Drawing on art for essay inspiration

Amelia Oakley 30 April 2015

Life drawing helps you prepare for taking exams. Right… Ok. Of couuurse, it does, Soph. Before you cast your doubts, just let me entertain this hope for one moment, and hear me out.

I’m not a great essay-writer at the best of times. I just get stuck in a web of definitions I’ve spun myself into. I study Psychology – well, PBS – with some Anthropology on the side. Neither are subjects well known for their precise definitions. I also struggle to make my essays coherent unless I’ve spent ages planning them and thinking them over – which, given the busy schedule of procrastination I maintain, is hard to find time for.  Exams are even worse: I just falter. I just can’t. I just can’t start. I don’t know where to begin. And I panic. And there’s no time for that. I can’t start again, can’t stop and start the clock when I want. I can’t go and have an Aztec-spiced Choco tea (my new favourite thing) and come back to write the essay. The clock is ticking, unforgivingly.

It’s actually quite like doing a painting during the holidays compared to sketching in life drawing. Yes, I know, that is a very artistic comparison to make, and quite a far leap. Yes, I know, artistic activities – for me at least – are clearly more interesting, more enjoyable and easier than writing an essay. And I’ve only been to about four proper life-drawing classes in my entire life (not doing Art A-Level is still, clearly, a huge regret for me). Still, bear with me.

When I’m doing a painting, I plan it meticulously before, to get to know my object of study. For example, last summer I painted a tiger. Before even putting paintbrush to canvas, I spent ten hours sketching the photo of the tiger, getting to know the contours on its face, the black outlines of its eyes, its white fluffy chin. Then I planned it out on the canvas. I laid out the colours I want to use, and spend ages mixing them until they were just the right shades. I built the painting up slowly and  painted every hair and every whisker in fine detail, even cutting my paintbrush so it was small enough. After four days, I was happy with the result (I could have even spent another couple of days, but I was heading to a music festival – classic me). My point is that it was finished when I said it was.  There was no one rushing me. I could plan as much as I liked. I could have as many cups of tea and packets of biscuits as I liked, and think the painting over as much as I wanted.

Image Credit: The Old Man with the Hat, Sophie Buck 

Life drawing isn’t like that. The model poses. 10 minutes. 15 or 20 if you’re lucky. Everyone around you is sketching, rapidly, forming incredible images on the page. Before your hand even begins to move, bodies are born. Arms, legs, shoulders, lit by the light. All of the sketches are different. One man uses inks and wax resist on A2 pieces of paper laid out on the floor. Another uses charcoal and pen in an adorned A4 notebook. Some draw the whole form of the model. Some even add in parts of the scene – the table, the wall. One woman focuses on just the mysterious eyes of the model. Before you know it, the pose is over. Everyone has something incredible to show for the time. But your page is blank.

There isn’t time to spend ages analysing and planning. You just have to begin. It doesn’t have to be perfect, nor ‘finished’. It just has to be recognisable as what you’re trying to represent, to say a key point, and to reflect your style. Those who see is know you did it under timed conditions, so they aren’t expecting it to be perfect, only an insight into what you can do. Sounds a bit like an essay in exam conditions, right?

Over the course of the two-hour life-drawing session you improve at starting, working quickly and forming a recognisable image on the page. I still have a lot to learn, and a lot better to get. Even so, even during one life-drawing class I felt I’d improved. I always thought quick sketching wasn’t for me, because my style involved more careful planning, and sketching under timed conditions was too stressful. Still, compare two sketches I’ve done in the last year. One I spent 5 hours on, the other I spent 15 minutes on (‘the old man with the hat’, and ‘the broken human’, respectively). The former is definitely not 20x better than the latter; they’re different, with different strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes it’s good to see what we can do under pressure; and what we achieve, given the time constraints, can actually be quite impressive.

Image Credit: The Broken Human, Sophie Buck 

In essence, by dismissing life drawing as something I couldn’t do, I was saying that I couldn’t do written exams either. I do recognise that drawing is different to writing, in that, unlike with writing, when drawing you can go over areas, rub things out and build things up, a style I’m definitely more suited to. Moreover, through various poses in a life-drawing session, you get multiple chances as such ‘essay-writing’. Still, the comparison is important to make.

Having tried out life drawing, I’ve realised how fun and exciting it is, and how much I can improve even over an hour or two. I’m still dreading exams, but at least now I’ve found a way to both de-stress and ‘prepare’ for exams (at least that’s what I’m telling myself). Sadly, Arcsoc no longer runs life-drawing sessions though so I’ll have to go elsewhere. Even if this new procrastination/preparation idea doesn’t work, at least I’ll be better at sketching by the end of it. So, struggling with writing under timed conditions? Try life drawing.