Basic Drawing

The 6:30 Drawing class at the Artists’ League. It was a terrible idea and she knew it. Gary had let it slip that the model John left her for was named Sarah or Samantha; he couldn’t remember which. Maria figured she would know in her gut when she saw the woman, naked on a pedestal, swaying by the millimeter to keep her balance.

“It’s not healthy,” all of her friends said.

“Fuck healthy, I’m angry,” was Maria’s reply.

She only wanted to see her. She wasn’t going to do anything. And so she signed up for Basic Figure Drawing and waited the month until her six-week session began. The League still hadn’t cashed the check. Maria called several times to make sure they had received it. She was registered, the woman on the phone assured her. They probably wouldn’t get around to processing the payment until after the first day of class.

Maria arrived early and wandered the dingy halls, peaking into classrooms and reading flyers taped to the wall. There were a lot of homemade ads for furniture and different computer things she didn’t understand. A green flyer advertised an “experienced critical eye.” She saw what looked like a “critical eye” in one of the classrooms. They weren’t even drawing. They just sat in a clump around a man with silvery hair and pink skin. When people passed by she smiled and made eye contact. She didn’t want to show that she was lurking.

They went around the room introducing themselves. The metal stools were rickety and uncomfortable so some people just stood and some leaned awkwardly instead of sitting. Maria found a balance at the top of her stool, legs tucked neatly beneath her. When it was her turn she said to them, “My name is Maria. I’m a yoga instructor. And I’ve always wanted to improve my drawing skills.”

She was not a yoga instructor. She did administrative work at a law firm. But everyone else had interesting professions, or at least they said they did.

John had taken a drawing class. He always liked sketching on things. Sometimes her folders from work opened up to reveal a quick glimpse of their kitchen table on the inside flap, or a doodle of their cat in the margins. John was gone, of course. Maria wasn’t even sad for very long, just angry and the anger hurt.

After their introductions on the first day of class, Luke, the instructor, had them split into pairs and sketch each other. “Bold contour lines,” he shouted. “Trust your hand.” Maria struggled with her partner Judith, from Bensonhurst, who was a nurse at a rehab clinic and got the drawing lessons as a gift from her kids – Brian and Leigh, 7 and 9. Judith had on a big flowy dress that covered the interesting parts of her body, so Maria focused on her hair. It was curly and copper and bounced around every time Judith moved.

At the next session they had a model, an old Polish man named Piotr with grayish wrinkly skin and folds of fat hanging from his belly, practically covering his balls. There was an odd silence in the room, sketching Piotr. He asked that the windows be closed for his privacy and he brought his own mini space heater to keep his exposed body comfortable in the drafty room. When they stopped for a break, he walked around in a velour robe inspecting the images of himself, muttering words of approval at the drawings he liked best.

There were more models. Some brought props. Some held special poses – torquing their bodies into bizarre shapes for the students to capture. Maria took it as her duty to inspect each one and understand them. She was really there for the models after all, not the drawing.

Luke asked the students to each bring in a self-portrait for the following week. No cheating with cameras or Photobooth, just a straight, stare-at-yourself in the mirror self-portrait. Maria sat on the floor in front of her mirror and stared. She kept the lights down, and the shadows on her face hung in grotesque sharpness, like a German Expressionist film. One eye was always slightly larger than the other. Her mouth small and tight no matter what. Maria tilted her head in different ways. She pulled her hair back. Then let it hang down over her face. And as she saw herself, in three-quarter profile, her face softened in the shadows. She became aware of the bones supporting the curve of her cheek, and the arch of eyebrow that mimicked the downward creases of her mouth. She drew, and erased. And when she went into class she pinned her drawing to the wall timidly, watching the others looking.

Luke led the discussion, portrait by portrait. By the end he’d decided they were all flat. They needed to learn to draw faces like bodies – three-dimensional shapes undulating in and out of relief. They paired up again. This time Maria is with Ian, a tall guy in boyish clothes. They are to draw each other by touch. One hand on your partner’s face, one hand on the page. Ian draws first. His hand is large and covers Maria’s whole head. He is just grazing her skin, shy about pawing at a strange woman. As he feels for her eyes she blinks and he says sorry, smiling as he records her eyelashes in pencil. This is how it begins, Maria thinks. If you stare at something long enough you’re bound to fall in love. They switch and Maria begins his portrait. Left hand on his face, feeling for the topography. Right hand guiding the pencil. Palm to brain to hand to paper to eye and back again.

Maria was getting good at drawing, and she knew it. She wouldn’t have continued if she wasn’t good at it.

“Show me some of your pictures,” her mom said.

“They’re not the kind of thing you look at,” Maria answered.

“You just do them and then they’re done.”

On their last class, Maria spent ten minutes drawing a model named Sharon before it occurred to her that this might be the woman. Gary hadn’t been sure of the name. And she was very pretty. Sharon was a dancer. She positioned her body in extreme poses – limbs in the air, torso arched. This was their ‘end of session’ challenge. Maria drew furiously, smashing the charcoal into the paper and smearing the figure into shape. Sharon’s body on the page looked violent and bold. In reality her left leg was quivering while her right calf cramped up. Luke complimented Maria’s work. When class was over, Sharon left and some of the students made plans to go have a drink somewhere. Maria headed out with them. She had become fond of their faces over the six weeks. And she needed something to occupy her thoughts. She couldn’t think about John, or even Sharon – a woman whose naked body she’d obsessed over but didn’t know.

At the bar, Ian settled into a fixed position at Maria’s side. Each drink gave them more to talk about. And when he suggested they go outside for some air, she took her jacket because she knew they wouldn’t be going back in. He kissed terribly – in the street, on the train, all the way back to his place – shoving his tongue into her mouth with an animal force she felt like she might as well be giving head. And so she did for a while. And after he came they seemed to have a lot less in common. They fucked around for a while and eventually he fell asleep so she left, disappointed.

After walking a few blocks she hailed a cab. The driver was young and listening to Arabic dance music. Maria rolled down her window to let it out for the empty streets to hear. He asked her if she liked the music and she said yes, so he turned it up even louder.

When she got home, Maria brought the mirror to her bed and propped it against the headboard. Sitting cross-legged, she faced it to see herself and draw. She stared at her face – the bones and the skin and the shapes. A kindness reflected back at her. Each body part stuck out of the blurry wholeness. She drew in her sketchbook and then she took off her clothes and continued the drawing on her own body, using the pastels to shade and contour her figure. Big, searching circles of blue around her breasts and past her hips. In the mirror, she was a woman in a painting. A woman of flesh, separate from herself. How strange, to take up space, she thought. Maria fell asleep in the chalky blue with the mirror still against the wall near her head, ready to tip over and crush her. And when she woke up, she was surprised to find the color on her skin. It had settled into the creases, and left a grayish trace even after taking a shower.

About Rebecca Meng

Rebecca Meng lives in New Jersey. She can be found on Twitter and Tumblr.

  • Mark H Whitnall

    It evoked memories of living single in New York, a girlfriend who was a student at the Art League, wandering around Manhattan, experimenting. I was immersed in Maria’s world and briefly immersed in my lost youth.

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