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Life drawing: real life or flat screen?

In February this year, after so much online teaching and learning, Arts University Plymouth BA and MA students and staff collaborated with Paris College of Art to discuss the future of life drawing. We wanted to explore fundamental questions about how we learn to look. We decided to compare what it was like to draw each other’s models remotely on large screens in the studio, as well our own model directly in front of us. We then reviewed how that felt.

What did we learn?

The most significant and, I think important, is the fact that the students unanimously felt too much like voyeurs in front of a screen. This practical exercise made them re-evaluate their gaze and the difference between an embodied encounter in the life room with a human being, as opposed to working remotely from the model on the flat screen.

COVID forced us to communicate online. There are some who have seen this as an opportunity to forsake direct experience and save studio space, time, and money.

We’re moving into two very different ways of communicating: embodied in real life or displaced in online learning. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that there is a place for online learning. We’ve been giving and streaming seminars around the world, collaborating, sharing ideas, and learning together. It’s been brilliant.

Getting the balance

However, artists also need full engagement with their chosen materials, being present with what they make, alongside each other. This is the whole point of studying art at university. You can’t have a holistic experience unless you get in front of what you’re making and see what others are making. Life drawing highlights this issue. This has been a real wakeup call. We need a balance. What is this doing to our wellbeing and mental health? We need to re-learn how to be with others if we want to understand our own identity – within community, together.

Exploring the importance of the life room

I am very excited that as a university we are making life drawing central to learning. It’s a way to understand how to look at the world around us. I realise this is unusual because of the decline in life drawing in art education as something irrelevant in this digital age, but students and staff here at Arts University Plymouth are thinking differently. The team on Painting, Drawing and Printmaking BA (Hons) has therefore decided to have a bookable day of debate on Thursday 9th February in our studios, working alongside Paris College of Art, the Slade School of Fine ArtBaylor University, and many others online. Yes, online! This will be streamed live as we ask the question ‘What is the future of life drawing in universities, art colleges and schools?’.