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September 19, 2003

True Art School Tales

A new installment in John Leavitt's ongoing True Art School Tales, an irregular, illustrated diary about life as an art-school student. John's currently studying at Manhattan's Fashion Institute of Technology. His own website -- where he shows off his witty and elegant art, as well as his prowess as a designer and cartoonist -- is here. If you click on the thumbnails of the drawings John has included in his diary, you'll get to enjoy most of them at a more sensible size.


True Art School Tales

Why am I at this art school? Well, the main reason is because I'm poor -- and, being a state institution, FIT costs almost nothing. After a disastrous first year, feeling discouraged by the quality of the education I was getting, I looked into other art schools. What my explorations taught me was that, despite its drawbacks, FIT is one of the better technically-oriented schools in the NYC area. I visited the student shows at Parsons, Pratt, Studio School, Cooper and SVA. Only SVA (which is outside my price range) and FIT had pieces that demonstrated that their students had been taught some skills.


Why do I stay? Life-drawing classes. I'm one of those traditionalists who thinks that the essence of an arts education is draftsmanship. It teaches technique and artistry both. It requires keen observation, skill, and grace, and putting them all too work in a short time. Life-drawing artistry requires you to leave out things, to make choices. One of those things that are generally known is that drawing's the thing that attracts many people to art in the first place. How many kids say "I love watercolors!" Very few. How many say "I love to draw"? Quite a number.



At FIT, I have always been able to find some life-drawing classes to work in. What I love about life drawing is the immediacy. I'm a fidgety person, so I'm terrible at the "patience" disciplines of oil-painting and sculpture. I also like the economy of means drawing requires. All I need is my pad and pencil, maybe a pen and some charcoal. Thus equipped, I am my own walking art studio, unencumbered and free.

Drawings from life also turns out to be the one thing everyone asks to see when they want to evaluate your skill level. They're the one thing everything agrees should be required of an art school.


One of the un-PC secrets of life drawing classes, and one that professors will barely acknowledge, is this: Students tend to make better drawings when they're drawing beautiful models. Pretty models are a pleasure to draw, a fact that sticks in the craw of The Politically-Minded teachers, the ones who insist on having us draw such themes as Despair, or The Immigrant's Plight, or The Struggle Of Woman.

There really are such professors. I had one who kept assigning socially-redeeming work and couldn't understand why the students weren't eager to avail themselves of her offer to raise their consciousnesses. It was revealing to see what the students did draw for her class. Pure sex- role cliches: the women drew a lot of roses and ponies and the men lots of skulls and fire.

Another professor, on the other hand, chose sexy models and had the models pose with fans, masks, feather boas and surrealist props. The students took the bait and did respectable work. From such experiences I derive my theory that beautiful environments can not only put people at ease but can also inspire and stir. Otherwise there wouldn't be Stendhalismo, would there? ("Stendhalismo," or "The Stendhal Syndrome," comes from a story about the French novelist Stendhal: upon visiting Florence, it seems that he was so struck by the beauty of the place that he fainted and was unable to walk for days.)


Even so, life drawing at FIT is a bit of an uphill battle. The amount of life drawing you're required to get dwindles as you move through the school, from 6+ hours a week to 3, or even none. Still, if you want it you can find it -- most teachers will let you sit in on drawing classes, though I've heard students complain that since I wasn't paying for that particular course, I shouldn't be allowed to sit in.

There's also something called drawing marathons that I enjoy taking part in. Pratt has a Draw-a-thon, which goes on for 12 hours. Five dollars at the door gives you 13 models in different pose rooms (one minute, 5 minutes, 10 minutes, etc). Unlimited coffee, live drumming, little supervision. And hallways littered with every art student subgenre, from earnest Korean girls to naked boys in makeup.

The Draw-a-thons have a reputation for starting out civil and ending up something like a bacchanal. The Pratt Draw-a-thon I attended ended with all the models doing a slow motion waltz in front of the huge windows while the sun slowly came up. You stumble out -- hot, tired, and half-mad, but also thrilled, clangy and overjoyed that such things exist in the world. All that flesh! All that work! All that coffee!


Inspired by the Draw-a-thon, a group of us malcontents decided that our education was failing us, so decided to train ourselves in the classical method. First we worked on drawing from lithographs, then from statues at the Met. Only then did we begin working on drawing from life.

We spent two weeks on each stage, using "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain", "Drawing Lessons from the Old Masters", and "Rendering in Pen and Ink" as our textbooks. Whole hours spent drawing parallel lines and platonic solids.


The group -- we called ourselves Naked and Desperate -- would meet in the park, in my apartment, in my friend J's apartment, or in the European Sculpture gallery at the Met. There would be wine, smoking, jazz music, and a rule that everyone had to model naked for the group at least once.

This was no problem for J, who does nude modeling professionally. It's harder to get her to keep her clothes on. I wasn't nervous, but having two former lovers in the group meant avoiding eye contact lest my body betray me.

For all the serious talk, however, most of our sessions ended up with work abandoned in favor of dancing, conversation, and seeing how many grapes you could stuff in your mouth.


School's well underway now, and many things are happening. J is having her first Williamsburg show, complete with liquor and live swing music. A project I do on the side -- The Ifrit Magazine, a comic-journal and Yellow-Book Hier -- needs my attention, first of all to design it a new layout. And, as always, I've got lots of drawings to send out in hopes of stirring up some freelance work.

-- By John Leavitt

posted by Michael at September 19, 2003


One of my teachers in art school had gone to the Art Institute of Chicago (in the 1930s?), where, according to him, the curriculum was as follows: each morning, you had a three hour session on a model (no quickies, one pose)which was critiqued during the short critique session afterward and every afternoon a three-hour session on an oil painting of a model who posed all week, which was critiqued on Friday afternoon. In sum, every week you pumped out 5 highly finished drawings and one oil painting. That was it, the whole kit and kaboodle. (I don't know, there was probably a semester or two of anatomy and another on etching and lithography in there somewhere.) If you managed four years, you'd have created something like 800 highly finished drawings from the model and 160 oil paintings.

I've often wondered if this isn't the ideal drawing/painting/graphics curriculum. Not that there isn't more to art than this, but the rest you can pretty much teach yourself (or won't ever learn); that part requires institutional structure and, er, lots of practice.

I'd be interested in your reaction, as someone who also got only 3-6 hours a week of drawing in at a so-called art school.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 19, 2003 06:03 PM

I think it's close to ideal. While I support quick drawings for warming up and getting gestures, I think the more you do the better you get. I think a quick combined course in perspective, composition, and such would help, as well as anatomy. I also would like more business-end courses for illustrators, and more mock assignments. Thats what really helps in the working world. Quality is moot, medicore artists get jobs to.


Posted by: Jleavitt on September 22, 2003 10:41 AM

Of course, I'm assuming that your instructors actually know something about long-pose, accurate-rendering-type drawing--which most of mine, frankly, did not. Or, for that matter, actually had something meaningful to say about quick pose drawing, memory drawing, caricature, or whatever!

I never knew what to make of instructors who couldn't draw as well as I could (and I had more than one)! I can't tell you how happy I was a couple years ago to take a class at a local illustrator's school. The instructors all had highly visible skills, which they had reduced to specific, reasonably teach-able techniques. One can only suspect many art schools don't offer more drawing instruction because their faculties don't have that much to offer, technically speaking. Drawing classes where the teacher never draws are, in my opinion, suspect.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 22, 2003 05:53 PM

Drawing classes where the teacher doesn't draw are like English teachers who can't speak English (For Fat gymn teachers). The worst life drawing class I ever took was by a fine art teacher who never showed us his work. Ugly models, bad poses, asinine assignments and horrible (if any) crits. Every good teacher I've had (and even medicore ones) have shown me thier work.

It's often a very relvatory experience, you can understand alot more about the hows and whys of thier teaching styles and what they want to get across by looking at thier work. I could never understand this one teacher's isistance on conceptal assignments til I saw her work in editorials.

Of course, she makes her living off deadly serious realistic pastel works with year-long deadlines, so what do I know? (Tho that does explain why she told us to always draw from life and never spend less then 24 hours on a project. As opposed to a cartoontist teacher who teaches all kinds of tricks and cheats to get the work done quickly...the different markets and mediums drive how they worked and thus, what they thought was important to teach.)


Posted by: JLeavitt5 on September 23, 2003 09:57 PM

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