Painting from life can foster an intense relationship between artist and model. London Animation's Director Leo Crane shares his experience of painting with Roy Joseph Butler in Maggi Hambling's advanced painting class at Morley College.
Roy is alive with orange and pink and ochre. Vermillion or Prussian blue seeps out from the dark creases where flesh meets flesh. He is dips and ridges, curves and cavities: a taut, meaty landscape defined by a mechanical system beneath.
All around is the space that defines his body’s presence. A window frames his head, rendering it dark and warm against the cool autumnal day outside. The linearity of a pipe or table contrasts with his organic curves. Our work will succeed or fail as the relationships between these shapes is revealed.
This is more than creating a convincing image of a man in a room. Roy is choosing how to use his body, what he wants to give us, creating a narrative or at least a feeling which we, as painters, must read and translate. And for me there is another level: I want to impart a sensitivity that reflects my deep love for the man I shall marry. How do I describe touching the curve of his lower back or the springy curls on his chest? At once, I must paint what I see as well as what I know. He must be both abstract shapes and deeply human.
I first drew Roy about three years ago at a drop-in life drawing group. I remember how dynamic his poses were, thoughtfully constructed to show weight and movement. I assumed this must come from artistic practice and was surprised to hear that he did not draw. Some months afterwards, I was asked to collaborate on a digital project based on a 3D scan of the human figure. The human in question turned out to be Roy and I spent several months investigating the pore level detail of every inch of his scanned skin. Later we became lovers. A detached visual analysis became a full-on, multi-sensory riot. Would this influence how I drew him?
We have a few minutes left. We are in the advanced painting class at Morley College, led by Maggi Hambling. For this scene, she has paired Roy with a full-size plastic skeleton strung from the ceiling. Archie Slim (as he has been dubbed) is blue in the autumn sun and a lurid orange where the studio lights mark his dangling bones. He is cold and naked with a knobbly hand that almost brushes Roy’s buttocks – but I shan’t be drawn into jealousy, at least not with an anatomical teaching aid.
There is a quiet intensity as each artist works out where the final strokes will be applied. Is there time to add in a detail? Can a shadow be darkened or a highlight intensified? Or should we now lay down the brushes avoiding a rash or thoughtless stroke?
I stand back and observe the scene and then my painting. The white walls should be darker to allow the light from outside to shine though. The skeleton has a complex filigree pattern where the ribcage reveals snatches of spinal column – I have smudged over this detail. There are some minor issues with anatomical proportion, but overall I am not disappointed.
Our blue-eyed, white-curled tutor stirs. With an authority deepened by the nonchalant rasp of a smoker, she summons us for ‘The Crit’. One by one, we present our work, while she dishes out verdicts: direct and astute, witty and sarcastic. Praise and criticism is used to reinforce her key principles: The Figure in Space, a Unified Language, the Rectangle of the Page, and so on.
I marvel at how others see Roy. Some are well observed anatomical studies, others tell the story of the room, with Roy’s shape drawing the composition together. Some really capture the man I know: a glance at the posture is enough, no fine detail needed. One is sensual, lips parted, chest buried in springy curls. How has the artist succeeded in capturing this Roy, where I have not?
It is then that I realise two things: firstly in my desire to earn my place in the class, I have not allowed myself the risk of releasing my emotions into the work. Secondly – and conversely – I see how others have transferred their personal experiences here, finding a common ground with the scene Roy has set and translating it into a work imbued with their individual personality. I realise that what Roy gives me in life need not be confined to the sessions in which he stands physically in front of me. I will be able to draw on him whenever I like, however far apart we are.
Read the model's perspective of the same experience in Roy's blog