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We’re focused on drawing here. For the sake of analogy, let’s consider other things people do that involve practice: dancing, tennis, fly-fishing, singing, playing the guitar, writing poetry, crosswords, scrabble, taking pictures, dressing well, thinking logically.

If you know anyone who is identified with such an activity, this is someone who LOVES doing this. The activity FEELS good.  This is a person who looks forward to spending time in this activity and plans his or her day to schedule time for it.  This time is called practice.

Let’s take dancing. People who dance, dance because they love to dance, and you can tell that they love to dance by just looking at their schedule.  Not being able to do a certain move drives them crazy. So, what do they do? Do they give up?  Do they just refuse to do that one particular move? Of course not. They practice till they get it.  After they’ve gotten it, they continue to practice it—to keep that thing in shape. Hello, they practice.

For people who love to draw, the hand is often such an item. How often have you heard a drawing student say “I can’t draw hands”?  How often have you seen otherwise competent figure drawings where the hand looks like a flipper, a hook or a garden rake?

In my drawing class I teach an approach to the hand that proceeds from the general to the pacific, i.e. from the overall shape—the general geometry–to the articulation of individual features-—the digits.  It’s about staying focused on this approach without thinking “OMG, A HAND! I’M DRAWING A HAND!”  It’s mainly a mental practice.  Pulling the graphite over paper will be the easy part.

A well-drawn hand is a joy to behold.  Drawing a hand is thrilling.  You know that as you practice, your rapport with the hand develops and you’ll be able to draw THE HAND convincingly, gracefully…and easily!

Students who show me their week’s practice pages present me with a gift, for which I am grateful.

Drawings of hands by Shweta.

 

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The Process

 

The process in drawing is the THOUGHT-process. That’s where the excitement is.

There’s excitement in the finished painting, too, but that has to do with the effect the painter achieved.

When we love a drawing, we love it for the thought process that went into it.  We feel that we are standing next to the artist as he or she is working it out. I don’t mean laboriously, tediously working out a series of syllogisms.  What we’re witnessing is intense concentration where many variables and possibilities are instantly related and are coming into focus.

A lively drawing is full of abandoned possibilities, first takes that were superseded. Every shape is indicated, nothing is outlined.  Even when the drawing is “finished,” it is a possible statement rather than a definitive one.

None of these words and phrases are adequate, none stand in one-to-one correspondence to the process.

Shown above, a student drawing that invites you into the thought process.

Drawing by Mary Shieldsmith, April 2022

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Is This Hard?

You know I’m going to say, no, it’s not hard.

Let’s consider things that are hard to do:
shoveling snow — if you’re out of shape
making Risotto — if you don’t have the right pan
playing the flute–if you have a toothache
traveling in France–if you can’t say “ou est la gare”

Drawing drapery is hard if you don’t have:
a Cretacolor Art Stick
a stomp, you can improvised out of rolled stationary
sturdy drawing paper of a fairly large size
two hours to immerse yourself in total concentration
a love of concentration

The drawing materials are easily bought and they are inexpensive.

So what about concentration? How do you acquire a love of concentration?

It seems to comes out of curiosity.

How do you produce a drawing that conjures up an illusion of three dimensional volume out of nothing but  a play of light and shadow? Your curiosity will naturally motivate your practice and your practice will lead to progress. And progress… will amaze you!

This drawing is 19×15 inches. I worked from a photo on my laptop and pushed and pulled the composition a bit to make the proportions more compact and relying on the “rule of thirds.”

It took at most two hours: an hour-and-a-half of engrossed concentration followed by some looking from a distance and tweaking the values a bit with the kneaded eraser.

Drawing drapery is rewarding, both in the process and in the result. It’s a versatile tool to have in your artist’s tool box.  Let’s just call it essential.

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This is the work of a beginning drawing student.

Oops. Something just dropped on your keyboard. That’s your jaw.

I can offer no explanation for this astonishing performance. This student practices at home during the week, we know that, but she has not had this kind of homework before.

This drawing was done in the second half of our class period, with about an hour left to work on it. My instruction was to copy the Sargent drawing, not in a fussy way, but in the forcefulness of Sargent’s hand movements, i.e. his gesture in handling the graphite.

Each student had a xerox copy of the Sargent drawing taped to the top of her/his drawing board so that the eyes moved up and down from Sargent to drawing paper. Up and down is better than sideways, feels better on the eyes.

The student worked with a Cretacolor Art Stick.

Progress in drawing skills does not proceed gradually, but in…leaps and bounds.
And what a leap!

You can pick up your jaw now.

Are you inspired? Practice!

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was an American who spent most of his life in Europe, particularly Rome and Paris. Here we have his 1908 portrait of the Irish poet W.B.Yeats. Again, the object in this exercise was not to plagiarize the Sargent drawing to make it auction worthy, but to lean into the drawing tool the way he did.

Drawing by Shweta Nagdeve

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We copied the Millais drawing (see previous post) and Sargent’s drawing of Yeats in one three-hour class meeting.

The Millais drawing had a limited value range, meaning the shades of gray were close together and there was no deep black. The Sargent drawing, by contrast, gives us intense black and gradations of equally assertive gray.

Our aim was to emulate his bravura graphite strokes and to summon the courage to produce large areas of a #10 on the values scale, i.e. a true fearless black.

This power can only be expressed with a powerful drawing tool, one that can deliver the “fearless black and the bravura graphite strokes.” Therefore, the first decision for the artist/student is to choose the right drawing tool. A #2 will not rise to this occasion, as you can see:


This student did not give up, however. She stubbornly continued to work on the challenge at home. And this time she wouldn’t be seen with a #2. Instead she reached into her tool kit  for the mighty Cretacolor #6 Art Stick. Ah, what a difference! Here’s the first stage of her new drawing:

Then she let the shock of hair cast a deep shadow over the forehead. The face at this stage has considerable depth. The second stage:

And finally, ta-tah, the Reflected Light at the right side of the face… a sliver of light at the very edge. Voila!


This sliver of Reflected Light was put in with that powerful, but subtle tool we met in the previous post: the Kneaded Eraser.

Now compare this finished drawing with the previous stages. Really look! Let each version pull you in and see the subtlety and power of that sliver of Reflected Light.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was an American painter who spent most of his life in Europe, particularly Rome and Paris. Here we were working from his 1908 portrait of the Irish poet W.B.Yeats.

Drawing by Mary Shieldsmith.

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Knead and Draw

A Kneaded Eraser is soft like dough.  You massage it –knead it—until it has the shape of the area in your drawing that you want to remove or lighten.  For example, if you’re drawing a face and you want to put a highlight in the pupil, you shape your eraser into a point and dab that on the pupil to remove the graphite.

John Everett Millais drew his fellow Preraphaelite artist F.G. Stephens in 1853.  What makes this a powerful drawing is how Millais combines two opposites:  a subtle, soft drawing technique with the presence of a strong, even confronting personality.

So, this was a challenging exercise. Faces are always challenging because of the emotion that we project into them. In this face students apparently got mesmerized by the piercing gaze and couldn’t believe how soft it was at the same time.

One student confronted the eye separately and drew it masterfully.

But then drawing the eye in the face was problematic. Isn’t that interesting!  It’s not a matter of technique, but emotion.

Technically, the Kneaded Eraser was supposed to play the leading role in achieving subtlety. The shadow that covers most of the face was put down first. Then the Kneaded Eraser was scripted to make its entrance and perform.  Look at me, I’m not just cleaning up, I’m here to actually DRAW.

Drawing by removing is a powerful technique. For a beginning artist it may feel counter-intuitive.

In the second drawing we did, the Kneaded Eraser asserted itself. Next.

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Contrapposto means “counter poise” in Italian.  It’s the posture with attitude: “Hey, you talkin’ to me? “ The pelvis is pushed up on one side of the torso and the angle of the shoulders leans in the same direction.  This happens when your weight is on one leg and your other leg is just there for company.

In the guide paper diagram, above,  you can see that the figure is standing in perfect balance by the fact that there is a straight line connecting the middle of her neck to the middle of her weight-bearing heel.

Now let’s look at how four students approximated this perfect-balance-with-attitude.

In 1) we see a successful contrapposto.  The sartorial details, the drapery effects and the hands are not important for this exercise.  Getting this figure to stand convincingly –with a sense of the left leg pushing up the left side of the pelvis and the shoulders leaning left—is a major accomplishment.

The figure in 2) stands convincingly and in balance.  The contrapposto stance is clear.  The shoulder tilt is especially successful.

Next, 3), the figure is drawn in a solid, frontal stance with a hint of contrapposto in the legs. For a true contrapposto her left leg would have to be towards the middle of the body so that the left heel would be intersected by that vertical guide line.  This would make the left leg load bearing and we would feel that  the left leg is pushing the pelvis up on the left side.  The guide line for the shoulders slopes down nicely, but in the drawing the shoulders are horizontal, which weakens the  contrapposto effect.

In 4) the figure is standing on the left leg, giving her a legitimate contrapposto stance.  Notice that the guide line for the shoulder is at a pronounced downward slope.  The fleshed-out drawing ignores this line and makes the shoulders almost horizontal.  The contrapposto would be more hey-you if the right shoulder would be higher, i.e. if it met the guide line.

 

This is interesting, I think, because it shows a subconscious preference for balance and symmetry, which are reassuring and comfortable.  The contrapposto twist is lively!   Wicked, even.  You don’t know what the person with this attitude will challenge you with.

The contrapposto pose was invented by a Greek sculptor in the early 5th century BC, around 480.  We’ll have a look at that next: the Kritios Boy.

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Tracing Paper

Before the pandemic quarantine we drew heads upside-down.  It’s a technique invented in the “70s  by an art teacher named Betty Edwards.  She noticed that she couldn’t talk and draw at the same time.  So she figured that one of the two brain functions, the verbal or the visual, had to be turned off.  Since she wanted to draw, the verbal blah-blah had to be turned off.  The way to do that—her brilliant insight—was to look at images that were turned up-side-down.  But drawing from USD photos turns off not only the verbal part of the brain, but also—oh, horror—your emotional involvement with the human form, say, the face.  You’ll never turn those emotions completely off for the simple reason that you’re wired to react with extra attention to fellow humans.

Well, what about drawing someone sitting there in front of you?  Can’t turn reality upside down!  The idea behind the USD technique is that by practicing it over and over, you will train your brain to turn off the verbal mode at will, anytime, even when drawing things right-side-up.

The tendency for beginners is to start with the outline of the face and then to put in the eyes, nose and mouth.  Or just start with some feature, like the right eye and then wing it from there.

This approach inevitably leads to kitsch.  We’ll get into that later. For starters, you can just go to the previous blog.  You can see that here’s someone who never practiced USD drawing.

We don’t want kitsch, do we.  So, how to start?!

You start by blocking out the head.  That’s what we did in last week’s class.  It’s easy.  Tape your photo down and then tape tracing paper over that.

No, no, you’re not tracing the drawing!!!  You’re only drawing straight lines to show the main directions that connect the crucial points of the head. These lines do not outline anything; they don’t follow the contour of any feature, like the eye, nose or mouth.

When you’re looking at the photo of this Roman marble head through your tracing paper, try to see him as a “block head,” as if the sculpture had only gotten as far as chiseling out the rough form.

Once you have those straight lines on the tracing paper you separate the tracing paper from the photo page.  You continue drawing on the tracing paper, observing the face’s features and shadows seen on the photo.

The students in this beginners’ class produced the kind of drawings we see in Renaissance artists.

Yes, here’s Leonardo da Vinci working on a profile study.  We like to feel we’re in good company.

Next, Michelangelo:  The David’s pouty curly-lipped profile.

If you’re a serious art student you’ve got to draw The David, head to toes, from different angles.  This will give you a work out. When you’ve put in your time with The David, you might want to look up the many parodies of this hero-dude.

Here are three student drawings that started with the lines showing the large masses and rough directions of the profile.

After our work-out with The David last week, we tackled a fashion magazine face with teeth and lips.  That wrap around upper lip takes some studying and practice. To be worked on  some more next class.

This tracing paper technique is a solid start for organizing your approach to drawing the face.  Remember, once you have the large masses and directions down—STOP.  Do not give in to the temptation of tracing features.  DO NOT TRACE ANYTHING.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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Isn’t it great that he took up painting, hired tutors and practiced!  It’s an activity that can lead to self-reflection and insights into all sorts of things, like other people’s lives, how we conceptualize …cultural assumptions, uncertainties…

These paintings by Bush are not presented as a documentation of what he has learned so far, as evidence of effort.  They are presented to us as finished work, as art worth looking at. When something is presented as art it’s ipso facto interesting and important to think about.

Let’s do a thought experiment:   would my neighbor George have a chance of having his paintings shown in a gallery or published in a book?  He has been painting diligently since he retired ten years ago. His portraits are indistinguishable from Bush’s.

Whether or not George, my neighbor, can get his paintings shown depends on what we know about George.  What’s George’s story? Is he blind or paralyzed or recovering from a stroke?  Is he autistic or dyslexic or epileptic?  Was his father a Greek immigrant or an African genocide survivor or a Russian spy or a US president?  In our present social climate and art world hype these questions weave the scrim through which we see images.

Try another thought experiment:  you buy a portrait at a yard sale that’s just awful but it looks like oil paint and it’s the right size.  You plan to use it as a waterproof mat in your mud room at the side door to your garden.  As you take it out of the frame you see the signature “John Wilkes Booth.”  You know he was an actor. Couldn’t he also have been trying to paint?  It’s a terrible painting but you think you’d better have it authenticated because this could be worth something.  Inept as it is, the name will override the awfulness.

A 2014 review in the Guardian agrees with me:   [George W Bush’s] portrait of Putin actually looks like something you would find in one of America’s trash-rich Salvation Army stores and buy to laugh at. It’s got a classic amateur clumsiness and oddity to it. Bush has attempted to render shadow and shape in stylish blocks of fawn and woodchip and cookies ‘n cream, but they don’t sit right and the whole head looks mildly crazed. Perhaps this mad look is what is meant by revealing Putin’s “soul”, but it seems inept rather than insightful.

 

No, wait.  The Salvation Army stores used to stack their “art” in bins so that you could page through them.  I had a student a few years ago who used to go there to buy awful paintings because she needed stretched canvas to re-use—much cheaper than buying canvas in art supply stores.

I went to my local Salvation Army store last week to see if they had anything as awful as the portraits by Bush, walked straight to the back and found all pictures neatly displayed.  Somebody stood there facing the display, entranced by a copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper.  It looked as if it had been painted on a slab of wood.  I couldn’t get close because after about a minute the Entranced One unhooked it to take it to check-out.

The original is a fresco covering one wall of the dining room in a monastery in Milan, Italy.  Leonardo labored over the perspective to create the illusion that the Last Supper is taking place in that very monastery refectory so that the monks would be edified by saintly company.

Along with much of High Renaissance art, this painting has been adapted in countless Kitsch mockeries.  Here are some:

https://www.google.com/search?sa=X&sxsrf=ALeKk00NtVLvp_9fxsvDJ3pTLcGm675gEw:1620835332636&source=univ&tbm=isch&q=The+Last+Supper&ved=2ahUKEwiqq_aRwsTwAhXJQs0KHQt3DGcQiR56BAgmEAI&biw=1378&bih=837

Sorry about that tangent.  I didn’t mean to associate Bush with the Renaissance in any way, only wanted to clarify the reference to the Salvation Army.

Back to Bush.   A more recent Guardian article, from 2017, refracts the whole portrait project in the context of Bush’s presidency, stating:    In his new book Portraits of Courage, the subjects of the former president’s paintings are the very men torn to shreds, quite literally, by his own policy.

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/mar/06/george-w-bush-art-painting-portraits-in-courage

Painting can be therapeutic. If Mr.Bush engages in painting to heal his guilt, let him.

If “idiocy has its charms” (quoting that article here), please, Mr. Bush, show us how you worked through that stage of charming idiocy and then finally developed insights for us to contemplate.

We hope you heal, Mr. Bush.

There is, of course, plenty of commentary on Bush’s paintings, for example:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-yaSAiXkRtg

Next, let’s take a closer look at how Mr. Bush does not see eyes.

 

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To get this shot the photographer had to have been sitting or kneeling on the floor at the edge of the coffee table with the flower arrangement.  Seeing this photo in the newspaper (NYTimes) may have been shocking to some people who may have thought it simply was the only shot they could get from that event in the Oval Office.  I don’t think so.  I think it was the BEST shot.  I think it was chosen among many because this view is artful and expressive.

To appreciate this photo with the out-of-focus flowers in the foreground, let’s remind ourselves of the standard Oval Office photo. (I have blurred out the faces to make it easier to concentrate on overall composition and the gestures of these four characters.)

Symmetry rules!  Look at the placements of the paintings and the sculptures.  Why are these important? Because symmetry conveys the feeling of rationality, stability and order.  That’s what we want in our government.  Even the placement of the four people is symmetrical in the photographer’s frame.  Wonderful.

Then why is this picture comical?  Because the rationality of the geometry in the picture is contradicted by the absurdity of the non-communication taking place here.  The woman is articulating a point to which the man on the couch respectfully listens. These two are completely disconnected from the two figures in the background.   In the chair at the left someone has arranged a department store dummy. In the chair on the right, two pectoral fins are flapping while a long ventral stripe defines this noisy benthic entity.

The drama in this photo, therefore, consists in the contrast between the rigorous geometry of the stage set and the disorder created by the characters on the stage.

Now back to the first picture, the one with the out-of-focus flowers.

There is no symmetry, not even Jefferson’s portrait is in the middle.  No symmetry = no stasis = movement.  Movement here doesn’t mean somebody jumping, it means excitement in the mind.

We don’t even get a sense of the three-dimensional space of this room.  The photo looks like a collage. Your eye moves through this restless collage: flowers, man, portrait, lampshade.  The focus is on Biden, partly because you recognize him as the president, but also because the lines of the portrait’s frame behind him converge on his head, like an arrow.  Notice how the lines of the Jefferson frame direct your attention at the president’s head.  But that masked presidential face occupies a very small part of the photo surface.  What actually dominates the composition?  The flower arrangement in the foreground! About a fourth of the whole photo!  And it’s out of focus!!

Why is this important?  Because we’re looking not at the documentation of an event but rather at a juxtaposition—yes, a collage–of elements that invite interpretation. Your mind races to see connections:   Biden-Jefferson,  flowers-environment, decisions-environment, past-future,  known-unknown,  et al.

So, this photo is a work of art.

 

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

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