Colin Moss “Sleeping Nude” Charcoal
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Life drawing “the activity or skill of drawing people from life, especially a model in an art class”, as stated simply in the Macmillan Dictionary. And yet its realisation is anything but simple.
Colin Moss’s engagement with life drawing is remarkable and something that can be traced across his entire career. On his retirement from teaching in 1979, Chloe Bennett (then curator for Ipswich Museum and Galleries) said:
“Colin Moss must surely rate as one of the finest exponents of the fully representational nude in post war Britain.”
Consequently, we can explore this by taking a look at it from three different perspectives in his life: as a student, as an artist, and as a teacher.
A little bit of history
Life drawing has always been an important and historic part of an artist’s technical training and has gained a reputation because of this very ‘technicality’. In many ways, it is similar to the study of harmony and counterpoint that musicians undergo or the study of cases and declensions in Latin.
There is a rich and varied history of life drawing, both in its function as an artistic technique and in the interpretation of how it should function. It ranges from Stone Age artists drawing simple male and female figures, to the purely anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci and its use as a plan for Michelangelo’s statues.
Colin Moss – Student Days
Plymouth School of Art
In the early 1930s, Colin Moss started his artistic education at Plymouth School of Art. Here life drawing was an integral part of that education – and intensively taught. The Board of Education drawing exam, which he took in 1933, required extensive knowledge of the “nuts and bolts” of anatomy.
This understanding of how a body is put together, how muscles relate to bones and how posture is underpinned by anatomy, can be seen in countless pieces of his work. In these two drawings (from later on in his career) the women’s reflections in their respective mirrors accurately reflect their pose. A technique that looks simple, but is fiendishly difficult to pull off!
The Royal College of Art
In 1934, Colin Moss successfully applied to the Royal College of Art and started a new stage of his life as a student in pre-war London. Despite his joy at being able to study a subject he loved, like many artists before and since, he gained something of a reputation for being a “difficult” student.
A Difficult Student
In his third year at the College, it was his table tennis as well as his stubborn temperament that got him into trouble with the authorities. Ironically, the incident led to an intensive phase of working in the Life Room which would have a permanent effect on his skills as a draughtsman.
One afternoon, when he should have been in the Life Drawing class, the College Registrar caught Colin playing table tennis.
“He said, “What are you doing playing table tennis?” and I said, “Well I didn’t feel like drawing this afternoon.” He said “What do you mean, you didn’t feel like it, you’ve got to draw!” So I answered “Well I don’t see why you should draw …” and so on. I was very insolent you see.
He said “Now look here. I’m going to look for you in the Life Class from 4 till 6 every afternoon for the rest of the year … and if you’re not there I will expel you!”
So I did go every afternoon and drew, very often I was the only student in the studio sitting and drawing and he always looked in to see if I was there. I got to the end of the year and I had stacks of drawings, and it was marvellous because I could have every pose I wanted, nobody else was there to set the pose.”
Colin Moss: Life Observed
Along with the long hours spent in the Life Room, the influence of his contemporaries such as Ruskin Spear and the work of acclaimed contemporary artists, such as Sir Matthew Smith with his sumptuous nudes, discovered during his time at the College, continued to influence and inspire Colin Moss throughout his career.
Colin Moss – The Artist
Colin Moss considered life drawing as the ultimate, indeed greatest, artistic challenge. Mastering life drawing meant mastering proportion and form, understanding how light will cast shade and shadow in some areas and highlight in others, how the model’s muscles will appear when they put their weight on this side or in this pose.
The Influence of Edgar Degas
An admirer of Impressionist painter Edgar Degas since student days, Colin eagerly attended a large exhibition of Degas’s work at the Tate Gallery in 1952. Degas is most widely known for his work depicting dancers but is also celebrated for his drawings and paintings of “women at their toilette”.
“I think I owe an enormous debt to Degas, not only in giving me an immense number of ‘lessons’ in how to draw, but also because he initiated this thing of placing the nude in the bathroom … as opposed to the classical nude which was always put in some historical content in a painting, like Alma-Tadema and people like that.
Degas apparently shocked the public very badly by showing women in their bathrooms doing what you do in a bathroom! His technical style, his manner of drawing, I thought was wonderful and I’ve not doubt that some of my drawings may show that admiration and an attempt to give tribute to his brilliant handling of his materials.”
Colin Moss: Life Observed
Colin Moss was a master draughtsman of the “old school”, which venerated learning the musculature and skeletal features of the human figure by heart, and he could also easily turn his attention to drawing a precise representation of the human form or painting an earthy and sensual female nude, using a dizzying variety of styles and mediums.
In his eighties, Colin Moss was still producing a wide range of work depicting the human form. Age neither dimmed his eye nor crippled his hands as the intensive training of his youth stood in him in good stead for an artistic career spanning over 65 years.
Colin Moss – Art Teacher
Colin Moss joined Ipswich Art School in 1947 having been demobbed from the Army following his war service, first as a camoufleur and then as a captain in the Life Guards. He remained at Ipswich Art School until his retirement in 1979 and his influence was felt across generations of artists.
“But the point is that I think he was one of the most inspiring people, and I wish that we had had him more of the time… Drawing is the basis of all my work and everything I do, and it could very well have come from those early days”.
Ipswich Art School 1962-64
Some of the most moving statements about Colin as an artist/teacher come from those students who talk about Colin’s enthusiasm for life drawing and its impact on their own work.
And some have that same formative inspiration from life drawing that Colin had when he was a student and which he continued to explore over the years, like Bev Parish in a lovely comment from a previous blog:
“I’m still drawing, still painting and still looking – fifty years after my art school days – due in no small part to Colin Moss.”
Bev Parish – former student
Significant too are the numerous statements about discipline in his classes, more for seriousness of purpose rather than behavioural control. Maggi Hambling talks of him being “concise, clear, disciplined (ex-army of course)” or Richard Pinkney summing it up nicely with “just by his sheer presence and seriousness of attitude you were very quickly aware that art was no trivial pursuit, it was actually a very serious business”.
And despite being a teacher with a considerable artistic pedigree, Colin Moss was happy to be inspired in turn by the work his students produced.
In 2011, Ipswich Art School Gallery staged “The Class Of…” an artistic school reunion of those who spent many creative years toiling away in Ipswich Art School. Among the highlights of the exhibition was Colin’s drawing of a former student’s sculpture.
“Colin was so inspired by Ray Exworth’s sculpture that he wanted to do a life drawing of the piece.”
Emma Roodhouse, Collections & Learning Curator (Art)
Colin Moss and a life of Life Drawing
Anyone browsing through a collection of Colin Moss’s life drawings cannot fail to notice the sheer variety of work that was produced. The idea of a circle of life drawing influencing Colin and then Colin influencing his students can be transplanted onto his artistic work: starting with the simple idea of life drawing, moving to the complexity and astonishing array of technical feats evident in the works, and returning to the same simplicity: whether it be the historic documentation of his social realist works, or the admiration and persistent desire to understand the female form in art.