Life Drawing With Cecil Collins

Cecil Collins (1908-1989) was best known as a painter and had established his reputation in the 1930s to the extent of being included in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, at the invitation of the eminent art critic Herbert Read.

Surrealist influences can certainly be seen in Cecil Collins’ earlier work but in later years he developed his own unique imagery based on the iconic archetypes of the Fool and the Angel. The unreservedly spiritual content of his later work revealed his true nature as a deeply spiritual man whose beliefs and principles were basically incompatible with the atheist existentialism of the Surrealists.

Cecil Collins is now generally seen as a ‘visionary’ or ‘metaphysical’ painter, and has been described by some historians as the most important visionary artist since William Blake. However, for me, and I believe many other artists, his greatest influence was as a teacher, in particular through the methods employed in his life drawing classes, which I describe in my book ‘Archetypal Postures, in the Process of Creativity’.

When I began the classes in 1979, one still had a reasonable chance of getting on the course but by 1985 it had become so popular with students that one had to queue all night during the enrollment week. The students themselves were the proof of his worth as a teacher; amongst them he became in the end almost a cult figure. Through his teaching he was able to show the artist how to ‘abandon control’ through the process of life drawing. This of course sounds absurd if not impossible, but when one has experienced it, it is less so. We spend our lives striving to gain control, to avoid letting affairs get out of control. The idea of abandoning control would appear to be the height of folly; but the ‘Fool’ was one of Cecil Collins’ most significant icons.

When we have surrendered control we are vulnerable, at the mercy of others, in danger, our only resource is our basic intuition. Control operates through the intellect, which has to be prevented from dominating for good art to result. This I believe was the primary message in Cecil Collins’ teaching. For the artist, allowing the intellect to dominate produces dead art. To give life to art it is necessary to by-pass the intellect and allow the expression of emotional spontaneity to operate. This idea is of course nothing new. For generations art teachers and critics have enjoined artists to ‘loosen up’, to ‘express themselves’, to ‘be spontaneous’, but few of them know how to bring it about. Cecil Collins knew! His great achievement was in being able to draw out of his students the ability to freely express themselves through the vehicle of life drawing. This is why he was a great teacher, and his students recognised that fact.

Although the purpose of the classes was to achieve spontaneity by abandoning control, the techniques he employed were paradoxically very structured and carefully orchestrated. The drawings were done very rapidly in black or sepia using Chinese ink or gouache. One was expected to have seven small pots of tones ranging from black to the lightest grey. The basic implements comprised a range of Chinese brushes, reed pens, a quill pen, soft pencils and red and black conté crayons.

The sessions began with short poses, but even the longest pose was rarely more than five minutes. From the outset he imposed his control. He would dictate precisely which tone of ink and which implement to use in which hand, for one was expected to use both hands together. After a certain time, sometimes no more than seconds, he would say ‘change’, the model would alter the pose and the students would lay down another sheet of paper and start another drawing according to his instructions, one of which was to look only at the model, rather tan the drawing. Drawing was initially done at great speed and the turnover was rapid.

His theory was that, ‘at the fast speed the analytical mind cannot work’. Some time later he would introduce music, played prior to each pose, and the students and the model would be asked to stand and move in response in whatever manner they felt appropriate. At a certain moment he would say ‘stop’ at which point the model would freeze and the students would sit down and draw according to the new instructions. On occasions these instructions required one to draw with one’s fingers, fist, heel of the hand, elbows, even the chin and the nose. Sometimes one was obliged to hold the instrument in the mouth (in which case three instruments were being used concurrently), or to place the paper on the floor and draw holding the instrument between the toes.

His secret weapon was a bundle of three foot long brushes which he would distribute once the students were sufficiently ‘softened up’. One had to balance one end on the shoulder and make the best of it with the other. After two hours of suffering these indignities one was ready either to walk out or surrender. This was the critical moment; the overcoming of one’s resistance, perhaps to being a fool? By this time most new students would probably be feeling quite bewildered, if not confused; but Cecil Collins knew what was happening; Art was happening. In the last hour there was a tangible atmosphere of calm intensity, the pace usually slowed down and some very good drawings were done; and that is all that matters in art; the end result, not the process of getting there, or the ‘suffering’ of the artist.

Cecil Collins understood that in the act of overcoming adversity, in this case one’s resistance, a certain aesthetic power is released. I recollect that at some appropriate moment he commented that ‘the manifestation of beauty is often accompanied by pain’. There was no doubt that for the duration of the class one was obliged to be in the present, giving one’s attention only to the drawing process and not to the endless thoughts in the mind. With the whole class equally concentrated a powerful atmosphere arose which was almost tangible.

Cecil Collins had that rare ability to bring out of each student his or her own latent power of spontaneous expression which is a basic requirement of good art. It is this that made him a great teacher.