Drawing Bodies

11 Sep 2008

Long Back View colored pencilDraftsmen gathered at the Manhattan venue for “BODIES…The Exhibition” last year to draw the specimens on display. The best of them were named finalists in a special competition co-sponsored by the exhibition and Drawing magazine.   

by Bob Bahr

Long Back View colored pencil
Back View
by Kurt Long, 2008, colored pencil, 14 x 11. All artwork this article collection the artist unless otherwise indicated.

Understanding human anatomy is essential to the accurate rendering of the figure, but many artists don’t have access to dissection classes or cadavers at medical schools. That’s one reason “BODIES...The Exhibition” has proven popular with artists—for the price of admission to the multilocation museum show, one can draw the flayed specimens and examine the internal organs and complicated inner-workings of cadavers that have had the water in their cells removed and replaced with a polymer to allow for stable museum display. Last fall, Ken Talbreth, the manager of operations for the New York location of “BODIES,” noticed how local artists were attracted to the show and approached Drawing magazine about sponsoring a contest. We thought it was a great idea and joined Talbreth to form DrawingBODIES. On the following pages we present the six best entries in the resulting competition, which render the human body in ways that are as eye-opening as the exhibition itself.

Winner: Kurt Long
Kurt Long’s rich, traditionally rendered drawing impressed the jurors of the DrawingBODIES competition and made him a unanimous choice for the top honor. Using a Van *** brown Faber-Castell colored pencil on cream Canson sketch paper, Long started with an outline of the figure, and then blocked in the shadows. Next, he developed the halftones. Finally, he began to zero in on specific areas, bringing them to a higher level of finish as he moved around the page. “The lower back was the most challenging—the tones are very subtle in that area,” says Long. “Every stroke had to be laid down much more carefully.” The artist says he chose that specific specimen because he was interested in its back and was pleased with the way it was lit. Also, because Long opted to work mostly during business hours, this specimen’s location away from heavy-traffic areas allowed him to stay out of people’s way.

Krevolin Filleted Figure Conté white chalk crayon
Filleted Figure
by David Krevolin, 2008, Conté, white chalk, and crayon on toned paper, 24½ x 16.

Long earned a bachelor of arts degree at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia, but he says “BODIES...The Exhibition” allowed him to get a type of training he couldn’t at the academy. “They had stopped having dissection classes when I was there, so I saw “BODIES” as a great opportunity,” says the artist. “While I was sketching at the exhibit, I also drew the internal organs. Those parts influence the external forms, so you have to know about them too.”

Long, a full-time artist and the son of an artist, primarily paints figurative work in oil. He also seems to be an extremely devoted fan of the exhibit’s Sketch Nights; less than five minutes after receiving his prizes for winning the DrawingBODIES contest, he asked Talbreth when the next Sketch Night was scheduled.

David Krevolin
The specimen David Krevolin chose to draw was sliced vertically into three pieces, which created an interesting visual for the artist and also allowed him to explore the form a bit before settling in on the main image of his drawing. Using crayon and chalk on toned paper, Krevolin explored what he terms “the intangible” of the image—the essence and identity of the body. “I felt that because I’ve studied anatomy books, attended dissections, and studied form, I could draw what I saw and not just copy every little detail,” he says. “I could push the drawing so that I was able to put myself into it and add what I was seeing.” Krevolin chose this particular body because he felt it had the most lifelike weight to it, and he also appreciated the gesture in which it was posed and how it was lit. “Also, it showed a lot of interesting anatomy in the front,” he adds.

Krevolin graduated from the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, in Old Lyme, Connecticut, with a degree in sculpture, but when he started attending drawing groups in Philadelphia, where he now lives, he “became addicted” to drawing. “It’s a way to explore my ideas much more quickly than with sculpture,” he explains. “Plus, I consider drawing the basis of all art.”

Krohn Untitled white ink and colored pencil
by Emily Krohn, 2008, white ink and colored pencil on toned paper, 24 x 40.

Emily Krohn
Emily Krohn’s senior thesis at the Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, New York, was on medical illustration, so drawing bodies was not a great stretch for her. This partially explains why the artist was able to see beyond the more accessible specimens on view and focus on an unusual display: the central nervous system. “I sketched at ‘BODIES’ seven or eight times, and this was one of my favorites—I loved how delicate the central nervous system looked,” comments Krohn. “I was at one Sketch Night where it seemed like it was just me and the security guards. The lights were all out and it was a little creepy, but I liked it—I could set up my tripod easel and go to work.”

Through her anatomy classes at Pratt, Krohn was able to draw from actual cadavers, which she found useful and thrilling. “I’m very interested in anatomy and the way the body works, and I’m eager to go back to the anatomy lab this August and draw the cadaver when it’s fresh,” she says with a laugh.

Judith Willing
This artist didn’t settle on her subject matter until she explored some other options, including drawings of people looking at the exhibits, and renderings of the heart and lungs of specimens. “I wanted to work in a square format,” explains Judith Willing. “I walked around the exhibition, wowed by all the specimens, but I couldn’t figure out how to fit a long body in a square format. Then I saw a hand in a glass case. As a former pastry chef, I’ve always been fascinated by hands—they are your most important tool.”

Willing The Upper Hand at South Street Seaport graphite Willing The Upper Hand at South Street Seaport linocut
Preliminary sketch for The Upper Hand at South Street Seaport
by Judith Willing, 2008, graphite, 3 x 3.
The Upper Hand at South Street Seaport
by Judith Willing, 2008, linocut, 8 x 8¼.

Two of her recent teachers had stressed value in depicting forms, so Willing used this piece as an opportunity to focus on shadows. But she was intent on experimenting with the medium of linocut for this project, and linocuts are geared toward stark blacks and whites. “I tried desperately to put the concept of shading into the linocut, which was very difficult,” she says. “But I discovered that unlike in a drawing, I was able to get tremendous movement of lines around each element in the subject—bones could curve around sockets, and if I leaned into the tool, I could put that feeling into it.” Before cutting into the block, Willing drew a 3"-x-3" graphite sketch from life, which she enlarged on a copier to help with the linocut. The artist had decided that she wanted to allude to the heritage of the South Street Seaport in her piece, so when some of the lines showed movement that suggested waves, she began to approach the hand as if it were an island or a boat. “It seemed like I just knew where each line was supposed to go,” Willing recalls. “I noticed that the hand was taking on more of a galleon look, with foremast, mizzenmast, mainmast, and boom at the front. That was totally suitable for the seaport and all the history and amazing maritime activity that used to go on down there in the 18th century.”

Jennifer Lui
Jennifer Lui is no stranger to sketching after hours at a museum—she drew during sketch nights at the Museum of Natural History, in New York City. She reports that these days she’s mostly working in ceramics, but in keeping with this entry, the pieces are based on biology. “It’s always been a great source of inspiration for me—the natural, the human body,” says the artist.

Lui Rings of a Tree graphite ink gouache
Rings of a Tree
by Jennifer Lui, 2008, graphite, ink, and gouache on Bristol board, 15 x 12.

This piece began with a graphite sketch on Bristol board in tight lines from a mechanical pencil, and then Lui dropped pen-and-ink on the drawing before adding gouache. She next mixed layers of more ink and additional gouache until she arrived at the final image that depicted the specimen as a tree. “I did sketches on-site and then started playing with the images in my studio,” explains Lui. “The way some of the forms looked reminded me of pieces of wood, and I found that very interesting. This was the only specimen that was cut horizontally so you could see the multiple layers—see what’s going on inside and outside. The inside of the muscle structure reminded me of roots, the way the muscles were stringy and tapering.”

Lui is half-Chinese, but she was not bothered by the questions about the cadavers’ origins in China. “There’s a lot of speculation about where these bodies come from, and it’s definitely a political show—very loaded,” she says. “But for me, it’s a celebration of the form. I think the human body is really amazing, and I wanted to make something a little more optimistic. Sometimes the human form can be a bit frightening when it’s been stripped like that, but I’ve never thought of it as being horrific in any way.”

Anki King
The choice of specimen was simple for Anki King. “It was the only full-size female I saw, and being female, I was drawn to this body because I could relate,” says King. “I made some changes to it to make it more me—this is what I call an ‘alternate-reality self-portrait.’ I elongated the figure, as it was a pretty short body, and I’m tall. I essentially used the figure as the basis for a large drawing.”

King If—Skinless charcoal and gesso
by Anki King, 2008, charcoal and gesso on paper, 88 x 60.

Working from four or five on-site drawings, King layered charcoal and gesso to create depth in the piece. “The gesso doesn’t completely cover the charcoal, and I leave it like that,” she explains. “Tracks seep through, showing what was there before.”

King works in the offices of the Art Students League of New York, in Manhattan, and has a studio in Long Island City, Queens. She primarily draws and paints in oil, but works occasionally in sculpture—and all her pieces are based on the human figure. “I have a more expressionistic approach to the figure,” says the artist. “I don’t adhere to just the rendering of the subject but rather instill some emotion into a piece. This is evident even in the way I choose to use the materials—I rough up lines and put gesso on it, using brushstrokes as much as possible. It’s not just the imagery that’s important, but how you use the materials.”

Future Sketch Nights
The New York City location of “BODIES...The Exhibition,” at South Street Seaport, has Sketch Nights scheduled for the following nights from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.: October 6, October 21, November 5, and November 20. The use of easels is permitted; only dry media is allowed. Artists can also sketch from the specimens during regular business hours at the museum, but they must hold their surface and materials. Special admission discounts may apply on Sketch Nights. Check www.bodiestheexhibition.com for details.

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