ALL THROUGH MY childhood, drawing was my thing.
Then I started writing for a living, and the drawing just … stopped, as if my brain said, “I can do one creative thing, and that’s it.”
I’d considered taking a drawing class, but that seemed both frivolous and intimidating, because I’ve gotten so rusty and was sure the others would be really good.
But when I joined a few regulars for an evening of figure drawing, I felt that old longing stir again.
The atmosphere at Seattle Ink & Oil, a tattoo shop and art studio in the Old Rainier Brewery building, was congenial and casual, as everyone relaxed and got out supplies before an evening of drawing. There’s very little structure: A handful of people turn up with their own supplies and draw whatever they feel, however they want. Some have easels, some only sketchpads. You can curl up on a couch or sit cross-legged on the floor.
Each artist contributes to a fund to pay the model, who assumes different poses for different lengths of time, starting with one minute and finally progressing to 20.
It’s hard to evoke the human figure, that most familiar and yet difficult subject. During sessions, everyone was deeply absorbed in the work. Some of the artists occasionally hummed along with the classic rock playing in the background, but there’s no time for conversation beyond a quick comment.
The chatting happens during breaks, when everyone stands around the shop’s counter and sips wine or beer.
People use different media: Diana Oliphant, pastels; Dave Clay, charcoal. Shop owner Justin Johnson paints in oil; other paintings he’s created adorn the studio walls. I was right about one thing: They were good artists. But nobody cared whether I was.
Oliphant launched this group about seven years ago. “Part of starting this, for me, was the regular commitment to drawing,” she says.
For Johnson, it’s a chance to paint something for himself without worrying about what his client needs. “Tattooing is a wonderful collaboration, but with painting, I tell the story,” he says.
The model, a regular here and also a burlesque and cabaret dancer who goes by the stage name Porcelain, was cheerful and accommodating. She rearranged herself frequently, trying to come up with a pose no one had seen before. At one point, her foot fell asleep. “I feel like a cat that’s trying to get comfortable,” she jokes.
Everyone appreciates the model, who makes all this possible. “I wouldn’t have learned to draw if someone hadn’t modeled for me,” says Oliphant, who also models for artists.
Clay is a software engineer by profession, though he, like Oliphant, went to art school.
When colleagues ask him about his hobby, “It can be a little awkward: ‘Yes, I look at naked people weekly.’ ” He laughs. “But I like the challenge.”
He also likes his fellow artists. “This group is definitely the group where I found my people.”
I had never really done much figure drawing — portraits were my thing. And when I sat down with my sketchpad and pencils, I found myself focusing too much on the face. But long-ago art lessons also returned to my brain: Draw what you see, not what you think you see. Find the shapes, and don’t worry too much about details.
When I talked about this with Oliphant after the session was over, she agreed. “Learning to draw is about relearning how to look at things.”
Later, I headed into the night with a few new drawings on my formerly pristine sketchpad. They were mostly bad, though one almost rose to mediocre. But I was proud of myself, all the same.