ART: At ease with the figure

The deliberate and conscious wearing of clothing is a part of human behaviour and culture that artists have long sought to strip away in order to uncover what lies underneath, to show the soul of both people and society in their representations of the body, whether that’s godly chiselled musculature, sumptuous voluptuous beauty, the vulnerability of human flesh or existential angst.

Drawing the human form from life is a skill that continues to be taught and practised today, the naked truths revealed eliciting varied and sometimes surprising reactions in the viewer. To uncover the fascination and challenges, I met two Artweeks artists who capture what they see in very different ways.

Blewbury-based artist and art teacher Charlotte Houlihan describes the moments where first found herself captivated by the power and challenges of the drawing people.

‘During my A Levels I took a weekend life drawing workshop. Up until then my only drawings of people were from books, photographs or maybe in the mirror, so it was very different to be confronted by a real nude. All my nerves went out the window within the first few minutes though – we had to follow her around the room and draw her in 30 second poses. That was the first time I realised what a powerful learning tool life drawing is. Everyone is nervous before they start their first nude, but it’s a professional environment and the observations you make are about conveying the person over the nudity.’

‘Painting from life is a particular challenge – we carry inside us strong preconceptions of what a body looks like, whether that’s because of culture, biology or psychology, and it’s important to set that aside and be really honest about what you actually see in front of you. We are all so innately-tuned to other people and how they should look, it feels as though there’s less room for error when you are painting the human form. It’s very obvious when a life drawing just doesn’t look right, and yet at the same time I often think the more interesting works from life are those that aren’t perfect, but perhaps describe something more about the person – their personality, characteristics, mannerisms or mood. It’s a hard balance to strike. And people’s bodies are very expressive. For me painting is about communicating something that can’t be put into words: that is what really excites me about figurative painting.’

‘I’m fascinated by people, when it comes to painting however I find their clothes are often a distraction, a wrapping they have chosen to use to present themselves to the world, when they are removed there’s often a very different person underneath. Someone might present a confident gung-ho or even aggressive front through their wardrobe, but watch them relax in the warmth of a studio, the way they curl or tuck in their feet for example, and there’s a gentleness, a vulnerability, a truth and a beauty.’

And there’s an honesty to Charlotte’s paintings which celebrate the diversity of normal people with sensitivity, and their lives, a welcome counterpoint to the body-beautiful pressures of popular culture. ‘Real people are all shapes and sizes,’ she says, ‘and they all look beautiful in a painting.’

‘I also love the variety and delicacy of people’s skin tones. I see so many colours in a person’s skin, regardless of their race. Skin has a transluscent quality to it that’s unlike anything else,’ smiles Charlotte, ‘I love playing with colour in my work and flesh provides a wonderful, challenging subject in which to explore that’.

Charlotte paints quickly in oils, applying layers of paint where previous layers have not yet dried and mixing colours as she goes. Her brushwork is intuitive and spontaneous, and the atmospheric and almost abstract backgrounds of her latest canvases are rich with sophisticated organic tones that draw you in – plums and lilac, or forest green and sage giving a homely warmth in which her figures are comfortably relaxed

Charlotte’s nudes are in stark contrast to those of printmaker Debbie Sutcliffe whose linocuts and wood engravings also depict the human body, often in repose, and also based on life-drawing. Debbie is attracted to the curving lines of the human figure and uses as few lines as possible to show the form she sees in front of her, but she is obsessive about those lines and works at them endlessly until she achieves the look she is after by gradually varying the line width. The beauty of her art lies in the resultant strength in simplicity.

‘I look a lot and draw a little,’ she smiles. ‘A five minute sketch after studying the model provides the best starting point – you capture more life that way. I then mull over the sketch to see how I can crop it and if I can do without any of the lines, reducing it even further. The simpler I can make an image, the more effective it is.’

‘I like my figures to be anonymous so that the viewer can see what they want to see in them; I want them to be universal figures,’ says Debbie. ‘Sometimes even the sex is ambiguous.’

Influenced by ancient incised rock art where she imagines running her fingers in the grooves and by the elegance and grace of Japanese woodblock prints, Debbie takes a block of wood or a piece of lino, and carefully cuts her minimalist figures into the surface, and uses the finished design to print from on a traditional press. The process of carving the line is actually very precise, slow and steady, despite the apparent simplicity of the finished picture which is both classic and contemplative.  ‘The world seems fast and furious to me, and I want my figures to be an escape from that,’ she explains.

Debbie prints, almost always, in a single ink so that the lines of her figures shine out in white from a block of strong, flat colour. The colour she chooses for each is, she feels, almost dictated by the figures themselves, and the mood that best represents them. Although a black ink appeals to the print-making purists who value the traditional simplicity of white line nudes most of all, Debbie often prefers the rubine red she uses.

One of Debbie’s latest prints, Eve and the Apple, produced for the Society of Wood Engravers, draws on both the figurative series for which Debbie is best known and a new set of prints she is calling ‘Garden Treasure’. This new series is evolving from things she has either grown or found in her garden combined with vases and jugs she has been given or inherited, which all seem to share the figurative curves she is drawn to – even her Arum Lily seems to suggest an elegant leg! When working out the design for Eve, Debbie used the curves of an apple core to echo the curves of the figure. She says, ‘I could only lay my hands on a hard, tart, cooking apple when I wanted  to work out this design and spat out each bitter mouthful as soon as possible while creating the right shape. She’s a very knowing Eve,’ chuckles Debbie, ‘because the apple is well and truly eaten!’

First published in OX magazine February 2019

Charlotte will be exhibiting in Blewbury in May for Oxfordshire Artweeks.


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