Reflections from the Life Room: Traditional Art Training

By Lorraine Ferrier
Lorraine Ferrier
Lorraine Ferrier
October 4, 2019 Updated: October 5, 2019

Since 1769, architecture, sculpture, and art students enrolled at the Royal Academy of Arts Schools in London all had to first master the skill of drawing from plaster casts of the ancients. Students would practice drawing from plaster casts for sometimes as long as a year before they were deemed proficient enough to draw from a life model.

Now, life drawing is no longer compulsory for students enrolled at the Royal Academy of Arts Schools.

Mary Ealden, Royal Academy of Arts (RA) project manager for young people and teachers, is continuing the tradition of life drawing with 50 U.K. school children. The life drawing classes are featured throughout the year-long attRAct mentoring program for 16- to 18-year olds enrolled in an A-level (upper high school level) arts qualification.

Ealden shares her experience and why she believes drawing from a life model is an essential foundation for all artists in the following interview:

Life drawing is one of the most traditional practices in art but it’s so relevant today. It’s really interesting in terms of the history of the RA and it’s a really interesting subject matter for us to be continuing.

Historically, at the Royal Academy, the idea would have been that you would spend a year in the cast corridor drawing [plaster] casts and then if you created an artwork that your professor thought worthy enough, you would be allowed into the life room to draw from life.

I ensure that practical life drawing sessions run throughout the year-long program that I do because 16, 17, and 18-year-olds aren’t getting life drawing as a part of their art education, unless they’re enrolled at a really special school.

The students that I work with—despite the fact that they’re doing sculpture workshops, photography workshops, and printmaking workshops with us—they always say that life drawing is their favorite thing to do with us.

young people drawing
Young students in the historic Life Room at the Royal Academy of Art in London draw from life. (Justine Trickett)

I think really at the core of every artist (this is just me talking), drawing should be a skill that is practiced and learned, regardless of whether you become a graphic designer, an architect, a conceptual artist, or a photographer. The skill of looking, rendering, and expressing through a single line is something that takes considerable time to develop, but is a skill that can be utilized across many forms of creative practice.

Obviously, [at first], everyone is really scared about having to do a life drawing class. It’s very intimidating: You’ve got a blank piece of paper in front of you, and there’s a naked person and you’re supposed to create an image of that individual.

So a typical life drawing class would start with two or three 30-second exercises to just loosen students up and sort of get them into the zone. Even just that: being brave enough and uninhibited enough to just let go and not worry about what you’re making in front of your peers is a really important lesson to learn as an artist, I think.

One of the sad things about the RA is that we don’t actually have that many life drawing sketches in our collection from previous students—if you think about the fact that J.M.V. Turner, John Constable, Sir John Everett Millais and lots of famous English artists all studied at the RA. We don’t have any of their life drawing sketches in our collection because life drawing sketches are always considered to be drawing exercises, not final pieces.

Actually, those sketches would be so important and interesting to see at this point in time because you’d be able to see how an artist understands how to draw and understands how to express themselves with nothing more than a pencil or a piece of charcoal. That’s really important and valuable.

At school, especially for the A-level students, there’s so much pressure on them to make art that is going to fulfill the curriculum. Every piece of art they make needs to be good enough to put in a portfolio and put into an exam, whereas the program that I run is much more about giving them the space to create art that they can throw away at the end of the day if they don’t like it. There’s no pressure; they’re not supposed to make something that’s worthy of an exam. They’re just supposed to learn about creating basically. I think that’s why they like it so much.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Lorraine Ferrier
Lorraine Ferrier