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Andrew Loomis Is The Hobgoblin Of Little Minds

I never thought drawing feet could get so philosophical—or so contentious.

Sometimes you get students in your art class who have already convinced themselves that they will fail before they even try. A few weeks ago the attitude manifested itself when a student blew off a figure drawing assignment---because it had to include the feet. “I suck at feet,” he told me. Presumably this disqualified him from ever having to draw feet—or any figure with intact limbs. I told him, “Your language is wrong. Do you have some gene for “sucking at feet?” Or are you simply saying you haven’t studied them enough or practiced them enough to make them look good?” Unfortunately for this kid he had an existentialist for an art teacher. The next day I gave him a photocopy of feet from a George Bridgman book and told him to get to work.

By the end of the period he had five nice drawings of Bridgman’s feet—and the sense of how to use basic shapes and structures to conceptualize a complex organic form. Studying that Bridgman page took this kid from “can’t” to “can.”

As I pondered over this encounter, I thought about the figure drawing books in my classroom, which take up multiple shelves. I’ve looked far and wide for the best break-downs and references. In spite of a slew of modern volumes, I find myself time and again falling back on a few old classics. These are:

I could spend multiple posts describing how essential these were to me for building my skills as an artist. They were among the treasures my drawing teacher, Bob McLeod, shared with me at the beginning of my studies with him. I filled multiple sketchbooks with copies of the figures in these books and read Loomis’s and Hamm’s meticulous descriptions of how the muscles masses worked, how to draw foreshortened limbs, and how to construct manikins out of your head that enabled you to envision the figure in any position directly from your imagination. With their help I was able (within a few months) to create without any reference a realistic drawing of a woman walking—and while my teacher watched with a critical eye! (Talk about pressure). I can’t overstate how helpful these books were and how comprehensive they are.

Apparently there are others who take a far dimmer view. When I was looking for images from Loomis to illustrate this post, one of the first that popped up came from a young artist named Megan Rose Ruiz’s Twitter page, where she excoriated Loomis for this drawing:

Her main objection had to do with the high heels, the depiction of which she said was “harmful.” This generated literally dozens of comments. She also took Jack Hamm to task for this drawing because he did not include the woman’s nasolabial folds (the creases that go from your nostrils to the edges of your mouth):

“How do you release an entire anatomy book and all of the drawings of women have makeup and also super blown out lighting that doesn't accurately depict the nasolabial folds???!!! “ she wrote. Strangely when I looked at her artist’s page she omitted the nasolabial folds on her own self-portrait, which also has its fair share of blown out lighting and makeup.

She urges her forty thousand followers (!) to be critical of art education texts because they don’t always contain “correct” information.

It’s hard to miss the high heels in Loomis’s and Hamm’s nudes. They’re there because these men were creating these books to help people interested in entering commercial illustration, which involved (from the era of the Gibson Girl to Twiggy) drawing women in high heels because that’s what they frequently wore in real life. Naturally it looks ludicrous now. The books are 60-80 years old. Just as whatever art or fashion conventions we have now will look equally ludicrous when Ms. Ruiz is in her senescence.

Were these images sexist? What do you expect from commercial illustration (or fine art—think Picasso or De Kooning) in the pre-feminist era? It’s deplorably easy to skewer the past over the ways in which it falls short of modern norms. Is anyone surprised that Loomis didn’t draw plus-size women (or that Rubens, on the other hand, did)? Is anyone surprised that Loomis and Hamm used exclusively white (and young) models? They come from a different era that was not as enlightened as ours when it comes to gender disparities. No one had named the “male gaze” yet.

I was once on the receiving end of a mile-high pile-on of fanboys and art bros when I dared to suggest that this image by Frank Frazetta was (to put it extremely diplomatically—gotta watch out for the fanboys) racially insensitive:

I understand that he was illustrating Edgar Rice Burroughs. Needless to say, the creator of Tarzan of the Apes was not a paragon of racial sensitivity. Boy, you should have read those comments. No one supported me. I checked out of it when one art bro started telling me how great Nazi propaganda artist Hubert Lanzinger was.

But the thing is—I never said I didn’t like Frazetta’s artwork. In fact, I have two of his posters hanging in my office. It’s pretty clear Frank Frazetta and I wouldn’t have seen eye to eye about politics—especially these days. I may have deplored some of his views. But that does not prevent his work from being able to inspire wonder in me.

It’s not as pat as saying, “You have to separate the art from the artist.” Sometimes—in the case of Hubert Lanzinger—you can’t. But I love this painting and I don’t care what Frank Frazetta’s politics were.

I’m not a conservative. Does that mean that Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth (who were) have nothing to teach me about painting technique? Should my students only learn anatomy and figure drawing from teachers who agree with their social mores? I’d have a lot of classroom management problems if that were the case.

What rubs me the wrong way about Ms. Ruiz’s facile critique is not that she draws attention to problematic depictions of women in drawing books. I spent a whole PhD dissertation drawing attention to problematic depictions of Afghan women by Hollywood and the news media. What bothers me is that for many young artists the presence of high heels and the absence of nasolabial folds somehow invalidates the plethora of information in Loomis’s or Hamm’s books that is worthwhile and helpful. Do the sexist elements in these books really cancel out the wealth of helpful hints, information, and anatomical references? Dismissing them so contemptuously sadly illustrates not just a failure of empathy or imagination but also a specious—and harmful—idea: the absolute conviction that we have nothing to learn from people whose values we don’t share. This is today’s hobgoblin of little minds. How’s it working out for us?


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