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Creativity

The Imperfect but Invaluable Experience of Virtual Figure-Drawing Classes

Virtual figure-drawing class held on Zoom. Courtesy of Angelica Frey.

Virtual figure-drawing class held on Zoom. Courtesy of Angelica Frey.

On a recent Friday night, the life-drawing class I had signed up for was gearing up to officially kick off. “Can you see me?” the model, Anna C., asked. “Should I lean into the heap of blankets?” Taking directions from Michael Smith, the director of campus security and operations at the New York Academy of Art (NYAA), Anna eventually settled into a cross-legged pose, hands folded into her lap, and leaning slightly to our right. She remained in that position for 20 minutes, stretched briefly, then resumed for the entire duration of the class, taking small breaks in between.
In keeping with the new normal of quarantine, Anna wasn’t posing in a classroom or a studio—she was modeling live from her bedroom, while dozens of artists of all levels rushed to draw her from the sole point of view she shared over Zoom.
Once upon a time, virtual figure-drawing classes might have seemed counterintuitive. All of the flattening and distortion that occurs through the camera lens and computer monitor, as well the clumsiness of having to provide remote stage directions, makes it a less-than-ideal venue for studying the human form from life. In recent months, however, online classes have allowed popular figure-drawing spots to provide artists, both professional and amateur, with opportunities to study form and composition from a safe distance.
NYAA, for example, transitioned the entirety of its summer sessions to remote-learning. Smith, the director of operations, launched its Friday night open modeling sessions to keep the community of the Academy together.
Work in progress by Angelica Frey from a virtual figure-drawing class held on Zoom. Courtesy of Angelica Frey.

Work in progress by Angelica Frey from a virtual figure-drawing class held on Zoom. Courtesy of Angelica Frey.

Work in progress by Angelica Frey from a virtual figure-drawing class held on Zoom. Courtesy of Angelica Frey.

Work in progress by Angelica Frey from a virtual figure-drawing class held on Zoom. Courtesy of Angelica Frey.

Meanwhile, at the Society of Illustrators, the famous party-scene sketch artist A. E. Kieren leads costume-themed life-drawing classes where he invites members of the drag, cabaret, and burlesque community to model. “After the shutdown went into effect, Society of Illustrators said, ‘We have to figure out a way to keep doing the sketch night program,’” explained Kieren.
Richard Burrowes, who hosts the physique-centric drink-and-draw nights at New York City gay bar Rebar Chelsea, was fully onboard with the pivot to Zoom. As a teacher at the International Center for Photography, he already had experience using the platform to teach classes online. “I had gotten more of a head start on using the program—seeing how it works, seeing the quality of it, and seeing the potential of a program that I could use to host a virtual version of drink and draw,” he said.
Of course, it can hardly replace real-life drawing. “I do think that drawing from life is kind of the best because you’re looking at something with your own two eyes,” said Kieren. “Cameras distort.” Even in one’s regular, non-virtual drawing practice, the camera can prove to be a tricky tool to rely on. Those referencing photos do so with a grain of salt. “It looks fine when it’s in the photo,” said Kieren, “but then, when you draw it, the proportions are odd.”
What’s more, shadows on screen often fall flat and lack subtle nuances in color. “If you have experience working from life, you know that there’s color there,” Smith said. In order to account for the shortcomings of the virtual world, he offered a word of advice: “Make more decisions, rather than just copying what you see.” Having prior knowledge of anatomy also helps. According to Smith, the limitations of a flattened image, along with the not-so-stellar resolution of Zoom, forces artists to use what they already know about the figure and life drawing. “You have to make adjustments and use imagination,” he added.
Virtual figure-drawing class held on Zoom. Courtesy of Angelica Frey.

Virtual figure-drawing class held on Zoom. Courtesy of Angelica Frey.

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And then there’s the novel threat of Zoom bombing—a recent phenomenon where people join Zoom meetings with the intention to harass and disrupt the virtual event. They’ve been a recent scourge in AA meetings and beyond. From the get-go, Burrowes, who hosts the drink and draws at Rebar Chelsea, set some ground rules to curb any online foul play. “They have to follow guidelines,” he said. “The camera has to be on and I have to be able to see you. The level of your artistry does not matter to me as long as you want to come in and create. We just want to keep in a safe space.”
While Zoom isn’t exactly a perfect way to draw from life, there are still some positive aspects to these virtual classes. “Sometimes when you have a little bit of limitation, it sparks some of your best work,” said Kieren. There’s also the unique experience of being able to have everyone draw from the same angle. “It’s kind of cool,” said Kieren. “When you see the drawings, you see radically different interpretations of the same pose from the same angle.”
Burrowes praised the fact that, thanks to technology, people can take screenshots and brighten or darken an image to get a better sense of the details. “You can use projectors to blow your image up,” he added enthusiastically. “The bigger the screen, the better it is.” Smith also optimizes the one-angle limitation by focusing on models from the waist up, making the most out of a fairly small screen. “You’re able to see a little more information,” he explained. This is especially helpful to newer students who might otherwise be overwhelmed with the possibilities and not know where to begin.
Zoom drawing classes have the added benefit of allowing students to go all out with their workstations. In the physical world, one has limited counter space and must be mindful of the other students. At home, however, one could feasibly set up a full easel while streaming the Zoom class on a 52-inch TV, lay out a whole robust color palette, and let loose. “When people are at home, they’re more likely to explore,” said Burrowes, explaining how he’s seen a lot of color, charcoal, and digital illustration in the online classes he’s hosted so far.
Virtual figure-drawing class held on Zoom. Courtesy of Angelica Frey.

Virtual figure-drawing class held on Zoom. Courtesy of Angelica Frey.

Ultimately, however, what virtual drawing classes are best at is providing some solace during this period of isolation. “I think it’s extremely important for the community, whether or not you’re working together on something or not,” concluded Smith. “It’s that sharing of ideas and catching up, and it often sparks new ideas and new directions so that people can isolate and work on something privately.”
Zoom classes have also allowed these drawing venues to reach beyond their usual audiences, as they are no longer bound to a physical location. This has meant they could connect with students and models from all around the world. “Whenever we’re let out into the real world, I want to continue with the Zoom in the bar, in some way,” said Burrowes. “I would love for everyone to participate in general.”
One benefit I observed during my online life-drawing class was that no one was watching you work. For the first time, I was utterly devoid of performance anxiety. As my own virtual drawing class with NYAA came to a close, my portraits of Anna did not look better or worse than what I usually accomplish in real-life settings—perhaps a testament to the effectiveness of working online. For the life of me, I still can’t draw folds, drapes, or hands. Time permitting, I will most likely attend more virtual life-drawing classes. While I do miss the camaraderie and chatter of the real-life events, the online version is a good-enough replacement.
Angelica Frey