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The Best Kept Secret of Figure Drawing: The Open Session

Updated on December 30, 2013
Figure by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon.
Figure by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon.
Figure by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon.
Figure by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon.

For Lovers Of Figurative Art

"Evening Mood" by Bouguereau
"Evening Mood" by Bouguereau

Salvador Dali, in his book 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship , affirmed that even having a bad drawing teacher was better than having none at all-- although he definitely recommended having a good one if possible. However, even with a bad one, Dali tells us, "... that four eyes see more than two. This is a case in which the truth and discernment of the teacher's eye count less than his disinterestedness in seeing what your lack of disinterestedness prevents you from seeing."

Now if Dali, typically regarded as the most extreme sort of egotist, subscribes to the notion that to learn drawing it is good to have a drawing teacher, rather than simply go at it on one's own, I think we can feel there is some merit in the notion. And if you look at enough of Dali's art, you will see that he knew how to draw very well indeed, although it is sometimes rather obscured by the surreal distorions he practiced. His skill and talent, then, lend further weight to the authority of his statement.

I myself have been very lucky to have had several really good drawing teachers. One day soon I intend to dedicate at least one hub to honoring them and telling about some of my experiences as their student.

However, despite all of the above evidence--which we may conveniently regard as incontrovertible-- I am nevertheless about to make an apparently self-contradictory statement and say that there are times when it is blessed to study drawing WITHOUT a teacher. Not all the time, mind you. I think that many times--perhaps most times-- ARE potentially good times for studying with a teacher. But I have also experienced-- and think that probably every artist experiences-- times when the heart and mind, and maybe even the body, signal that it is time to study for awhile without a teacher. At such times you feel--somehow, deep down-- that, at least temporarily, you have absorbed enough, learned enough, and you must let all of that learning PRODUCE something, or "bust", as the expression used to go.

At such times, if you are an artist who draws the figure, a life drawing open session may very well be an excellent setting in which to work. How does an open session life drawing "class" differ from a regular drawing class? Well, as you may have guessed from my preceding comments, there is no teacher, perse. There IS usually someone there who serves as a sort of moderator and overseer to ensure that all runs smoothly and safely, and often that person happens to also be an actual teacher, but "in a parallel life," so to speak. For, during the open session, there will be no teaching in the normal sense.

Instead, the model or models will hold various poses of various durations, and everyone else--everyone else in the room--will DRAW. And draw assiduously, I might add. Since such open sessions are not offered for college credit towards a degree, or certification, or license, etc., etc., everyone who is at the session is there because of strong internal motivation, because they WANT to be there. They WANT to draw. Nay, they NEED to draw. This also is a contrast to a typical "taught" drawing class, at least at the undergraduate level, where you will find a mix of all shades and degrees of motivation, ranging from the strongly self-motivated passionate artist to-- at the opposite end of the spectrum-- the, well, the motivationally challenged, let us say. Sometimes this latter category may be non-art majors who thought a drawing class would just be an easy credit; but sometimes they also include actual art majors who consider life drawing to no longer be a valid pursuit for real artists. I consider such a point of view to be a valid one, held by many real artists who are worthy of great respect. However, it's nice to be in a setting where, if one DOES still consider life drawing to be a valid pursuit, there is not a strong undertow of resentment and disgruntlement by those who are being forced to do it rather against their native tastes and inclinations.

Another element from a traditional "taught" drawing class that you will almost certainly NOT find in an open session is the CRITIQUE. Critiques, of course, are a valuable part of the classroom experience and can potentially sharpen one, challenge one, suggesting other points of view, insights, and criticism--hopefully of the constructive variety (they tend to have a toughening, skin-thickening effect as well). However, they can also degenerate into meaningless mutual patting on the back, or escalate into emotionally charged shouting matches, etc. So it is nice to be without them from time to time.

Open sessions tend to have a laid back quality, therefore, yet at the same time they still have the strongly focused assiduous quality that I mentioned earlier. Even though there are no formal critiques, there will often be very good conversation during the breaks for the models, which of course are also breaks for all the artists to stand and stretch after tensely sitting on a drawing horse and sketching like blazes. It seems natural for everyone to wander around, seeing what every else has done, and also backing up a ways for a better look at what oneself has done. Sometimes talk is on the drawings at hand, or an interesting technique or medium. Sometimes, especially after a few sessions, as people get to know you, talk may turn to other things, perhaps, for example, things like an expedition over the past weekend to do watercolors at a lake, and the interesting grouping of rocks by the shore, and the wonderful colors in them on a Fall morning.

An additional bonus, if you are a fairly "new" artist, is that you will almost certainly save money compared to hiring a model on your own. A lot of open sessions give you the option to either pay a fee for a block of sessions (giving you a bit of a discount per session), or else simply "pay as you go" at any session you drop in on. Thus such open sessions are also often called drop-in sessions. By going the open session route, you are also spared the trouble of advertising for or otherwise trying to find a reliable model. This may be helpful if you happen to be somewhat inexperienced in such matters. Also, you will likely get to know the models as the sessions progress, since many of them join in the conversations during breaks and at the end of the session, and it may be that if you are wanting to use a model for a project of your own, you can make an arrangement with a model that you have met through the open session. Finding and working with a model is a topic worthy of a hub unto itself, so I will say no more on it for now. You can also read a hub written from an artistic MODEL'S point of view at the link further below.

How to find such open sessions? It partly depends on where you live. Currently, I live in the Northwest Suburbs of Chicago. It is fairly easy to find an open session drawing studio near here. In nearby Evanston, Illinois, there is the Evanston Art Center, and in Highland Park, Illinois, there is the Art Center of Highland Park. Both art centers offer open session drawing "classes". Also, if I search in Craigslist Chicago under the "artists" subheading under the "community" category, I know I will find other open sessions which are arranged by groups of artists at various locations nearer the city center. Another resource is a Drawing Group Database for artists and models (see links section below).

When I lived in Kansas City, I went to open sessions at the Kansas City Art Center (the old stomping grounds of Thomas Hart Benton). It was a most enjoyable time, with a very enjoyable group of "fellow assiduants" and very talented, punctual, and down to earth models. By the way, KCAI lists the open session course as an "Open Studio". Don't confuse this with a different type of open studio, which is typically a day when a practicing artist opens their "home" studio for visitors to come in and see how the artist works or how their studio is set up.

One other setting where I dropped in on open life drawing sessions was at the University of Missouri-Columbia. I was also enrolled in a "conventionally taught" life drawing class at the time, but on Saturdays one could drop by, contribute 10 dollars, and draw to one's heart's content.

By the way, prices probably do typically run about 15 - 20 dollars per session, these days, if you operate on the "pay as you go" plan. If you purchase a block of sessions, you'll save a little bit per session. Sessions are typically 2 to 3 hours long.

So, if you live in or near a large city, or attend a college or university with an active art department, chances are you will find it fairly easy to locate an open session life drawing "class" near you. If that is not the case, then you might try a "continuing education" drawing class or a "mixed level" drawing class offered at a community college. Below are links to the open sessions I mentioned that are close to my area: even if you don't live near Chicago or Kansas City, taking a look at the links will make it clearer what the sessions offer and might help you to search for ones in your area.


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    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Time to get a drawing teacher. I had been planning to do so but your hub confirmed that I will profit to have one.

    • watcher by night profile imageAUTHOR

      watcher by night 

      5 years ago

      Hi Jason,

      I updated the link for open studio drawing at the Highland Park Art Center. The session is held on Friday mornings. You can call the Art Center at (847) 432-1888 with any questions.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Do they still do the figure mfr swing an in highland park. The art center blink doesn't have them listed.

    • watcher by night profile imageAUTHOR

      watcher by night 

      9 years ago

      KelciC, thanks for stopping by, and very glad you found the hub useful. Looking back, most of my more formal drawing classes were really good experiences, but I did have a semester or two where it was more of a mixed experience. That's one reason I was glad to discover open sessions, plus the chance to draw without having a lot of extra, distracting pressure tacked on in terms of trying to satisfy degree requirements, thesis direction, etc. Plus the cameraderie with kindred souls is well worth the small price of admission. Good luck with all of your drawing, and hope you can find a session near you.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I probably should have come across this earlier this semester. It might have helped me adjust to my figure Drawing class easier. xD

      Still, this is a very nicely written hub, and it's really useful. Thanks also for the helpful links at the bottom. While I don't go to school in either Chicago or Kansas, I still found the Drawing Group Database to be helpful.

    • watcher by night profile imageAUTHOR

      watcher by night 

      9 years ago

      Thanks, Cheeky Girl! Glad you stopped by... You might also enjoy the paintings featured in my rather tongue-in-cheek, but sincere, homage to the highly accomplished French painter Bouguereau at

    • Cheeky Girl profile image

      Cassandra Mantis 

      9 years ago from UK and Nerujenia

      I enjoyed reading this hub. Lovely paintings. I would happily read more hubs like this.

    • Amez profile image


      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      I truly enjoyed your style of expressions as much as your material, I totally agree about the need to at times to draw without a teacher. I'd have to say honestly your choice of words has helped me a bit to review my Hub on art and see if I can add a sense of Personnel style. I shall look forward to your future works. Hopefully once I get my scanner up and running I'll upload some of my past drawings

    • watcher by night profile imageAUTHOR

      watcher by night 

      9 years ago

      Ashley, you might try doing an image search for drawings by a French artist named Watteau... for instance, search for "watteau drawings" in Google image search. Watteau did a lot of quick, yet very accurate line drawings of many types of people and did a great job of capturing their likeness and expressions. You might study his drawings to help you with your five faces: Watteau did many studies focusing on faces. I don't know the details of your French project, so Watteau may or may not be of help. He also did many paintings, and depicts people in clothes/costumes in a manner that is often theatrical.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      this doesn't help me im doing a french project and we have to draw people faces in fact i have to draw five faces and i want a good grade and not have my drawings completely such.

    • Mike Lickteig profile image

      Mike Lickteig 

      9 years ago from Lawrence KS USA

      Sometimes it is better to draw without a teacher--often an instructor tries to guide the student toward their own perceptions and vision, rather than helping the student embrace their own style and methods. Ultimately, however, everyone can learn from someone, and instruction prevents us (hopefully) from having to reinvent the wheel.

      Michael Jordan had a coach, after all, and he was considered the best basketball player of the modern era. So, if the best ever can be taught, that speaks to the value of some form of instruction.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      More open studios can be found here:


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