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Art imitating life

Drawing weds science as students learn anatomy through observing live models

Published: Thursday, September 8, 2005

Updated: Monday, February 2, 2009 13:02

A cursory glance inside Professor Diana Attie's studio may make the casual observer wonder if she's an art teacher or an anatomy professor.

The spacious room on the third floor of the Center for Visual Arts is strewn with anatomical drawings, photos of people in different stages of movement and multiple human skeletons - one even perched hanging from the ceiling.

A sign on the wall says: "First, we draw what we see. Then, we draw what we know. Finally, we see what we know."

This mirrors Attie's, a professor of fine art, attitude regarding the importance of artists understanding how to draw the human body.

"What we're doing is starting from the inside and working out," she said.

Attie's life drawing classes introduce students to the concept of understanding the structure of the human body through drawing undraped, or nude, models.

Non-artists may have the misconception that classes such as this act as excuses to sketch naked people, but Attie's life drawing classes are much more sophisticated and objective.

"We are studying the specific structures of the human body," Attie said. "That structure allows you to analyze anything - transitions between things, relationships between things."

"You're really looking at the bone structure and the attitude, the emotional state of the human" by studying the body step-by-step, she said.

"If you attempt abstraction without understanding and knowledge, you have very few alternate directions to take your work," Attie said. "If you don't have that, the abstraction is not an educated, informed mark. It becomes very superficial."

Students in life drawing classes utilize many resources, from printed drawings, illustrations and photographs to models of bones and live models, to learn the specific anatomical nuances of the human body.

The live model is perhaps the most critical part of the course, and there is no such thing as a bad model - the models in her class do not have to be a certain height, weight or fit any other physical characteristics, Attie said.

"They all have the same structural underpinnings, even though the physique may change," she said.

Though Attie said she enjoys using dancers or runners as models, all physiques, dimensions and body types are interesting, she added.

"There are times where I want a really skinny model because we're looking at bone landmarks, and there are times when I'm looking for a very voluminous model to study curves," Attie said. "If you're working with volume, you feel as if your pencil is just wrapping around the form ... I just love a model like that."

Acting as a live model is a part-time job through the university, and a well-paying one at that as models earn $14 per hour.

Models definitely earn their wage, though, as they must sit still in one position for various lengths of time, stretching from 15 seconds to three days, she added.

Sometimes she makes them lift weights or do calisthenics, depending on the class objective for the day.

"A model is up there in his own world and has to find ways to shift concentration [and the] pain of being in one position," Attie said.

Models discover the part-time job mostly through word of mouth, and students apply fairly consistently. Many of the student models are previous participants of the class who just see it as a very natural outcome of taking the course because they know how objectively they are being studied, Attie said.

Fred Rebhun, a fifth-year senior majoring in fine art, is one such student.

"I'm an artist myself. I have an appreciation for the human body," Rebhun said. "[Also,] I think it would look really good on a resume for an artist to also be a model."

Though Rebhun does not currently model, he said he plans to submit his information in the near future and hopefully be hired, but models are currently only hired on an as-needed basis.

To answer one of the big questions on non-artists' minds: is it awkward to stare at and sketch a nude person?

"Yes, it was very awkward [at first], but honestly, once you get into drawing and all the bits and pieces you don't notice you're drawing a nude person until you look back at the drawing as a whole," Rebhun said. "It did take a little maturing [but] if you have a real appreciation for art, you can do it without the immaturity."

"I think the first time every semester, it's always a little awkward, but after a while it's just a shape," said Frank Silsbee, a junior majoring in fine art. "It's a lot different, I think, the maturity level in this class than the maturity level in Drawing I or II."

The importance of drawing bodies without the cloak of clothing comes from the importance of understanding the pelvic and shoulder girdles because of the multiple muscular connections and complex relationships that occur in those areas, Attie said.

"All around the pelvic girdle it's like the center of the anatomical universe," she said.

Live models also push students simply by the fact that they are living.

"You have to realize that models are not plaster casts," Attie said. "They don't realize they're moving and that makes you observe faster."

The shift of a model's pose creates the need for an artist to look at how the change affects the shape of the muscles and the joint, and reconcile that in change in his or her drawing, she added.

Ani Avanian, a senior majoring in drawing, said that different models create present different challenges for student artists.

Avanian recalled a model with a fuller figure who could not hold a pose for great lengths of time because of her weight -- the constant shifting challenged the artists to work quickly, she said.

"That sort of forced the students to make their observations and queue in and that sped up the drawing process," she said.

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