Square or New York's Madison Avenue, you would have no idea that any of this was taking place. The artists in these drawing groups acknowledge that pictures of nudes are hard to sell. Says Norman Lundin, who teaches drawing at the University of Washington, "It's a loaded subject. Any time you present a nude you've got the message of sex hanging around it. To escape that is difficult." On top of that, to many people nudes suggest out-of-date art. Says Minerva Durham, who has taught drawing in New York City for twenty years, "New York is the known center of art, so you have a lot of things going on. But I think figure drawing has struggled here. Figure drawing is considered passé." She is talking about the galleries and the fine-art schools. Outside the schools and the galleries, something else seems to be happening.

If there is a renaissance of drawing taking place, it is not driven by the art market, but by something inside the artists themselves. It is driven, I suspect, by something innate and human, by a constellation of long-standing behaviors and impulses shaped as much by human nature as by culture.

Look around Eleanor Dickinson's studio, and you'd get no clue as to why these people are here. Each one of the artists is wrapped in a bubble of concentration, silent, absorbed, alone. There is little conversation in these groups when people are drawing. There is little talk about the nature of the work going on during the breaks, when the model usually dons a robe and sits quietly on a corner of the stage, stretching sore muscles. And while the models can be articulate, perceptive and precise about what it is that they are doing, it is hard to find artists who can explain what they are doing when they draw.

Part of that inarticulateness, I suspect, arises from a lack of clear consensus among artists about what constitutes good art. Part arises from the fact that every artist is an individual seeking a deeply personal vision, and all visions are different. Part arises too, I think, from the fact that artists have varying degrees of access to words, that many of the most visually inventive and expressive are not correspondingly adept when it comes to using language. There are visual minds and verbal minds, and they do not record experience and store it in memory the same way. And part of the inarticulateness arises from the fact that only a few of us consider ourselves successful enough as artists to profess a confident understanding of what we are doing.

Part of it, as well, is the intense concentration we apply to seeing what is there in front of us, on applying the right pressure to the drawing implement, on finding the forms in the model and placing them in the right proportions on the paper, on relating the figure to the background, on finding the lines that really count. It's not an easy thing to do, and, to all of us, good drawings seem supernaturally rare. Robin Schauffer, a Cupertino housewife who returned to school to pursue an art degree and has been drawing seriously for six years, says, "I don't look on my figure drawings as art. I look upon them as my scales and arpeggios. They're not good enough yet to say anything about the human condition."

We are less engaged in producing than we are in practicing. It's a refrain that runs through the work of even the best draftsmen and draftswomen. We do it not because we're good at it, but because there is some prospect that if we keep doing it, eventually we may be good.

That last idea is one that has run through the minds of many of the great artists. Hokusai declared at the age of

seventy-three: "From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the form of things. By the time I was fifty, I had published an infinity of designs, but all that I have produced before the age of seventy is not worth taking into account. At seventy-three I have learned a little about the real structure of nature, of animals, plants, birds, fishes and insects. In consequence, when I am eighty, I shall have made more progress, at ninety I shall penetrate the mystery of things, at a hundred I shall have reached a marvelous stage, and when I am a hundred and ten, everything I do, be it a dot or a line, will be alive."

At seventy, Edgar Degas told Ernest Rouart, "You have a high conception, not of what you are doing, but of what you may do one day: without that, there's no point in working."

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Table of Contents

1 Allure 3
2 Ritual 21
3 Learning to draw 35
4 Connecting 59
5 Why the figure? 71
6 Faces 97
7 What happened to the models? 109
8 Working naked 131
9 Waiting for a muse 149
10 Drawing like Bargue 165
11 Desire 187
12 Pictures 201
13 Ambition 215
14 Dispersers 231
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2005

    This book is for everybody, not just artists

    I can't draw water, but I loved this book. I have tried figure drawing, and all that did was prove that I'm no good at it. But Steinhart's book is full of information about the lives of artists and models that explains a great deal about the artists I've known. It's also beautifully written. Most important for me, though, was that I found in it echoes of the writer's life. We writers are very different from visual artists, but in a few important ways we're very similar, and Steinhart gave me a chance to look at writing in ways I never have before. No matter what you do, if anybody ever called it an art, you'll find this book delightful and fascinating.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2004

    Figure Drawing is more than you may think

    Artists who draw from life will throughly enjoy reading along as Steinhart takes you along on his exploration of why we draw. I enjoyed reading his views on the process of drawing and the way we learn to do it and the act that becomes a type of meditation and addiction. I saw so many familar experiences written about in this book but with added perspectives that helped me understand drawing better. This would be a great book to pass around. Figure drawing is happening everywhere and this book will encourage more of us to keep drawing in spite of the lack of market for the finished drawings. Clearly drawing is about more than the end product. Models will enjoy reading this book too and anyone who is curious about the relationship and interaction between artists and models.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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