Tuesday, July 09, 2024

LIFE DRAWING, part 2

At the height of his career, illustrator Robert Fawcett continued to practice drawing from the model every week.  


He'd have a model come to his studio and at the end of every session he'd lift the lid on the model platform and toss in his drawings for the day.  When he died, there were hundreds and hundreds of life drawings which his widow handed out to his friends and admirers. 

This is a life drawing from Fawcett's days as a teenage student at the Slade School in London, complete with comments from his instructor.  

Here is a sampling of drawings from Fawcett's model platform:



Detail
Detail










Fawcett's familiarity with the human form helped him block out figures in preliminary layouts for illustrations:






While a student at the Slade School, Fawcett used to complain bitterly about their incessant focus on drawing from the model. Thirty years later, at the top of his profession, he saw new value in the process.

___________________________________
Post script: Fawcett had disdain for artists who spent their time "noodling and polishing simple figure studies."  He said that such studies "might now be blinding in their degree of finish, dazzling in their virtuosity, but we ourselves would be neatly trapped in that comfortable corner from which so many students fail to find the exit."  The following two studies (one version in charcoal, the other in ink) were done for propaedeutic purposes but the third study, more purposeful and strong, seemed closer to Fawcett's natural preferences. 





26 comments:

Li-An said...

Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Just discovered this blog! Thanks for sharing!

MORAN said...

Fawcett is awesome.

chris bennett said...

Not too fond of these David, but thank you for posting them. I think the best is the student drawing at the Slade (there is a chance it could be Tonks' writing on the sheet) and number 10 which is effective in composition rather than its realisation of the model herself. The rest of the bunch are varying degrees of approximation to Augustus John's manner of drawing, fashionable at the time, which could themselves suffer with this generalising, facile portraying of forms.

kev ferrara said...

Fawcett's entire sensibility seems to derive from his accurately constructed and calligraphically flourished-into-being life drawings. The expert blocking of his pictures has always seemed strangely idealized in the way of construction as well; interestingly confirmed here by the dimensional working drawing.

I can't think of more buttoned-down, stepwise imagination in all of illustration. There is so much to appreciate and admire in his work, but there isn't an ounce of heart or belief in any of it. Every face is a perfectly executed life mask; of a character who simply cannot come alive.

David Apatoff said...

chris bennett-- An interesting reaction. When I share pictures by Fawcett on this blog, reactions seem to divide into two categories: those who regard him as one of the leading draftsmen of 20th century illustration and those who say, "hunh?"

Your reactions are of a slightly different nature, as we aren't talking about finished illustrations. Still, as I tend to belong to the "leading draftsmen of 20th century illustration" camp, I can never resist exploring reactions to Fawcett, perhaps longer than I should.

There's an entire book dedicated to Fawcett's life drawings, written by the well regarded art director Howard Munce, called Drawing The Nude. It sold quite well in the 1980s. In it, Munce describes "the awe in which Fawcett's talent is held among illustrators, art directors, students and other draftsmen." That doesn't mean they're right, of course, but it reminded me that since the examples I initially posted here are solely from originals to which I had access, your comment makes me think it might be more fair to add a few samples at the end from the drawings printed in Munce's book, along with a relevant quote from Fawcett. I'd be interested to hear if these have any impact on your "facile portraying of forms" judgment.

In my own view, the drawings that may seem "facile" due to their speed ("use plenty of cheap paper," Fawcett advises) do reflect genuine substantive knowledge. For example, on number 9 the interrelationship of the feet, the asymmetry of the buttocks due to their weight, and how their asymmetry shapes the view of the vulva, are all quickly rendered to capture essentials. But clearly they lack the studied sensitivity of Schwartz's drawings.

The factor that you note about number 10, I find equally applicable to number 15. But in addition to their compositions, I admire the way Fawcett is fearless about chipping away at a drawing with a broad tool-- sometimes a half dry felt tip marker-- not afraid of the tracks he leaves behind. Fawcett complained that at Slade they made him spend nearly a week on a single drawing of the model, using a 9H pencil (hard as a nail). He thought he was done after 15 minutes, but they kept sending him back again and again to "look some more." He recalled it as "torture" but it shaped his later confidence.

As for Augustus John, I'm unaware that Fawcett ever expressed any fondness or respect for his work, but interestingly Fawcett's two closest artist friends from the UK were Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore. He kept work by both of them on his walls, and it's one reason observers think his finished illustrations, while strictly "buttoned up" (in Kev's words) on the surface, actually tend to celebrate more abstract values.`

chris bennett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sean Farrell said...

Since seeing Daniel Schwartz’s drawings I’ve been thinking about the kind of inner disposition it takes to draw with such patience and thoughtfulness. His insight into the model’s sensitivity about her own space is evident in several of the pieces. Especially the first one of the young woman discarding her top, with stylish shoes and bowed head. She is removing her defenses but her tender gesture suggests she’s still hiding.

The Schwartz drawings really moved me, all of them. The Fawcett drawings by comparison are objective. They’re exercises of space and form but miss in more than a few ways the anatomical rhythm in the forms, even though in a few they’re relational to their environment. What is discarded in Fawcett’s drawings is quite different than the multiple meanings of that discarded in the mentioned Schwartz drawing, where the top being opened and discarded is also a discarding of information about the material and hands. These elements fall back into a graphic movement, presenting the physicality of her torso and breasts which are drawn with delicate sensitivity. The artist is so aware of this it is almost self indicting, like he knows he’s in very sensitive territory. One experiences the interior nature of both the subject and artist’s awareness of the subject’s interior person. Very personal, effective and successful.

What Fawcett said is true, one can get stuck and should free themselves to explore form, movement, space, etc. The drawings are bold and confident exercises. But like a superhero, the bold and confident doesn’t always know how to share, or gets lost in themselves knowing only their own place. I guess what I’m trying to say is something of the interior nature of an artist can be revealed in their work, even when they are just explorations or studies. Wonderful posts.

kev ferrara said...

"...it's one reason observers think his finished illustrations, while strictly "buttoned up" (in Kev's words) on the surface, actually tend to celebrate more abstract values."

Literalism is not in opposition to abstraction (despite Modernist say-so).

All symbols are derived from abstractions. Anybody who works with symbols, then, is constantly working with abstractions.

This includes not only all of us, but also the most buttoned-down quintessentially literalist types in the world -- the dedicated scrivener or accounting folk. Such people are thinking and working in abstractions all the time; words and symbols all day long; each representing a specific abstract idea.

So what makes a literalist a literalist is not that they don’t think and work in abstractions. (They must do so because we all do.) What makes a literalist a literalist is that they think of abstractions literally. Rather than poetically. They believe (or come to believe) that the static symbols they manipulate or decrypt regularly don't represent abstractions, but actually are abstractions.

This is called reification.

The literalist mode of representation in art is reification. In Modernism this leads to various sorts of stylized graphics being plopped on canvas as ersatz subjects unto themselves. While in narrative it leads to considering a dramatic illustrative moment as its blocking, posing and lighting; to taking graphic design as composition; and to seeing character as physiognomy, gesture as shape, and edge as line.

Which is all to say, overall, the reification mindset takes expression to be something that is, rather than something that happens.

chris bennett said...

Hey Chris, if you rejig one of your sentences please make sure you re-read it carefully to check that it makes sense. I've deleted your comment and written it properly with the change to it in italics:

David,

Thanks for such a thoughtful and informative response.

And yes, I agree, the primary merit of drawing 15 was in its compositional effect, but I did not feel it was quite the standard of drawing 10.

As for Augustus John, I'm unaware that Fawcett ever expressed any fondness or respect for his work, but interestingly Fawcett's two closest artist friends from the UK were Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore. He kept work by both of them on his walls, and it's one reason observers think his finished illustrations, while strictly "buttoned up" (in Kev's words) on the surface, actually tend to celebrate more abstract values.`

On your mention of 'more abstract values' I think Kev's comment "There is so much to appreciate and admire in his work, but there isn't an ounce of heart or belief in any of it." is very illuminating in this regard. To have meaningfulness, the degree to which an artist abstracts (and all art is an abstraction) must correspond or be closely in phase with their belief in the efficacy of the degree of abstracting employed. To take the example of Henry Moore, the best of his sculptures embody a belief in a haptic language of simplified forms to concisely express the 'what-it-feels-like-to-be-a-body-ness' of his motifs. Sutherland's thorny conception of forms evidences a similar belief in the abstractions employed to embody his particular worldview.

My take on how this relates to the Fawcett's drawings here (I'm not well up on his paintings) is of an artist not really living inside the form-stories he's telling.

Brandon said...

I first learned about Fawcett on this blog and have since become a huge admirer of his work. The book published by Auad and with your text is excellent, David. I think his instructional material in 'On Drawing' and the Famous Artist Course is great as well.
Something I enjoy about his work, but I think contributes to the coldness of even his best pieces is the way shape and design dominate. His work often feels like a brilliantly executed exercise where the narrative elements are excuses for him to play with shapes. He does this so well and I think it makes his work unique, but I have to admit that the focus on graphic elements may cost his work in depth.

Laurence John said...


David: “...and it's one reason observers think his finished illustrations, while strictly "buttoned up" (in Kev's words) on the surface, actually tend to celebrate more abstract values”

Kev: “ All symbols are derived from abstractions. Anybody who works with symbols, then, is constantly working with abstractions. “

What are the ’symbols’ that you’re referring to in Fawcett’s work ?

e.g…

https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2011/01/new-book-on-robert-fawcett.html

(or pick any finished illustration of his where you can point them out)

kev ferrara said...

"What are the ’symbols’ that you’re referring to in Fawcett’s work?"

I believe I provided a list of hints above, no?

Geometric solids are ideal symbols. Dramatic events aren't blocked, posed, and graphically arranged into being. Shapes don't state bodies and lines don't bound forms in reality. Faces aren't frozen in time. Your face isn't built of calligraphy.

I'm confused as to where you are confused. Graphic codification, stylization, and conventionalizing are all the same thing. The reification mode puts iconicity of the individual elements, objects or features as paramount (instead of fluid and interweaving suggestions which would evoke the same identities in passing). The result is a consistently choppy read from element to element akin to the scanning of sentences from word to word.

David's favorite line about lines is "A drawing of a person is not a real person but a drawing of a line is a real line." That's a maxim of reification. The exact opposite of how "naturalism" is conjured in suggestion-based work.

Which is not to say that Fawcett's work isn't either expert or legit. Because it is both in its own manner. However, I think it is fair to say there is something procedural and unsympathetic about it. It is decidedly academic in its documentation, and yet curiously showy in the linear way it presents that; the graphing is performative. He shows a decided flair for writing his art.

Or, if you like; the people aren't real people but the lines are real lines. Just so.

Harvey Dunn once talked about an illustrator - left unnamed in the anecdote - who brought a bunch of technically superb pictures for him to critique. He remarked, "I can see that they are excellent, but I feel that they are terrible."

Laurence John said...


Kev: "I'm confused as to where you are confused.”

In your use of the word ’symbol’.

I understand your critique of Fawcett’s work and I mainly agree with it, but you’re calling ‘abstract mark making’ ’symbolism’ … and you’re calling his stagey staging ’symbolism’.

’symbols’ as i know them are things like skull = death, old man = the cruel passage of time, young maiden = fertility … all of which can be placed, sentence-like in a visual image to spell out the meaning. Fawcett isn’t doing that. The ‘choppy read’ of Fawcett is down to his particular style of staging and mark-making, not ’symbolism’.

David Apatoff said...

Lots of interesting things to address here. I'd like to offer some general reactions to common points made by a number of commenters, then go back and address specific points by individuals.

First, on the subject of abstraction in representational art, I don't think any American illustrator has been more intellectually ferocious on the topic than Fawcett. In the 1950s when abstract expressionism was turning all the heads of the young art students, Fawcett derided the "misconception that abstract qualities are new to contemporary painting, whereas they have been the comparison of excellence since painting began." In previous posts, I've tried to show specific examples of how Fawcett's pictures, so literal on the surface, are really composed of some of the wildest abstractions in illustration. ( https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2009/04/one-lovely-drawing-part-24.html ;https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2013/03/warring-with-trolls-part-2.html; https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2021/04/robert-fawcetts-museum-of-modern-art.html ) Fawcett's ability to take vigorous spatters and swirls at the subatomic particle level and compose them in a way that satisfied the popular taste for realism was one of his distinctive talents. He always made the finished work look accurate and natural. During his lifetime there were several essays by commentators such as Henry Pitz, Alden Hatch and Howard Munce suggesting that "only a trained artist can appreciate the excellence of [Fawcett's] drawing," but reverential art directors continued to showcase him to their readers.

Second, on the subject of "coldness" in Fawcett's pictures, I agree that Fawcett was not a "heart" illustrator (and it's not merely because he was born in England and was therefore by definition a cold fish). His work was not effusive and gauzy, it was more cold and austere. His temperature was closer to Durer than to Renoir. Closer to Leyendecker than to Rockwell.

The question becomes: so what does that tell us about the quality of his drawing?

Everyone already figured out that Fawcett was not the artist to illustrate romantic fiction or paint pretty girls for the covers of women's magazines. His work had neither the color palette nor the emotional heart for it. But there is no shortage of terrible artists overflowing with "heart" and "belief," so that can't be the answer either. We will look at life drawings by sensitive artists who are so psychologically smitten by their model, we sense they would throw themselves off a bridge for her. But as Oscar Wilde said, "a thing isn't necessarily true because a man dies for it."

Kev's spin on Fawcett's coldness is that his figures are "idealized" and that "every face is a perfectly executed life mask." Fawcett was certainly well trained in classical drawing, dating back to ancient Greek vase painting, which he deeply admired. Yet, Fawcett was critical of popular romantic illustrators such as Jon Whitcomb, whose "idealized," technically polished stereotypes of attractive couples seemed to be a burr under Fawcett's saddle. So what should we make of the effect of idealization?

[CONT.]

David Apatoff said...

[CONT.]
The face Fawcett drew in detail picture number 4 is, I think, a particularly adroit, nimble handling of a face from a difficult angle. I like his line indicating the wave of her hair, and the way he summarizes the structure of her hair with the flat side of the charcoal. I like the way he aligns her eyes (not easy to do, drawing upside down), and his economy in knowing which eye needs to be fully outlined and which eye, pressed against the cheek, is just a slit. All done at lightning speed. Yes, that's a classical, "idealized" face in the sense that we can't tell if we'd like to take this model on a date. Yes, if this model had a wart on her nose, we'd never know it from Fawcett's figure study. But I think it would be a mistake to conclude from this that Fawcett's drawing is not perceptive and informative. The good thing about writing about Fawcett's sharp eyes over the years is that I have so many examples already posted online. Here is a post about how Fawcett's figures are anything but idealized straight lines: (https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2006/05/no-straight-thing.html)

chris bennett said...

...and it's not merely because he was born in England and was therefore by definition a cold fish

Whaaat!! :)

kev ferrara said...

’symbols’ as i know them are things like skull = death, old man = the cruel passage of time, young maiden = fertility … all of which can be placed, sentence-like in a visual image to spell out the meaning. Fawcett isn’t doing that. The ‘choppy read’ of Fawcett is down to his particular style of staging and mark-making, not ’symbolism’.

Reread. I never used the word "symbolism" in my remarks. Mainly because I wanted to avoid the very sense - schooly and narrow - you are now pushing in with.

Any conventionalized sign or signification is a symbol. Thus a code to be read/decrypted. The conventionalization process itself always results in stylization. Thus the sign becomes unreal, ideal, idiosyncratic, or otherwise unnatural in presentation. (Which is just why translation is immediately intuited as necessary.)

David Apatoff said...

chris bennett-- yes, that was especially for you!

kev ferrara said...

Kev's spin on Fawcett's coldness is that his figures are "idealized"

I'd encourage readers to read what I actually wrote.

Anonymous said...


As a non-englishman who has known a few people from the land, I can only echo Chris's exclamation. Home to many of the warmest, funniest and most ebullient people you'll ever meet.

Bill

Sean Farrell said...

The drawings by Daniel Schwartz involved sensitive renderings which weren’t part or the interest of Fawcett’s drawings. So in fairness to Fawcett:

Fawcett and a handful of others were advancing line drawing from the Japanese influences Degas brought to western drawing which included thick chunky lines and later the brush lines of Carl Erickson. Fawcett was influenced by Vuillard’s patterns, while others were affected by Bonnard’s rolling shapes of foliage. Still others by Erickson’s brush-like line. Such elements were being integrated into line drawing and demanded a deep dive because they also presented new obstacles, conflicts and curiosities demanding new insights.

The heavy black lines forced drawing in a new direction, like playing a slide guitar which is very limited.

In such an environment as Fawcett was pursuing, he was looking to discover new ways of using elements and new correlations between the fewer elements. Some of that is evident in a few of the posted drawings. Fawcett’s use of pattern in his finished illustrations was near hypnotic in how they held a viewer in the picture for such a long time. For that Fawcett deserves credit. He and a few others in the 1950s were responsible for advancing linear work to where it hadn’t been before.
They were responsible for giving the era its look, just as jazz was responsible for its sound.

David Apatoff said...

Sean Farrell-- I agree there is a distinction to be drawn between Schwartz and Fawcett, and I agree with much of what you say.

Other commenters have taken a similar run at the distinction, suggesting that Fawcett's life drawings are more "academic" or "cool" or "idealized" than Schwartz's. I don't think those are the right adjectives (I think "academic" is flat wrong, as Schwartz is closer than Fawcett to the soft modeling of academic drawing exemplified by Jacques-Louis David. I understand calling Fawcett "cooler," although I think "harder" may be more accurate. And I've already explained above why I think "idealized" is off the mark).

But I think your (first) comment gets at what I suspect may be the heart of the matter. You say (and I agree) that Schwartz records "the model’s sensitivity about her own space," that "she is removing her defenses but her tender gesture suggests she’s still hiding," and Schwartz is aware that he is "in sensitive territory."

I think your reaction lies beneath the surface of many of the other comments as well. We find soft drawings of nude girls in delicate, vulnerable positions very appealing. We can call it psychological, we can call it "deeper," we can call it more human or sexual, but I suspect a not insubstantial percentage of the preference for Schwartz's life drawings is our emotional reaction to the subject matter. It just doesn't seem right that Fawcett should be viewing such tender flesh in such a formalistic way.

I've previously quoted John Ciardi who said, “Modern art is what happens when painters stop looking at girls and persuade themselves they have a better idea.” I suspect some audiences are put off by Fawcett's formalistc pursuits and energetic abstractions because they think he has persuaded himself that he has a better idea.

kev ferrara said...

"But there is no shortage of terrible artists overflowing with "heart" and "belief," so that can't be the answer either."

I think not.

Terrible artists can't and don't believe what they're drawing. It is the most imaginatively draining, high candle-power effort in the world to actually live inside a picture with some significant degree of fealty to reality at the same time as bringing the image of that belief into being. So what you are saying doesn't track.

Fawcett conducts his lovely calligraphic lines onto the page because that's where his talents lie. That's his instrument and his calling card.

But he clearly doesn't believe the worlds he creates, he doesn't believe the people in them or their faces, he doesn't believe the dramas he depicts, or the light. The physicality is phantom or flat. And he can't see the color. None of it lives in his mind in any substantial way. This is evident. His rooms are built of lines and patterns, not walls. His people are built of cylinders and marks, not flesh.

But he's smart enough - smart enough indeed - to know what all those real things should look like. And so he sets to work building his doll world from the outside in, one abstracted object at a time. And then filling it all with surface details and filigrees to satisfy the magnifying glass people. Like a hollowed out sociopath building a well-appointed public version of himself; to pretend to be a person. Because he's studied intently how people look and act as a curious alien.

And that's fine. Except... Fawcett is tasked with illustrating human characters in dramatic situations within dramatic events. His remit is to imagine and believe and share the same. Which is a different thing than drawing.

But he can only draw. So he constructs his world from drawing. He fiercely studies a model with his eyes and then sets them down as a linear object, captured as a bounded shape. Which makes it seem that even the people Fawcett sees he doesn't believe.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Terrible artists can't and don't believe what they're drawing."

Of course they can, they do it all the time. Look at all the moronic Trump worshipers (such as Jon McNaughton -- https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2018/08/socialist-realism-2018-style.html ) who put their heart and soul into painting terrible pictures in tribute to their cult leader. Look at all the male artists obsessed with sex, who churn out freight cars worth of terrible pictures of nekkid women. They labor over and "believe" in those pictures just as much as African tribes believe that their totem art can come alive. Walk through the Small Press Expo and look at all the art students who have self-published little booklets on "the trauma of my adolescence." Nobody ever believed more in what they drew.

On the other hand, Shakespeare saluted those who were able to hold their beliefs and emotions at arm's length, those who

...moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces
And husband nature's riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.

kev ferrara said...

"Of course they can, (terrible artists believe what they are drawing) all the time. (...) Look at all the male artists obsessed with sex, who churn out freight cars worth of terrible pictures of nekkid women. They labor over and "believe" in those pictures just as much as African tribes believe that their totem art can come alive."

You are confusing the "belief" in a constructed illusion after it has been rendered with believing an imagined reality in the mind's eye before it has been rendered. And so are they.

Bad artists fool themselves with references to reality and basic effects all the time; the same way that novel-readers think they see the novel unfold in their mind's eye as they read. It is mostly self-hypnosis. Mistaking the suspension of disbelief for belief itself due to the experience of bewildering effects. But effective models are not the same thing as poetic conceptions; as craft is not the same thing as imagination.

Narratively, visually, and naturalistically speaking, real belief allows one to walk around in the fictional world in the mind's eye as if it were real. The resolution is tremendous and expandable at whim. And it goes beyond the visual, to sounds, temperatures, smells and mood. This is what Pyle meant by Mental Projection.