The Experience: An Online Life Drawing Class via Brixton Life Drawing

The Reason: Our days of lockdown are numbered, and all that is left is nudity

It is a warm, cloudless Sunday morning. A warm breeze softly wafts through the open window. The table in front of me is covered in sketching paper, coloured pencils, and charcoal. Leonard Cohen muses on sex, death, and birds through the speakers, and a woman, naked but for a Key lime pie green tutu, poses in total stillness for two hundred eyeballs on Zoom.

We’re all a little bored as we idle through these final days of the harshest social restrictions. Who wouldn’t prefer to be somewhere more exotic than their living room, even if “exotic” is a dive bar bathroom on a Saturday night? I too have been hard-pressed to find an activity that could excite me while keeping my immune system and I safe, until I stumbled upon it. A diamond in the buff: life drawing class.

Life drawing is hot right now. It’s fun, it’s freaky and, according to The Guardian, it offers a kind of avant-garde rehabilitation to the addicted and afflicted across England and beyond. I can’t argue with this thesis as I was a little hungover myself during my session, and I left the two-hour class feeling oodles better and in an elevated state of mind. I even felt a touch artistically pompous, like I could easily have had a cigarette hanging out of the corner of my mouth even though I don’t smoke. The Picasso Effect, if you will.

The class is offered twice weekly by Brixton Life Drawing and is by donation only. Your donations are dispersed to a rotating list of local charities, which make the sessions both sexy and selfless, a combo that’s rare to find in an activity or a life partner, no?

You don’t need any experience or talent to take the class. The class embodies a “come as you are” attitude, which works for me as I have the artistic aptitude of a person missing both their index fingers. The most impressive piece of art I’ve made was a Christmas tree ornament for my mother in second grade which she still hangs politely at the back of the tree to this day. “Samantha made that,” she’ll say proudly to my niece after a few glasses of Pinot Grigio. My niece, who is three, winces in response and tucks the item deeper into the branches.

While a gift for genius isn’t required, you do need proper materials. I Googled “What do you need for life drawing class?” which should give you a solid idea of how much I know about paper and pencils. I selected a range of coloured pencils, a sketching notebook, and a pack of willow charcoal. Willow charcoal looks like something you’d find lying lazily on an architect’s Noguchi coffee table. I purchased it more for appearances than application. If you can see it, you can be it!

At 9:55AM, I set up my “workspace” and mentally prepare for an instructive waterboarding akin to what Nonna had given me a month earlier. Much to my pleasant surprise, the founders of Brixton Life Drawing pop onto the screen and immediately make everyone feel massively comfortable with nudity and our own, imperfect human flaws and form. They’re so nice I wish they were actually in my living room so they could give me a hug and some paracetamol. They tell us you don’t have to turn on your camera if you don’t want to, but I’m glad to see that many opt to do so I can get a good look at my fellow artists.

My classmates’ ages range from six to ninety-five and Zoom in from everywhere around the world. There are adorable elderly people in this class with names like “May Fairweather” with backdrops full of potted plants and snoozing cats. I am immediately inspired to be the kind of elderly person who is still inspired to sketch a nipple once or twice a week.

The model appears on screen and she is beautiful. Unfortunately, she’s also alive, layered, and rich with detail. The battle for me to replicate her likeness will be uphill. We are to sketch four poses in timed sessions, each session having its own fun rule like, “sketch only using your non-dominant hand,” and “sketch in one continuous line,” which is a hilarious thing to say when attached to a twenty-minute interval of anything.

There are elements of this activity that I immediately struggle with. Firstly, everything. The human form is hard enough, particularly in a tutu, but the background objects seem to have been placed there by Professor Snape himself to trip up the vulnerable among us. They involve a pompous branch, a eucalyptus tree, a wooden duck, and a stuffed rabbit that looks like it hopped straight off the set of Donnie Darko.

I start with my left hand, ever the rule follower, and a basic pencil. My picture resembles the pictures disturbed children draw at the shrink when they have the sixth sense, so I boldly switch to the charcoal. I quickly discovered that charcoal is an artist favourite for a reason. It adds weight. It makes even a misguided stroke seem purposeful, pregnant with meaning. My drawing by the end of the seven minutes is looking almost intentional - almost human too.

When the first interval ends, I learn there is a “show and tell” portion to this class too. Thankfully, it’s voluntary. This is when it becomes crystal clear that I am out of my depth. Cynthia has mastered water colours in a way that makes the tutu look so alive, I can almost see it sashaying in the wind. Kelly’s work has likely been featured at the Tate and beyond, as her breathtaking portrait looks like a screenshot of the model rendered in acrylic. Are these people following the rules? Did you draw that with your left-hand Kelly?

Karen, thankfully, has the good sense to show us all what her six-year-old daughter sketched, and honestly if I had time to file a plagiarism claim on this little thief I would, because our drawings are absolutely identical.

But there is no time, we’re already moving onto the next round, which is, God forbid, detail. Rob shows us a series of hands that look like they were lifted straight from Leonardo DiCaprio’s lost notebook on the S.S. Titanic. I’ve seen this pick-up before Rob, and I’m not falling for it. Clifton has really zeroed in on the breasts. At this point I need a support animal to see me through to the end of this. The last pose is a thirty-minute pose. Like, what? Am I to be learning painting or patience here, ladies?

Let me be clear, I take this art form seriously. The women at Brixton Life Drawing are providing an environment that’s safe, creative and nurturing to a large community of people. Even my cynical self got carried away in the class to some gentle place where hangovers and hang-ups didn’t exist, just pretty pencil colours and friendly wooden ducks.

I believe it to be both brave and liberating to celebrate and explore nakedness. Nakedness is the best, and a healthy relationship with it, in my experience, is essential to happiness. But because the lens in which I look through the world was handcrafted by Michael Scott at the Dunder Mifflin Paper factory, I can’t help but take note of the characters that I encounter along my path.

Which is why I’ll end this review with Glen, who won, on account of my personal taste, the portrait of the morning. Glen didn’t just stop at drawing a wonderful likeness of the woman on screen, which would have been impressive enough. He took it one step further and added hand puppets to both of her arms. The puppets boasted big, wide smiles and were each rendered, and this could just be my interpretation, with breasts for eyeballs.

I wouldn’t dare make this up, but I did consider phoning the authorities and getting an exact location on Glen’s whereabouts. The instructors were silenced (In awe? In concern?) by his presentation and until one finally offered, “I like the… sketchiness of it,” which about sums about the beauty and terror of self-expression as best I’ve ever heard it!

Art, even the wackiest of it, asks us to create something that wasn’t there before. And isn’t the wild unknown always worth a closer look?

Try or not to try: Try, it’s cheaper than therapy and equally unmasking for the soul.

Wear with: If you’re not going to sketch in the nude, you should sketch in something sustainable:

This dress was literally tailored for an avant-garde art class. Pair with willow charcoal but remember to wash your hands.
Rent Now From £29

Or be the art you wish to see in the world, a pattern that sets the tone for endless creativity and romantic renderings.
Rent Now From £29

Written by Sam Ellis