Drawing in the National Museum of Arte Antiga

Last month we had the last sessions of the Drawing the Human Figure course with our students, and we decided to leave the classroom and do a full weekend with them sketching from the works in the museum of Arte Antiga here in Lisbon, that harbours a large collection of paintings and sculpture from the gothic to baroque era.

Drawing in the museum is a challenge that we are very mindful of. Our main aim for the weekend was of course to further enhance the student´s skills in regards to observation and drawing techniques. But we wanted them to make drawings that were sensitive to each works unique expression, and not merely making a flat, photo-like copy of the painting surface.  Another aim for us was that they’d look at diverse ways that the human figure had been represented at different times, and to convey the differences in feeling, expression and atmosphere in, lets say, a medieval pieta and a baroque portrait of a layman.

We used a technique called Visible Thinking that was perfect for our context. We did them with the group before each drawing session. Using the clever questions of the techniques, the students were invited to look and look again, to connect observations, listen to each other, and discover more and more possible ways to understand, receive and acknowledge the art work in front of them. They would go from being quite analytical, to also using their senses, feelings and insights. Then, beside our technical instructions about shading and markmaking with the pencil, their task was to keep this content in mind, to keep a connection to the reflection they had just done, and draw the artwork with the aim of not just copying it, but to show what they were thinking and feeling about it.

The results throughout the weekend were just astounding. We know, and we do our best to teach from this knowing, that one’s state of mind, the quality of one’s attention, one’s interest and empathy for what one is drawing, highly influences and changes the technical skill in each moment. A bored student will make a flat drawing. An inhibited and self-critical student will often make a stiff and hardly visible drawing. But in the next moment, that same student will draw like a master, if the right connection is made. And in the drawing sessions we did on these two days, all of our students made huge technical leaps. They started integrating their sense of light and shade, the use of line and mark, with a very mature and refined rendering of the human figure, as seen in the great art they were observing.

Some comments from the students themselves about the weekend:

“I learned to see and feel the artwork. It became easier to convey what I felt in the drawing because I was looking with the eyes of the soul. I think it took me closer to the author.”
“I stopped being a mere spectator, and made an effort to penetrate the mind of the artist, trying to see the work from the inside outwards, identifying the artists state of mind and intentions. I think this made me draw the characters and their surroundings with more vivacity. ”
“There is always a stage of starting a drawing before things come together, and you are not sure if it is going to look alright or not. And you need to have some faith. Keeping a contact with the content felt like an anchor, something that guided me as I was drawing.”

The students stepped in to the attitude and intention of artists, connecting with other artists, through time and space. They forgot about being “good students”, their judgements dropped away, and they allowed themselves to receive and express the content they were connecting with.