Archive for April, 2010

One of Picasso’s pithy pronouncements is, we should all be able to draw like children. This bit of wisdom is open to interpretation.  He himself had mastered the techniques of painting and drawing by the age of sixteen: perspective, anatomy, chiaroscuro, the works.

When people look at his mature work, however,  and say  my five-year old can do that—and I’ve actually heard that said TWICE in front of a Picasso—they mean that these paintings negate all those classical rules. It’s easy to evaluate a painting when you have a checklist of techniques.  When you’ve checked off the items on your list, you’re done and you move on to the next painting in the gallery.  But the expressive quality of a work is not the result of technique, but of a certain kind of daring.  And that quality, the expressiveness, is not accessible to all viewers.  My guess is that they view children’s’ art with condescension, as they view the art of Picasso.

No condescension here. For the past seven years I have had the privilege of participating in an art event at an elementary school in Barrington.  I draw the kids.  Yesterday I did thirty mild caricature-like drawings in two hours.  You can see some of these at http://katherinehilden.wordpress.com/ What I want to show here is the art work that the children there do themselves.  I always arrive an hour early so that I can look at the art that fills the hallways.  Actually, I can’t talk about it at all.  It leaves me speechless.  I finally took some pictures.

I asked the art teacher how she prepares these nine-year-olds for a project.  Oh, she said casually, I just talk a little;  I talk a lot about artists.  That’s all I could get out of her.  But I would love to be a fly on the wall during one of her classes with third graders. I’m in awe of her teaching and doubt that I could bring out such expressiveness in these kids. 

But then, they haven’t been indoctrinated into the classical techniques yet and have nothing to UN-learn.  What to adults looks like daring is to them natural love of color and shape and the immediacy of the experience.

That is, I think, what Picasso meant.

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The Ellipse

Get your hands off the silly keyboard for a minute.  Pretend you’re in the park throwing a Frisbee.  You’ve looked over your shoulders to make sure nobody’s passing your cubicle. You’re safe. So now you’re flipping your wrist and you’re getting the rhythm.  Good.  Now, instead of flipping your wrist outward, flip it inward.  And don’t make it stop.  Let it swing around.  This should feel good and natural.  It should feel as if your wrist had evolved for this specific motion. If you now pick up a pencil and swing it over a piece of paper you will draw an ellipse.  A noble form.  Go ahead, fill a whole page with ellipses.  They will get smoother and more even with practice.  You will feel elegant doing this exercise.

In fact, an ellipse can only be drawn with an elegant swing.  If you draw it slowly and deliberately, it will look like a mangled bicycle tire, cramped and joyless.

You need to practice ellipses.  You need to have them down and in your wrist’s Frisbee swing for any number of applications: hats, visors, soup tureens, plates, glasses, speech bubbles, car wheels coming at you, domes with Corinthian columns, Venn diagrams  and for your clarification of planetary movements over latte at Starbucks.The ellipse took center stage recently when a student was drawing from a photo of Beyoncé just barely wearing a hat.  As you’d expect, that hat would not sit right until she got the swing of the ellipse. (There was more to the Beyoncé attitude.  It involved Contrapposto. That’s what the pink lines are intended to show. More on that next time.) Here’s the page of studies I did while sitting next to the struggling student.

A noble form?  The Greeks didn’t think so.  An ellipse could be fat or skinny, long or short.  Therefore, they condemned it as imperfect.  If you wanted perfection you had to go with the circle.  And perfection is what the ancient Greeks wanted, obsessively.  The universe had to be perfect, by definition.  Therefore the planets and stars had to be moving in circular paths, not elliptical paths.  This Greek assumption hampered observation of what those celestial bodies where really up to for centuries, until Kepler (1571-1630) had the nerve to show that the paths were elliptical.  Boy, a false assumption can gum up your brain for a long time, in this case, for two thousand years.

The Greeks were also obsessing about something they called essence, but that’s for another day.  In the meantime, fill another 8½ x 11 with ellipses.  Go ahead, nobody’s looking and they feel so good in the wrist and you are totally elegant for doing this.

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The human face is not symmetrical.  Don’t believe this.  Test it out.  Take a straight on front shot of yourself, cut it in half vertically, and flip one half over so that one side is the mirror image of the other. (This can be done in Photoshop or using a Xerox machine.)  The resulting face will be recognizable, but just barely.  It will look, maybe not quite dead, but it will not look alive. That’s because you’re an adult and you’re intelligent. (You’ve chosen to read this, that’s how I know.) The complexity of your mind is mirrored in the asymmetry  of your face.

Look at Yousuf Karsh’s photographs of 20th century world leaders, writers and  artists.  For example, John Kennedy and Winston Churchill.  These are not symmetrical faces.  Even John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), who became rich painting portraits of the rich, even he gives these pampered faces the intelligence that comes from asymmetry. Look at Lady Agnew’s eyebrows:

And Cindy Crawford, no dummy, has a one-sided grin, with a mole on the other corner of the mouth.

Earlier this week I started a new drawing project. For the next eight weeks, I’ll draw junior high kids who are in an after school program at my local Y.  Initially I had mixed feelings about this, to tell the truth, because while I wanted to draw them, I also thought the faces would be too symmetrical since the kids are so young.  You know, it’s great to be wrong.  Wakes you up, makes you learn stuff.  This 6th grader, Jamie S., sits down to be drawn and I notice right away that her face has character.  It’s not symmetrical. Her left eyebrow is pulled a little higher than the right.  I start drawing. We chat. Her face comes alive.  She is intelligent.  I notice that her smile tends to be asymmetrical and her left eyebrow goes up even more. I encourage her to hold that a bit.  I produced four drawings in an hour. In the last drawing she has a little smirk, a little thoughtful smile.  How wonderful! Let’s hear it for asymmetry!   Here’s that fourth drawing.

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Artmaking is a paradoxical process.  It’s both rational and irrational.  It engages all parts of your brain, the left brain which prefers to proceed systematically and analytically; and the right hemisphere which likes to synthesize things by finding patterns in diverse elements.  In reality, it’s not that simple, because the wires are actually crossed.  Anyway, when you’re learning to draw or paint or make music or write engagingly, you will want to do exercises that tickle both sides of your brain.  For example, if you only draw representationally—getting perspective, proportion, shading perfect—you will develop into a very competent technician.  That’s fine, but it’s not art.  To develop into an artist you need to do all that technical stuff I just mentioned PLUS you need to get at your irrational side.  Well, you may think, that’s easy since “I know I’m a nut, my life is irrational & chaotic to begin with.”  You would be wrong.  This is harder than you think.  I can easily teach you the techniques and turn you into a technician. Bringing out the wonder of your irrationality, that’s the hard part.  In my teaching, I have exercises for this.  Yesterday, every student held a small concealed object in the left hand, while drawing it—without seeing it—with the right hand.  Most students drew diagrams of this object rather than giving in to texture and mystery.  That proves the point: the rational faculty took over.  Only two students made scribbly marks that came out of a feeling for texture and surprise.

Here’s a still life by a student, Judy K, produced yesterday after the concealed-object exercise.  This is a lively,  engaging drawing.

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