Arriving on that first day at art college, we all thought we were the bees knees. We’d sat our entrance exams and been accepted, which pretty much made us believe that we were the cream of the arty fart crop. This lasted until we had our first figure drawing session with Susan Rosenberg. First, our sheltered little beings were presented with our first ever nude model (the girl who went to boarding school in one of the most conservative towns in South Africa didn’t know where to look, while the girl who was trying to be a cool art student pretended that this was no big deal). Next, we were asked to just draw the model. We all presented our BEST artwork. Susan didn’t say anything, but collected them all and packed them away.
There followed a year of torture by art material. Susan drilled us in drawing: draw the outline, not picking up your pencil, not looking at the paper; draw the weight of the model; draw the model with NO outlines, but with contour lines only… and so it went on. I think part of the torture was that inner frustration where you struggled to create marks on the paper that actually corresponded with what you were seeing. Part was that Susan sometimes required you to use up the entire 2 hour class on one drawing. In those days, 2 hours seemed like a lifetime and taking the time to deeply consider each mark on the paper was like removing finger nails. Everything was difficult, every drawing a labour and during our critique session at the end of each lesson, you discovered just how miserably you had not achieved your goal.
In the last class of the first year, we were asked to just draw the model. At the critiques session we were asked to place our drawings up on the wall as usual, but this time leave a lot of space on either side of each person’s work. Susan then brought out our first drawings. Putting our first and last drawings up side by side was like seeing two totally different people’s work. The first drawings were all badly proportioned, badly composed and mediocre in line and shade. Our final drawings showed us just how far we had progressed by slogging through all those exercises.
Two more years of the Rigors of Rosenberg stretched out before us, but we viewed them with optimism and the knowledge that all the slog had real and measurable rewards.
Thank you Susan, not only for the torture, but for the added lesson that ability is okay, but it’s sheer hard work on top of that ability that produces results.