Exploring the concept of ‘emotional truth’ through the practice of figure drawing
Note: The following paper articulates the results of a one-day scholarly event funded by the Canadian Society of the Study of Education. I would like to thank all of the participants, the videographer, and the model for kindly sharing their thoughts, talents and bodies.
One of the aspects writers have long recognized as important in the production of good fiction writing is a consistent underlying belief or truth held by the author that runs through a story and holds it together (Graves, 1983; Lamott, 1995; Murray, 1968; Mamchur, 2004; Dunne, 2007; Spandel, 2001). Mamchur (2004) refers to this underlying authorial belief as the ‘emotional truth’. Given that elements of writing process are recognizable in the visual arts process (Apps, 2007), we can infer that the concept of emotional truth may also be present in the visual arts process.
This paper articulates the results of a one-day workshop designed to explore the creative writing concept emotional truth, how/if it applies to figure drawing and how it might inform personal and/or professional art practice. Through application, reflection and group discussion, participants engaged in figure drawing exercises to better understand this one aspect of artistic process and how it might subsequently enhance the teaching, learning and practice of visual art.
In the field of fiction writing, writers often refer to the importance of an author infusing his/her work with a personal truth that speaks to what one believes about life and humanity. Lamott (1995) writes, “Telling these truths is your job. You have nothing else to tell us” (p. 103). Burnett (1983) says of the author, “He must believe without question that he is re-creating truth….And, if one writes as believably as possible, the story will then ring true for the reader” (p. 4). Writers understand that without an underlying truth, the writing will likely lack substance and believability.
In fiction writing, truth lies not in the accuracy of facts upon which the story might be based, but in the honesty and authenticity of emotion or feeling held by the author. According to Dunne (2007), “As long as the story emotions are true, the plot can be anything you like” (p. 13). Dunne (2007) refers to this emotional side of the story as the emotion story. Mamchur (2004) refers to it as the emotional truth. Regardless of the label, conviction and commitment are required on the part of the author to flesh out this important aspect of story, no matter how dark, ironic, humorous or misguided the emotional truth the author is in the process of discovering may appear to be. Anything less, and the writing becomes dishonest, and the reader loses interest (Coe, 1981, p. 161).
Visual artists also aim at producing works of art that embody a sense of meaning and insight into the human condition. For example, the paintings of Van Gogh are potent with emotion and personal truth. You can read his pain and intensity in every brushstroke. Van Gogh risked painting his life and infused an honesty that is evident in every corner of his canvases. Lamott (1995) reminds us, “Your whole piece is the truth, not just one shining epigrammatic moment in it” (pp. 103-104). In figure drawing, the body becomes the hanger for the emotional truth of the story. And just as the writer is not beholden to the facts, the artist would not be beholden to anatomical correctness. While technique and anatomical correctness are important aspects of any figure drawing class, can we extend the instructional discourse to include an explicit exploration of beliefs underpinning a drawing? Attention to how the body holds weight, reveals muscle, positions the skeleton, is based on what emotion is in play.
Emotional truths are not random or birthed from a place of prescription. They are connected to our emotional memory and rise to a place of discovery. We have been building beliefs over time, since we were very small children. In the process of creating art we have the opportunity to excavate those beliefs and explore our humanity at the same time. Our visual and verbal artifacts feed us back our lives. Exploring the concept of emotional truth in the visual arts offers the artist another avenue of awareness that can potentially strengthen artistic insight and purpose and bring clarity and consistency to his/her work.
The methodology used in this workshop was arts-based research. Participants engaged in an arts-related activity for the purpose of gaining perspective on one aspect of artistic process and for considering the possible implications for an arts curriculum and community of practice. Data were collected through videotaping of group discussions and the artists’ drawings. Figure drawing was used as the context for exploration given that most artists are familiar with the model as subject. Participant recruitment required that participants be familiar and comfortable with drawing the figure. Five participants attended the workshop as well as a videographer and the model. During the workshop, participants were provided with the opportunity to draw, reflect and engage in discussion to advance their understanding of emotional truth, as it is understood in writing, and how it might be recognized and applied in the visual arts.
Participants were first introduced to the concept of emotional truth as it pertains to writing process through lecture and example. A group discussion developed around our former experiences with figure drawing in educational settings and how we perceived the concept of emotional truth might be applied to drawing the figure based on that experience. I stressed that it was more important to consider what emotional truth was being discovered and embodied in the drawing rather than attempting to make the drawing anatomically correct. Because I have never facilitated or witnessed this type of workshop before, it was important to have participant input and therefore asked participants to make suggestions on the proposed structure for the day. Originally, the intention was to have the group compose a list of archetypal emotions to use as a baseline when drawing. However, we decided that it would be more beneficial and relevant if each person created his/her own personal list rather than a group list. Also, I had suggested a more traditional approach of progressing from half-minute warm-up sessions to approximately half-hour drawing sessions. The participants collaboratively decided that they preferred to stay with shorter poses of no more than 15 minutes.
A drawing session of approximately 2.5 hours followed the initial lecture and discussion. This was then followed by a facilitated group critique in the final hour of the day to discuss the exercise and considerations for an arts education curriculum and community of practice. Questions posed to stimulate discussion included: As a viewer, what emotional truth would you say is visible in the drawing? Did the concept of emotional truth affect your approach to drawing? If so, how? Do you think introducing the concept of emotional truth would be beneficial in an educational setting? If so, how?
During the group discussion and review of the works of art, participants openly reflected on their experience and overall response to the drawing session and the challenge of trying to apply the newly acquired concept. One of the challenges that most of the participants seemed to experience was the continued need to make the drawing anatomically correct. They stated that to stay cognizant and engaged in the process of discovering an emotional truth, they needed to work quickly and loosely. They equated staying with the emotion with staying loose. One participant commented that while she initially tried to be quite specific, as time went on she found that she moved to being less specific. Such statements may explain why the participants decided to continue with shorter poses that resulted in quicker, more impulsive lines and gestures.
The participants employed different points of entry in their attempt to incorporate an emotional element into their work. Two of the participants commented on how they followed the suggestion of making a mental or short list of some emotions that they could use as a starting point. One participant mentioned that she found the list helpful as a guide for connecting with past memories and events in her life when certain emotions were the most intense. She commented that it brought her to “an interesting place”. Another participant thought of intensely emotional periods in her life, such as when she was a child and a teenager, rather than one particular emotion associated with that time. One participant saw colour as the vehicle for accessing emotions in general. She played with the concept of how some emotions are stronger than others, how some are closer to the surface – in the forefront. “They compile on top of each other and so some emotions you hang onto and they stand out longer and some become stronger so others fade into the background.” The participants also discussed how, at times, the overall emotion in the room affected how they were feeling and how they reified that feeling in their drawings.
They also commented on how at various times they found the pose the model assumed implied an emotion. These types of comments raised questions as to whether emotional truth was embedded in the product or the process. We discussed the process of applying emotion: the weight, strength and direction of line, and the emotional connection to the very act of expressing. As artists, we rarely remove ourselves and are often somewhat fascinated by the emotion encountered in the creative act.
When discussing how the exercise of attending to emotional truth may or may not be useful to an arts education curriculum and community of practice, participants reflected on its similarity with the process of writing. One participant mentioned that she encourages her students to integrate the writing process and visual arts process and supports congruency of the two processes to inform each other. Another participant related the act of drawing to her own writing and commented that when she was drawing she found it reflected what is currently taking place in her writing. Eventually the conversation led to a discussion on revising and editing and the opportunities these processes afforded in writing that may be missing in art.
There was also some discussion in regards to whether a climate of safety needed to be established before presenting this concept to a group of learners. One participant suggested that some preliminary or pre-exercises would be helpful to the learners. Another questioned the need for more recognition of the subjective. “I was wondering if it wouldn’t help to imagine that you are drawing yourself...because it felt that it was really hard to understand how to bring that emotion into it.” I commented that perhaps I found it easier to apply the concept to my drawings because I could appropriate the emotional truth I had discovered or worked through in earlier pieces of writing.
While a one-day workshop did not adequately afford the time required for the participants to fully comprehend and assimilate the concept of emotional truth as understood by writers, it did provide some insight into its possible application to an arts curriculum and practice. First, more time would need to be allowed for acquiring a more comprehensive understanding of the concept presented. Additional time could be used to add a writing component so that learners could first understand how emotional truth is experienced and projected through writing. Once understood in its original framework, the skill could then be more concretely transferred to the visual arts process. This addition would hopefully remove some of the conceptual abstraction with which the participants were struggling. To further link the process of visual art with writing, more time would allow for the creation of a larger body of artwork that could perhaps be equated to the processes of editing and revising found in writing.
Second, while the workshop participants were mature, educated adults, experienced in the process of making and, in some cases, teaching art, the insecurity of being asked to engage in a process that implied an exposé of their emotional selves seemed to create some unease in a couple of the participants; hence, their suggestion of perhaps establishing a sense of safety within a group of learners before proceeding with this type of exercise. Art is a risky business. And great artists do take risks; risk of exposure to criticism and risk of discovering, that which is possibly dark and unpleasant about themselves and/or humanity. However, rather than risk arrested participation, it is perhaps worthwhile, as a group to reaffirm expectations of tolerance, receptivity, and respectfulness to temper the unease that words such as ‘emotional truth’ have the potential to evoke. Some of this may be accomplished by simply explicating the fictional dimension of emotional truth - that the only part that has to be true is what you truly feel and believe about something and the events, people, and actual situation can be fictionalized.
Third, participant comments suggested that they enjoyed the opportunity to draw the figure outside the confines of targeting anatomical correctness, which fostered an engagement that was more playful and expressive. While, I personally believe that attention to fundamental drawing skills is an important component of an arts curriculum, students can become overly concerned with accuracy and ‘correctness’ and the initial desire for authentic expression is subjugated to an intellectual activity. We some times forget that art is a way of discovering and expressing claimed and unclaimed truths about life and humanity. It is difficult to say whether longer poses or a more structured workshop would have affected the sense of play.
From the drawings alone it is difficult to say whether the artists achieved the emotional truth they set out to discover. What is evident is that some of the drawings, whether rendered consciously or unconsciously, were infused with an overall consistent feel and/or intention and working within their locus of control, the participants remained engaged in the process of discovery. It would have been interesting to see how the drawings might have evolved, how the artists would have developed their ideas over a longer period of time and through many drawings pointed at the same inquiry. What the workshop did seem to accomplish was to bring participant awareness to the emotional dimension of their drawings, something they had not necessarily considered before.
Several considerations for further investigation emerged from this workshop. First, there is a need to clarify and contextualize inquiry into the concept of emotional truth and perhaps partner it with a written component. This also raises questions regarding the reflexive nature of the two processes and how information gleaned from the visual arts process might in return inform the writing process. Second, the questions used to stimulate discussion might need to be rephrased or reconsidered. Different questions would logically result in alternative discussions and salient points. And third, how might a workshop(s) be best structured to optimize the recognition of individual entry points and ways of initiating artistic process
Apps, L. K. (2007). Artistic process: Demystifying art-making. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada.
Burnett, H. S. (1983). On writing the short story. New York: Harper & Row.
Coe, R. M. (1981). Form and substance: An advanced rhetoric. New York: Wiley
Dunne, P. (2007). Emotional structure: Creating the story beneath the plot. Sanger, CA: Quill Driver Books.
Graves, D. (1983). Writing: Teachers & children at work. Exeter, NH: Heinemann.
Lamott, A. (1995). Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life. New York: Anchor.
Mamchur, C. (2004, Fall). Designs for learning: Writing. Education 485-8. Study Guide. Burnaby, BC: Simon Fraser University, Faculty of Education, Centre for Distance Education.
Murray, D. (1968). A writer teaches writing: A practical method of teaching composition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Spandel, V. (2001). Creating writers: Through 6-trait writing assessment and instruction (4th ed.). Boston: Pearson.