The migration from lust to artistic appreciation

My rendering of a female figure from a life drawing class in college. There was seriously not a trace of lust in me while creating this image.

So many of us are taught to not feel proud about having sexual feelings. Yet human beings are biologically wired to have sexual attractions of one form or another. Many of these are characterized as taboo or against the teachings of a particular religion. We’re told these feelings are sinful and are thereby urged to repress some of nature’s most powerful instincts.

Feelings of sexual desire are loosely characterized as “lust,” a word that bears a negative connotation in context with scripture and other moral guidebooks. To “lust” after something is characterized as a craven or base instinct, something to be resisted. The website Biblestudytools.com describes it this way:

Lust is a temptation and an evil that overcomes many of us. It is born of Satan and the flesh. Every single one of us is subject to lust. If we are to overcome it, we must be strong. Use these Bible verses to find out why you should resist lust, and use them to strengthen yourself.

The quote attributed to Jesus in Matthew 5:28 is most often cited as a directive to resist lust at all costs:

28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

A drawing I produced from a Playboy centerfold when I was a sophomore in high school. There was definitely lust involved in producing this drawing.
This is an image of the centerfold from which I rendered the drawing above. The beauty of the female figure is aptly captured in this centerfold.

Yet the natural curiosity to know more about the human body isn’t just about lust. There is also appreciation involved. Even scripture recognizes this aspect of adoration in the Book of Psalms, where a lover clearly lusts for his divine partner:

“Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.” (7.3)

“Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit.” (7.7)

“My lover is to me a sachet of myrrh resting between my breasts.” (1:13)

Okay, so now we know that exploring and expressing lust is not all bad. Many of us recognize its allure within us from a young age. I well recall, at the age of eight or so, reaching into my father’s closet to pull down copies of Playboy magazine. The sight of naked women fueled my desire even before I entirely knew what to do with it.

The drawing of Playboy model Claudia Jennings that I produced in 1972. It also drew from lust, but it was more than that as well. Look at the clothing…
The centerfold on which the drawing above was based.

So strong was my urge to understand the female body that I took to tracing outlines of those women on the pages of Playboy. I stored those tracing paper drawings in the depths of my closet and returned the magazines to my father’s room.

I even drew images of naked women on the steam-covered bathroom mirror. On Sunday mornings the sight of Blondie’s buxom figure on the cartoon pages even got me going. I copied those cartoons too, but not only those. I began to replicate all sorts of cartoon figures on my own. I was learning to draw. To appreciate what I was seeing. That gave me a sense of ownership and power over my observations.

By the time I reached my early teens, I was drawing and painting regularly. My mother bought me paints and paper. I rendered wildlife that I’d seen and copied pictures from books. My desire to capture the essence of birds and other creatures was a lust of sorts.

A 1973 watercolor of a great horned owl copied from a painting by Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

As a sophomore in high school my drawing skills began to come together in all new ways. In a fit of drawing immersion combined with lust, I rendered highly-detailed copies of centerfolds from Playboy magazine as shown above. I didn’t always get the face quite right, but doing the shading on their bodies was captivating.

This is the same model as the drawing at the top of this blog. I produced this single image from a long series of separate drawings. The female figure celebrated.

Then I reached college and took a life drawing class. My curiosity about the female and male body was greatly satisfied by drawing live figures. There was no lust in this brand of appreciation. My entire focus was on rendering the human figure with accuracy, detail and subtlety. This applied to both men and women.

It struck me as odd that when I arrived back at my college dorm room, male classmates would gather around to look at the drawings I’d done that day. To many of them, the images constituted “naked chicks” and while I laughed about it then, my interests were migrating from lust to appreciation.

Not long after college I hired a model on my own to pose nude for an afternoon drawing session. She arrived at my studio apartment, disrobed and posed on the couch, and left at the appointed time. I compensated her for the time, and did not feel any particular lust for her body while doing the drawings.

The model I hired to pose for a life drawing session. It is an interesting reflection of the piece I created from the centerfold years before.

Yet I can’t honestly say that I never looked at pornography again. The nature and accessibility of naked images, especially of women, evolved with technology. I did a search of Playboy centerfolds and can identify the year and month that I last purchased that print magazine. It was 1994. In a strange twist two years after that, I was parked in a White Hen lot and looked down to find a Playboy magazine sticking out from beneath the parking block next to the sidewalk. I pulled out the magazine and was stunned to see that it was dated 1976. Patti McGuire was the centerfold. Had that magazine survived under that block for twenty years? I doubt it, but it was still strange to find it there.

These days it’s not just Playmates who show up half-naked or completely naked in the digital and real world. World-class athletes on social media know that a touch of sex sells. It’s part of the gig to attract followers, be they males lusting after fit girls or women appreciating the hard work it takes to look like that.

World-class female athletes know that a touch of sex sells when it comes to gaining followers.

Society has grown to accept the sight of fully exposed female buttocks as a natural part of empowered fashion. Social media encourages nakedness at many levels, including women that willingly pose without clothes or get involved in the porn industry to make money. It’s seldom glamorous, as Rashida Jones shared in a telling Netflix series.

Exploitation, whether by self-choice or by revenge porn, is a far different enterprise than building appreciation for the human body. Some of the world’s greatest art features nude human beings. That is an accepted part of culture. Yet there’s also no avoiding that lust drives considerable occupation with the human figure as well.

A pencil drawing of film star and sex symbol Marilyn Monroe.

I think the right kind of pride sits somewhere in between the worlds of lust and appreciation. Maintaining that balance is a sign of maturity and self-actualization. When I consider the manner in which attractive actresses are expected to bare all for movies, it makes me wonder how they feel about having their naked bodies out there for all of eternity. Women such as Marilyn Monroe were supposedly able to turn that lust magnetism on and off. It was a persona, they say. And yet, we tragically learned, it also wasn’t.

A drawing from a Playboy photograph rendered in the 1970s.

We all conduct our own mind experiments and learn our flaws and obsessions. The range of human sexual expression, orientation and gratification is far more diverse and appreciated now that society is becoming more honest about it. Clearly we still have a ways to go, and some argue that sexual images and exploitation are signs of a morally decaying society. Yet knowing about sex and having a better understanding of the human body ultimately empowers everyone in the end. Being educated and making choices is better than being repressed and succumbing to fears, guilt, and mistakes in conscience.

Ancient attitudes of automatic repression and hardline theology don’t do people any favors. They depend on a brand of hyperbole that comes from an age when sexuality was poorly understood, and lust along with it. It’s not true that people conduct adultery in their heart every time they look at a woman (or man) lustfully. Sometimes it’s just that: a look to wick off desire. Then we get back to appreciating the ones we love, and even making art that inspires appreciation of the human condition in all its forms.

That’s the right kind of pride.

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