Life drawing for the 21st Century graduate

By Dr Erica Seccombe

As a visual artist, my practice led-research into frontier scientific technologies and computational aesthetics has resulted in transdisciplinary outcomes in the field of 4D Microcomputed X-ray tomography. Yet when I took my first permanent academic position as a part time lecturer in Foundation Studies, in 2015, I became responsible for convening and teaching first year life drawing Figure & Life, a 12 week observational drawing course using a life model in a studio environment.

The introduction of the ANU flexible degree program has opened many of the School of Art and Design (SOAD) courses to students from other disciplines. . . Many of these students have no background in art, do not look at art, nor do they intend to pursue a career in the arts

Teaching life drawing may appear to be as far removed from my own research-led practice as it could possibly get, however my ability to draw well and to teach drawing is founded on my own educational experiences. These creative abilities have also enabled me to pursue the high end computational virtual modelling and animation that am now investigating. Life drawing is not a nostalgic tribute to past practices. It remains the cornerstone for creative practitioners from which to conceptually expand on material thinking within their disciplines. It is also recognised as being essential to digital design and VR industries where an intricate understanding of the human form is central to animation or interactive programming.

The introduction of the ANU flexible degree program has opened many of the School of Art and Design (SOAD) courses to students from other disciplines and faculties; such as archaeology, economics, law, forensic medicine, science and engineering. In second semester 70% of the 60 students enrolled in Figure & Life were from non-SOAD degrees. Many of these students have no background in art, do not look at art, nor do they intend to pursue a career in the arts. While these students are super keen, first year SOAD students often need to be convinced that life drawing is still relevant. This growing mixed cohort has resulted in my redesign of the course to become as fundamental and instructional as possible in order to achieve higher learning outcomes. It introduces a wide range of materials, techniques and strategies for making and drawing while connecting the studio experiences to historical and contemporary concepts and terms found in artistic practice.

  A lesson in self portraiture, students of Figure & Life, Foundation Studies, ANU School of Art and Design. Photo: Erica Seccombe, 2017. 

A lesson in self portraiture, students of Figure & Life, Foundation Studies, ANU School of Art and Design. Photo: Erica Seccombe, 2017. 

Yet drawing from life in a studio has additional learning outcomes and benefits. With a maximum of 20 students per class, the four-hour lessons are physically demanding and require their full concentration, teaching them how to really look while developing cognitive and psycho-motor skills. For example a biology student recently relayed to me that her ability to dissect bee heads had improved dramatically by training her hand-eye coordination. They learn to listen, be attentive, follow instructions, be organised and resourceful. They learn to communicate and articulate ideas visually, verbally and respond to tasks quickly, creatively and experimentally. They become less shy and more willing to share personal views while gaining the courage to ask for help. By observing the human form each week they begin to question socially constructed ideas of physical perfection and as a result often express how they now view their own bodies more positively.

. . .the four-hour lessons . . . require their full concentration, teaching them how to really look while developing cognitive and psycho-motor skills. For example a biology student recently relayed to me that her ability to dissect bee heads had improved dramatically by training her hand-eye coordination.

The immediacy of drawing from life can be confronting to even advanced artists, so for these students the challenges of working in the studio enables them to build resilience to failure and ask questions of their successes. Therefore by week 12 a majority of students, whether from SOAD or not, will say that they feel personally enriched, not just by learning to draw but through their increased feelings of confidence in themselves and their enjoyment in learning. Many of them express their desire to continue with advanced drawing courses or forge new pathways into the creative arts. As universities and governments continue to search for ways to engender generically useful ‘life skills’ in their graduates, within the changing tertiary environment observational drawing of the human figure may be one of, if not the most important foundational interdisciplinary skill any university student of the 21st century can acquire.


Dr Erica Seccombe is a visual artist and lecturer in Foundation Studies at the ANU School of Art & Design, and teaches Cyberculture for The Centre for Art History and Art Theory. Her practice spans from traditional and photographic print media and drawing to experimental digital platforms using frontier scientific visualisation software. Erica’s PhD GROW: experiencing Nature in the Fifth Dimension is a practice-led research project investigating time-resolved (4D) micro-X-ray Computed Tomography through immersive stereoscopic digital projection installations and 3D printing. Her interdisciplinary research is facilitated by the ANU Department of Applied Mathematics, Vizlab and the National Computational Infrastructure, NCI.