Friday, 24 September 2021

Life drawing is like yoga - it stretches and challenges

A HENLEY artist who founded a life drawing school two years ago says it is going from strength to strength.

A HENLEY artist who founded a life drawing school two years ago says it is going from strength to strength.

Jo Harris, of Newtown Gardens, runs two evening classes a week for up to 15 people at Remenham village hall.

Students are taught to draw nude models using a range of materials and techniques. They receive structured tuition every Tuesday then put those skills into practice at an informal workshop every Thursday.

The Tuesdays are only open to pupils on a 10-week course, which costs £125, but anyone can drop in on Thursdays for £15 per night.



Miss Harris, 40, launched the venture with fellow artist Emma Bruce, who also lives in Henley and works from a studio in Singers Lane.

They met in August 2013 at one of the regular second-hand sales at the Sue Ryder hospice in Nettlebed. They discovered they shared a love of life drawing and decided to start their own school the following month.

After visiting a couple of venues they settled on Remenham and Ms Bruce booked the model as she knew several in the area.

Nobody attended the first session as they had not publicised it well enough but the pair were not deterred. They handed out flyers at art galleries across Henley and eight people came to the second class.

Miss Harris, who grew up in Wargrave from the age of 10, said: “We got it off the ground through sheer determination. It was a bit of a mess initially because we didn’t know what we were doing but it soon came together.

“In a strange way, that empty class was quite enjoyable as we had an evening of drawing all to ourselves. However, we knew we’d have to make an effort to get more people to the next one!

“On the whole, we got a warm reaction to the idea so we knew we were on to something. Everyone we spoke to was pleased that we wanted to do it and gave us lots of encouragement.

“We were grateful to have found the hall as it was perfect for our needs â?? it was well-maintained and beautifully lit. Sometimes you walk into these places and they’re really dark but it was very open and welcoming.

“It has a great kitchen so we can provide tea and biscuits, which we’ve found is very important, and the garden isn’t overlooked so we can work outdoors in privacy during the summer.

“We both felt life drawing was an essential discipline for any artist. It’s like yoga because it keeps your artistic skills on top form and really stretches and challenges you. It’s not just about drawing a naked person — it develops your eye for detailed measurement and proportion instead of just seeing what we usually see. It’s the basis for so many other things like structural drawing.”

Miss Harris now works alone after Ms Bruce left to focus on personal projects but the pair remain close friends. She has built up a roster of about 30 male and female models, whom she books several weeks in advance.

They range in age and size and all live in the Henley area. They are paid a small amount for their time but have regular jobs during the day.

On most occasions they wear no clothes but sometimes Miss Harris gets them wearing colourful or elaborate costumes to “keep it interesting”. This can range from revealing burlesque outfits to traditional Peruvian dress.

Miss Harris said: “It’s the most fantastically diverse and energetic group of people. You’d be amazed at who does it — they’re perfectly ordinary people who are just looking to make a bit of extra money.

“You wouldn’t imagine them doing it if you passed them in the street and they’re not always extroverts. Most of them have approached me after finding out about the school. I give them a trial and more often than not I take them on afterwards.

“It’s not about how they look but they have to be able to hold a dynamic or athletic pose for long periods without moving or fidgeting. I want people who can self-direct — that’s the mark of a professional.”

Miss Harris said neither the models nor the artists were embarrassed by the nudity. She said: “It might sound unusual but you soon stop seeing them as a person with no clothes on. Instead, they become just a series of turns and shapes that you’re trying to capture as accurately as you can.

“When you’re studying something so closely and at a high level of detail, you’re no longer conscious of that aspect. You’re not thinking â??tee hee, I can see their boobs’.

“Instead, you’re thinking about their form and the way the light falls on different parts of them. There’s nothing shocking about it and the model will have done it dozens of times before.”

Although some might imagine a row of students scribbling in silence, Miss Harris plays music in the background as she says it motivates them.

She said: “I’ve listened to music while I’m working all my life and I’ve developed a very good ear for what works. There’s a really fine balance — it’s got to be relaxing but to some extent it also needs to get you â??pumped up’.”

Miss Harris now hopes to launch a daytime class on Tuesdays and a longer six-hour sitting on Saturdays. She believes the latter would be long enough to make a detailed portrait rather than the sketches pupils currently make.

She said: “There haven’t been many dramatic changes over the past two years but the school has been consistently popular. That has given me the courage to think about my next move.

“The best feedback I get is seeing people become more confident over the course of a lesson. They start out nervous but by the end they’re chatting and looking forward to the next one. It’s a real thrill to see the students making progress and I come home buzzing with excitement.”

In her late childhood and teenage years, Miss Harris lived next to the George and Dragon pub in Wargrave and attended the independent St Mary’s boarding school in Wantage.

Most of her old house was knocked down five years ago and rebuilt as three separate dwellings. However, her bedroom was untouched as that part of the building was listed. She was a keen canoeist and would regularly go out on the Thames, a hobby she still enjoys today. She was also a keen artist from an early age and says she inherited this from her parents.

Her father Michael Dillon, who died when she was four, was a member of the Royal Academy of Arts while her mother Felicity Harris was a classically trained painter.Additionally, her stepfather Simon Harris worked in architecture and engineering and she was fascinated by the technical drawings he brought home.

Miss Harris said: “I was one of those children who was very happy sitting in a corner with a sketch pad and a pencil. My mother had drawers and drawers filled with my work — I was incredibly prolific and never stopped. I actually believe that was down to nature rather than nurture. It didn’t hurt that I grew up around art but ultimately it was in my genes.”

While at St Mary’s, Miss Harris successfully campaigned for life drawing to be added to the school’s  A-level art curriculum.

Aged 18, Miss Harris enrolled at the City and Guilds of London Art School before heading off to travel around the world. She said: “City and Guilds was very old-fashioned and considered life drawing to be an essential skill. They really pushed it and I’m grateful for that. It’s such a good grounding for any artistic process and it’s always served me well.”

She spent 10 years living and working in various Asian countries including Thailand, where she supported herself by selling handmade jewellery from a stall.

When she finally returned to London, she “fell into” a career in property management but continued attending art classes in the evenings. After several years she sold her flat in the capital and put the money towards an illustration degree at the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham.

She qualified in 2013 and decided to move to Henley as she was still in touch with childhood friends, although her mother and stepdad now live in Cornwall.

After relocating, she began selling prints of her surreal illustrations under the name Boo Dillon, which is derived from her childhood nickname and her father’s surname.

She also makes an income from sketching portraits and giving private art lessons to children and adults. While these ventures were in their infancy, she worked for a time at Bagatelle Toys in Bell Street, Henley, one of her favourite shops as a child.

Miss Harris, who lives with her seven-month-old cocker spaniel Lula, said: “Henley is where I had my first true love and made my first real friends.

“I have so many happy memories of growing up on the river and it really feels like home to me. I was lucky to grow up in such a magical place and it’s somewhere I feel truly at peace.”

To find out more, visit www.henleylifedrawing.co.uk



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