(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The Undressed Art: Why We Draw may give the attentive reader the courage to take up a pencil or some pastels and work on the drawing that never seemed just right. Peter Steinhart is a naturalist by training, and he is the author of such wonderful books as Tracks in the Sky (1987),California's Wild Heritage (1990), Two Eagles/Dos Aguilas: The Natural World of the U.S. Mexico Borderlands (1994), and The Company of Wolves (1995). His passion for nature comes from having grown up in the Santa Clara Valley of California. In each of his books, Steinhart has told a story of the natural world under siege from the insatiable appetites of humans. Two Eagles/Dos Aguilas received the 1995 Silver Medal from the Commonwealth Club.

With the technological advancements of photography and the recognition given to experimental art forms among serious collectors of art, it would seem that the simple act of drawing could be relegated to the mere scribblings of children. In The Undressed Art, Steinhart emphatically states that drawing is not becoming an obscure art but is thriving across the United States in the many drawing classes and workshops being offered. His study covers the personal and the universal, from hands-on sketching to the place drawing has held in art history.

Steinhart has divided his book into fourteen chapters, each focusing on a specific element of drawing and especially on the urge to draw, to create. The opening chapter, “Allure,” introduces the reader to a session of a weekly drawing group in San Francisco meeting in the home of art teacher Eleanor Dickinson. She has taught drawing for more than three decades. The model for the day is a man named Yoshio Wada. Steinhart provides some details about this elderly man, who, although nude, is “not seductive, not in any way Rabelaisian.” Wada's body “tells a story.” It reveals a “seriousness, a dignity, a flawed but compelling humanity.” These details become obvious to the person who draws and thereby observes. Wada had spent time during World War II in internment camps. This detail is only one of many that make Wada's body what it is at age seventy-eight.

In this opening chapter, Steinhart writes about how the act of drawing has been denigrated in the established art world since abstraction became all the rage in the middle of the twentieth century. With the introduction of the computer, commercial art is almost exclusively created through the use of various software programs. Video art and installation art are what fill contemporary museums. With all this in mind, Steinhart speaks up for the value of drawing, for the process of the special bond between what the human eye observes and what the human hand draws.

While drawing live nudes “used to be something one had to enroll in an art school to do,” now amateurs are flocking to their local community art centers and a variety of other venues to experience the act of drawing a live human nude. The phenomenon has taken hold in almost all cities and suburban areas. Steinhart points out that there probably are more than eighty “different drawing groups meeting weekly in the San Francisco Bay Area.” As this surge in drawing classes has not been sparked by the art world hierarchy, the author can only assume that the motivating push comes from the artists themselves, from “something innate and human, by a constellation of long-standing behaviors and impulses shaped as much by human nature as by culture.”

Steinhart seeks to comprehend why he has become one of these amateur artists who is driven to draw. As a naturalist, he knows how necessary it is for both the nature lover and the artist to be keen observers. Leonardo da Vinci stated that art is “the true born child of nature.” Though the author questions what brought him to join a drawing class, it becomes obvious as the book goes on that drawing is a natural extension of who he is as a person. Drawing, as art, is not some foreign code from which only the schooled artist can derive understanding and ultimately pleasure.

Significantly, Steinhart opens...

(The entire section is 1686 words.)