Nothing to Wear, Pastel on Canson Paper

Four months of drawing the figure two nights a week. Working from a model, we worked out proportions, foreshortening, anatomy, and skin tone values. Soon, it was time to create our final project. The assignment was open: the human figure as a representation of inner psychology. Although the focus was on drawing, we were allowed to use materials with which we were familiar. As much as I wanted to use oil paint, I immediately chose pastel.

As our instructor shared examples of artists using the human figure to express this idea, I wondered, don’t we do this every day in subtle ways? I looked around at the students, most of them were in their 20s. Their hair, clothing, backpacks, cigarettes, they way they stood, the use of headphones, was this not an expression of their inner psychology every day? Do we even realize what we do?

As I thought through ideas for the project, I thought about my nieces and nephews and how children clamor to be Spiderman, Superman, monkeys, dogs, and other creatures and heroes. “Pretend I’m a dog,” they clamor. “Pet me.” They pretend to do tricks. They embody the persona of that character. How many times as a child did I pretend to be a mother? An explorer? A writer? Acting out skits for classmates, I tried on various roles.

As adults, we take on roles of father, mother, millennial, hipster (is that still a thing?) executive, artist, activist, the list goes on and on. How many mornings have we stood in our closets preparing for the day and thinking about what to wear to fulfill that role? And how many times have we thought, I have nothing to wear?

All these ideas rolled around and turned over in my mind. I began to think of our clothing as masks we wear and how we can hide our true feelings. And, how we express ourselves through the way we dress and look. How we choose how we want others to see us.

Thinking about masks, preparing for the day, hiding our identity, consciously or otherwise, I searched through my house and decided to use a Venetian mask and myself as the model.

Nothing to Wear, pastel on paper, 21x18.5, © Nelia Harper
Nothing to Wear, pastel on paper, 21×18.5, © Nelia Harper

Using a camera on a tripod with a self-timer, I posed with various masks and body positions. After several hours and dozens of shots to get the mirror image ‘just right’, I then cropped and the image and tested a color palette on various papers.

Here, dressed in a simple black dress, a woman holds a mask to her face. Is she preparing for a night out or a day at work? What do we assume about her from the mask? How do we read her eyes shining through? When you look at the image, what do you see?

See this piece in person

This piece is part of the 3rd Annual Expressions show being held July 25-August 4 at the Carnegie Center for Creativity in Fort Collins, CO. Open Wed-Sat 12-6.

What do you think?

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