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Figure drawing class studies nude models

Jessica C. Millman

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The room is crowded with brown easels, all of them centered around a raised base in the center. The base is cleared, except for a single chair. Here is where the model poses and the figure drawing class begins.

“People outside the art world, I think, are not always clear about what we do,” said Chalita Robinson, referring to her figure drawing class, which uses nude models.

Robinson has taught at Bakersfield College for 33 years. She instructs students in basic drawing, monoprinting, art appreciation and figure drawing.

“The first thing we do is to investigate the figure through observational drawing,” she said. “Then we move into a more expressive use of the figure, and then on occasion, there would be the need for an artist to draw a clothed figure, so that we’re drawing it, but not necessarily anatomically correct.”

Robinson initially began teaching basic drawing, then started figure drawing when the chair of her department asked her to teach it, which was 30 years ago.

She received her bachelor’s degree from Xavier University in New Orleans, and her master’s degree from Michigan State University then came straight to Bakersfield from graduate school.

“I had lots of interests when I was in college, I thought I’d be an interpreter at the U.N. But I was an undeclared major,” she said.

Teachers were telling her to do art and she thought about being an art major.

“My father would say, ‘What would you do with that?’ My mother was a little more supportive, but my dad was very practical,” she said.

Because Robinson’s figure drawing class is generally full, and there are no prerequisites, she often has to turn students down. Models to pose for the class are a little bit harder to find.

“The bank of models to call from is pretty small,” she said. “People will call me. On occasion I have to advertise. The best scenario would be several models.”

Models must be at least 18. They are hired and paid on an hourly basis.

She emphasizes that her class is not for those who want to come and stare.

“We draw the nude figure, not the naked figure, and I make a distinction there, because ‘naked’ means that you hold yourself in a way that suggests that you need clothing, whereas ‘nude’ is how babies come into the world. We have nude models. We don’t have naked people in the class.”

However, there are times in the class when clothed models are needed to draw a figure. She used the example of the way a shirt hangs on a hanger is different then the way a shirt looks on a body.

The class uses a variety of media, or tools, when drawing the figure, such as pencils, charcoals, inks and pastels. They usually draw on a newsprint pad, or a better quality drawing paper, completing hundreds of drawings in one semester.

“If you are an art student, figure drawing is essential,” Robinson said. “The figure is a recurring subject in art, it is part of our world. It holds enormous expressive potential, the major reason why we want to study it as a form.”

A figure drawing class can’t use conventional methods of tests and quizzes for grades.

“A percent of their grade is the ability to articulate, to have a demonstrated understanding of the problem,” she said. “Some of this has to do with skill development.”

Even if students do not have the skills to produce their own work, they can still point to someone else’s work and articulate its meaning.

Robinson enjoys teaching all of her classes.

“When I teach it is very gratifying to see the light bulbs turn on. Many of my students have gone on to their own careers. I feel like I had some impact in their lives.”

She still sells her own work, and counts Matisse as one of her own personal favorites.

“Art is a language and what we want in the end is to be able to speak eloquently through that language,” Robinson said.

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Figure drawing class studies nude models