The Undressed Art: Why We Draw

by James Lancel McElhinney

The Undressed Art: Why We Draw, by Peter Steinhart. Hardback, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. 259 pages. $23. ISBN: 1400041848.

Drawing might seem an unlikely subject for the author, a naturalist whose previous works are The Company of Wolves, The Eagles/Dos Aguilas, California’s Wild Heritage and Tracks in the Sky. But Steinhart finds common ground in his two passions: “The naturalist and the artist are alike in their watchfulness.” He distinguishes drawing, which is about seeing, and painting, which is about composing, organizing what you see into a picture. “Drawing is…something you can do only if you are attentive,” he writes, sounding remarkably Ruskinian. John Ruskin is one of the many artists he quotes in this graceful, insightful book, along with Albrecht Dürer, Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse. He quotes van Gogh on a Japanese painter who struggled to depict a single blade of grass: “But this blade of grass leads him to draw every plant and then the seasons, the wide aspects of the countryside, then animals, then the human figure. So he passes his life, and life is too short to do the whole.” Despite the historical perspective—Steinhart goes back to classical antiquity for some of his allusions—this is not a chronicle of drawing’s place in art history. Nor is it a manual or a dogmatic treatise. Rather, it belongs to that old-fashioned and difficult-to-finesse genre of belle lettres. Steinhart moves from history to personal experience, psychology to anthropology. He reviews the neurology of face recognition and its importance to the socialization process. Humans have forty-three facial muscles, he notes, more than any other animal. As a amateur artist, he collects faces, sketching them in the field, on subways and in cafes. He sees drawing as fundamental, “driven…by something innate and human, by a constellation of long-standing behaviors and impulses shaped by human nature as by culture.” This anthropological observation is echoed by a witty and poetic series of similes; humans come back to drawing “like dogs to a bone, pigeons to roost, like waters to the sea.” 

Steinhart sees drawing not only as an imperative of individual psychology but also as a social ritual. In fact, the catalyst for the book seems to be the recent renaissance in more-or-less informal drawing classes in the San Francisco Bay area. He interviews amateur and professional artists, instructors and models, whose contribution to the process he particularly values. His description of the way Merav Tzur, an attractive professional, orchestrates a series of five two-minute poses is an homage to her craft. But he also praises the Bay Area Models’ Guild’s marathon sessions, which showcase a wide range of body types. Steinhart is frank about the underlying eroticism of the figure studio, but there is nothing prurient about the humane nakedness of the encounter between artists and models. The double entendre of the title refers as much to the raw daring of making that first mark—the terror of the empty page is something writers and visual artists share—as it does to the unclothed body. When Steinhart speaks of the pleasures of drawing in terms of both an altered-state “rush” and a zen-like meditative state, he echoes the words of those he interviewed, but his own controlling metaphor is amatory. Chapters have titles such as “Allure,” “Working Naked” and “Desire.”
Figure drawing is the foundation of academic art, and while Steinhart is no polemicist, he acknowledges the revival of interest in nineteenth-century atelier methods as an important part of the phenomenon he describes. While he points to the universal passion for drawing in children, he does not advocate remaining in edenic ignorance. “Without instruction,” he writes, “we are likely to go on drawing as children draw, depicting what we know rather than what we see.” Learning, he continues, means “reprogramming the circuitry of the brain.” In his chapter “Drawing like Bargue” he focuses on the Atelier School of Classical Realism, founded in Oakland in 1969 by David Hardy. The nineteenth-century drawing master Charles Bargue had an enormous influence on studio practice—even van Gogh copied his diagrams of antique torsos and learned from his repetoire of poses—and is popular again today in figurative enclaves such as Hardy’s atelier. Steinhart broadens his discussion to probe the sometimes rancorous debate between abstractionists, who triumphed in the mid-twentieth century with the astounding talents of the New York School, and realists. He finds a degree of pragmatism among many artists. John Goodman, a San Francisco painter who bases his abstractions on natural motifs, draws in a more representational style. He reports: “I draw not so much to find paintings but to get the forms and put them into the space they occupy. I draw to keep my eye.”
With a few exceptions—a Leonardo study of hands, a van Gogh cypress, an Eakins nude, a Picasso artist and model, an unexpected Diebenkorn sketch of a recumbent nude— most of the illustrations in this book are by Steinhart’s contemporaries, not big-name artists but his friends from the drawing groups he attends. The implicit democracy of his selection must be heartening to anyone with a yen to pick up a pencil, even if the reader may be a long way from the spare eloquence of Ann Curran Turner’s Gesture (2003), reproduced on the back of the hardback dust jacket. The front of that dust jacket reproduces a photograph, not a drawing, David Hockney’s wonderful shot of an artist’s workspace, Two Lemons and Four Limes, Santa Monica, 1971. The title is a joke about trompe l’oeil, since one lemon and two limes are drawn in colored pencil. The paperback cover of Steinhart’s book dispenses with the conceptual wit, so reflective of the author’s style, in favor of another studio sketch. It’s less arresting, but the fact that the book is being marketed to high school teachers and their classes is encouraging. Perhaps a new generation will rediscover the pleasure of drawing, a craft that permits us to connect with the world on a very intimate level.