Mel Birnkrant's
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All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
 
          I much prefer drawings like this one, which was also huge, but done quickly, and thrown at the paper with a certain daring bold abandon that, on occasion, quite by accident, worked out.  I was often a better draftsman when I wasn’t thinking.  On the other hand, working in a flurry of excitement had its setbacks.  Had I proceeded with more caution, the models lower body might not have been quite so exaggerated.
          Here is a curious one.  I recall that it also was a longer pose.  But in this case, I sketched the figure quickly, exaggerating outrageously.  And then, with too much time remaining, I filled the drawing in.  One might say, I fleshed it out, with realistic shading. 
         Please forgive me for blabbering about nearly every drawing.  I recall my first and only employer saying to me, "Mel, just shut up, and show me what you did.  Art doesn’t come with a sound track."  But I am enjoying talking about these drawings that I haven't seen for over forty years.  I find I am reliving them with the models before me in my mind, as real and vibrant as they were when I was drawing them.  And I can remember what I was thinking at the time.
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
         Someone told me a curious thing, the other day.  Naturally, like most things that happen recently, I can’t remember who that someone was.  They said that science has discovered that every time we call forth a memory, we rewrite it unconsciously, as we reinstall it in our brain.  That accounts for why memories change, over time.  Seeing I have not seen these drawings for nearly half a century, this might prove that theory, for I can vividly recall the instant that I did each one of them.  The memory of each has never been brought forth and reinstalled, and thus. these memories remain fresh and unchanged.
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
          As the story relates on my "Recollections" page, there came a time, quite early on, when Haig called an abrupt end to these life drawing sessions, which, by then, had expanded to two nights a week.  Then, the sessions moved to my loft downstairs, where they continued for two years, until we moved to the country.  Now, with me, booking the models, without being fully conscious of what I was doing, certain models who I favored appeared more frequently.  I guess, the one that I liked best was this one, who we see below, without her head.  Because I was always so eager to begin, I never took the time to think ahead about a head.  Therefore, there was often no space left to fit one in.  I focused on the middle of the model, and dove in!  Thus, not only the head, but feet as well often didn’t make it onto the page.  I tried using bigger paper, only to discover that my drawings just got bigger.  And the same problems existed, only on a larger plane.
          This is how she looked from the neck up!
          No doubt about it, she was plump, most pleasantly.  And she was certainly not shy.  I remember that during breaks, she never bothered to put on a robe, but just sat around, chatting casually.  
         Looking back now over the drawings I like best, I realize in retrospect that this young lady’s face appears in them, time and time again.  And I am also reminded that her often stern expression belied her easygoing personality by appearing to be a frown, when at rest.
          I suppose it would be pointless to pretend that my fascination with life drawing was purely academic.  My drawings clearly show me up.  The fact is, I found some of these young ladies quite erotic, and I enjoyed drawing this one, in particular.  At times, it was quite clear that I was glad to see her, as my pencil traced the voluptuous contours of her body.  
          When Maurice Sendak saw my drawings, for the first time, I knew that he could assess their strengths and weaknesses instantly, and dreaded what he might feel obliged to say, not wanting to hurt my feelings.  He uttered just a single word: “Voluptuous!” Yes, by God!  He got it!  “Voluptuous” was my proclivity!  As brutal honesty was one of Maurice’s most characteristic traits, I did not ask him to elucidate.  Voluptuous was good enough for me.
         You might also notice that I almost never rendered pupils.  Even in the best of models, those who held a pose perfectly, their eyes were always in motion.  They scanned the group constantly.  Although, as I often choose a full frontal seat, they often focused their gaze on me.  I always drew standing at an easel.  So I could look past the page to the model, easily.  I guess, when I got fully involved in drawing, it became a kind of choreography.  Unlike the model, I was always moving.
          As I mentioned earlier in the recollections, the young man who worked at the art store down the street, and attended these sessions, consistently two nights a week, would willingly pose for us when the model I had booked didn’t show up.  Of course, he got the modeling fee, and was just as glad to get the money as he was to draw.  Other than that, there were no male models.  Unlike when the ladies posed, I often chose to render back views.
        But his face appeared, from time to time.
         A curious phenomenon, not easy to describe or explain, that happens intuitively, and is impossible to fake, is where an image exists in relation to the picture plane.  Some artists draw in front of the flat page. Their images exist in the space, standing out from the surface of the paper.  Others draw, as if, the paper were a window, and the images they create take place in an inner world beyond that plane.  I drew in the middle, my drawings utilized the surface of the page as part of what they were made of.  Some elements came out from the page, other elements sank back into it.  The paper’s surface and the figures were always intermingled.
         Walking around a life drawing class, and looking over students shoulders, is an experience unique in all of academia.  Nowhere else, can a student’s level of development be assessed as quickly, or as accurately as here.  In any other course of study, a teacher must rely on tests or grades to ascertain a student’s standing.  But in the field of figure drawing, one has only to see their drawings.
         I really like this pair of drawings.  They hang side by side in the bell tower.  They’ve always struck me as a sort of set, a pair that seem to go together.  Both are veering towards abstraction, and display a lot of anatomy, transformed into geometry.  I especially like the way the male model’s knee appears to come out toward the viewer.  His foot was resting on the rung of a stool, or maybe on the wall behind him.  One of the challenges of life drawing that I found most interesting was rendering foreshortening.
          Here, the model was actually resting against the wall.  And, for once, I attempted to render a cast shadow.  With only twenty minutes to capture the essence of a pose, I rarely allowed myself such time consuming luxuries.  Almost all these drawings, with few exceptions, were done at breakneck speed.
         I recall this model in particular.  She had something glamourous about her that seemed hauntingly “retro,” to use a term a that, at the time, was still unknown.  She reminded me of a 1940s pin-up girl.  And she often assumed a 1940s cheesecake pose.
          From time to time, the model assumed a longer pose, one that would last nearly an hour, in three twenty minute sections with rest breaks in between.  On these occasions, I often chose a bigger pad, and as this sort of pose was usually reclining, I’d turn the paper horizontally.  I tackled these long poses with considerably more care, because I had more time to spare.  In spite of my purposeful efforts to draw with calculated abandon, I was acquiring more control.  
         The exotic young lady, below, proved to be a lot of fun to draw.  Her trim muscular body was a departure for me.  As I recall, she was a dancer.  Many of the models that we drew at Pratt tended to be dancers, as well, supplementing their income by modeling.  Being able to hold a perfect pose was a willing challenge to them, akin to practicing or working out.
         In this exceedingly large rendering,  I couldn’t resist an unconscious tendency to fatten the model up.  Completing a drawing of this size in only twenty minutes, was not easy.  Enthusiasm leaves little room for accuracy.
          The spontaneous sketch, below, was whipped out in two minutes.  It evokes the exquisitely fleeting and provocative moment, when the model was disrobing.
Part II