Visual Arts

The naked truth about teaching the art of the nude

The famous nude drawing Vitruvian Man did not spring from the baby Leonardo DaVinci. Neither did Matisse just dial up Blue Nude, nor did Botticelli start his career with Birth of Venus.

Let's face it, everyone knows how to look at naked people and at the paintings of beautiful, intriguing or shocking nudes, especially when they're in museums and galleries and big-deal shows, such as Nude 2009, the 23rd year of the Nude International, starting this week in Lexington.

But who teaches these artists to paint the nude human figure?

To paint the nude form, you have to really look at it. You first have to get beyond the whole giggly thing, sure, but there is so much more to know about light, proportion and color before you're able to work your vision, make your statement, impose your innovative post-Spencer Tunick concept on it.

Or is there?

We asked the six area university professors whose art was selected by the Nude 2009 jury to explain their own process of teaching the human figure. Those professors are among the 45 artists selected from the 218 who submitted 1,304 works for consideration for the show, making it the largest and farthest-reaching annual juried exhibition in North America dedicated solely to figurative art.

Question: Let's start with the obvious question: Is there usually apprehension among students about taking on the nude?

Debra Clem, associate professor of fine arts at Indiana University Southeast: They can be a little scared. But once the model takes her clothes off, that all falls to the wayside. The model becomes a still-life object. They are looking at shapes and forms, curves and shadows.

Hui Chi Lee, lecturer, paintings and foundations, University of Kentucky: Technically speaking, after one semester of training and education, students neutralize the nude form as the human form and appreciate it as an art form.

Lennon Michalski, lecturer, College of Art, Eastern Kentucky University: I'm dealing with college-age students. They're very familiar with the body. If they are uncomfortable for some reason, it's just fine to work with the thinly, organically clothed. I am just looking for them to be able to reiterate the curves of the body.

Q: There is an entire history of art to understand in this form, no?

Boris Zakic, associate professor, Georgetown College: (Yes.) I was taught applying the traditional Academy-style approach: a mix of model study, observation, repetition of form and all mainly within the neo-classical figurative tradition. It provides a stimulating overview that develops, apart from skill and sensitivity, an appreciation of almost any artist (or recognized practitioner) in any period from Renaissance through the 19th century.

Q: Are you ever looking to teach, specifically, proper anatomy, musculature and skeletal frame?

Yvonne Petkus, associate professor of art, Western Kentucky University: I cover in-depth anatomy, having studied at the teaching morgue while a student at Syracuse University. … My methods are based on the body itself, working away from formula, to give students real ways to know what is happening beneath the skin. This includes things like the interplay of muscles, using parts of the actual model to measure his or her specific proportions rather than employing a standardized set of measurements.

Clem: Some teach anatomy; that's legitimate. I teach they should paint what we see in front of us. I'm not testing how many muscles in the body. Let's work instead on proportion, shadow.

Q: Isn't it more complicated than just anatomy, though? Isn't there an emotional and psychological component here that doesn't exist with standard still-life?

Mike Nichols, assistant professor of art, Western Kentucky University: The nude is a familiar and direct tool of empathy. Students come to understand that, stripped of all man-made accessories, the human figure connects the viewer to a universal understanding of the human condition.

Clem: (The body) is way more complicated than a pear artistically. But if it's more complicated emotionally, that's a problem.

Q: At what point do you allow students to deviate from strict representational form and follow their own muse?

Petkus: All along, students are encouraged to explore and deviate but to also question that which becomes rote or a deviation that is not challenged enough. I find that trying to comprehend the human form is a lifelong process where needs and outcomes change and are changed by the work itself.

Michalski: It's totally fine for students to express themselves conceptually, to morph. It's completely necessary for the practice of the craft of the work and the emotion. When I went to school, you had to draw what you saw; now you need to be asked to go beyond what is rendered. Forget what is expected. We live in too aggressive a time to paint traditionally. Too much is held back. Painting should be like a visual roller-coaster: Put your hands up; ride.

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