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Virtual Figure Drawing Offers Artists Growth and Camaraderie During Pandemic

By Rowena Finn, CBF Literature Committee writer

Every week, a mix of professional and emerging artists convened in a building in Norfolk, Virginia, keen on fine tuning their figure drawing skills. Longtime friends caught up with one another, new people were shown how to sign in and pay, and all searched for the perfect spot around the model. Devon Lawrence, who runs the Norfolk Drawing Group, would adjust the lighting and confer quietly with the model on a plan for the evening. Promptly at seven o’clock, the timer and music signaled everyone to begin work as the model moved between one-minute gestures and built up to a longer pose.

This was the routine for well over a decade, but when the pandemic forced the entire country to a grinding halt fifteen months ago, we artists suddenly found ourselves without that important part of our practice. I asked Devon and other figurative artists to share different ways they’ve been able to cope and move through this challenging time.

“We hosted our last session on March 10, 2020,” he told me. “Everyone was really scared at that point and we weren't thinking about drawing. I attended the group so I could hone my craft, but it was my social group too, and I never expected it to be gone so abruptly. They were my friends, but they're more like my family, and all of a sudden, they were gone.” Being a painter is often a solitary pursuit, and the pandemic showed us just how much we relied on being able to work around other artists. They energize us, give us honest feedback, and become some of our dearest friends.

Patricia Watwood and Brooks Frederick also spoke fondly of their figure drawing group in New York, missing the emotional camaraderie and the simple joy of being with friends that shared their passion for painting. Patricia tried an online session but decided it was not a good fit. The vexation of low-resolution images and lack of control over the online setting made her turn to reference photos instead. The pandemic pushed her to develop her skill as a reference photographer, embracing it as part of her craft. “I’ve never had to do that before,” Patricia said. “I became better with digital photography skills, taking images that I can both paint and teach from.”

Brooks easily transitioned to live-streamed sessions, which enabled him to keep painting and socializing. He found a group of artists that painted the same model repeatedly for over a year. “We just celebrated our one-year anniversary, and I have about 65 different paintings of her.” Being academically trained, Brooks found online sessions to be liberating; they allowed him to take himself less seriously, and to play and experiment more. “There’s less information, but the lower quality of a Zoom screen helps break down values and colors, and the rectangle of the screen automatically crops your view.” Some of his paintings incorporated his whole laptop, while others played with the camera distortions or the unique facial lighting we’ve all come to recognize from virtual imagery.

Devon also found online groups a satisfying solution. “I never thought that I would ever work with an online group, but a wave of figure drawing groups started to appear on social media. Their quality and creativity surprised me.”

Tradition is one of the things that draws us to figure painting in the first place. Being connected to something greater than ourselves that’s endured for hundreds of years is certainly worth appreciating. But painting continues to evolve, and so have the methods of observing. Today’s technology offers many options even if you can’t return to being in-person with friends just yet. Here are some links I recommend:

Live-streamed Sessions:

Pre-recorded Videos and Timed Stills:


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