Archive for November, 2010

“It’s going to happen sometimes:  Despite all the good habits you’ve developed, the preparation rituals, the organizational tools, the techniques for scratching out pre-ideas and actual ideas, there will come a time when your creativity fails you.”  Twyla Tharp goes on to differentiate between a rut and a groove and how to diagnose the problem you’re facing before you slide into the pit of depression.

A former painting student of mine emailed me recently with the complaint that she’s stuck, can’t do anything on that canvas.  I recommended Twyla Tharp’s book, “The Creative Habit,” which guides the artist through the diagnosis of the problem in a very level-headed way.  She asks, is it a failure of skill, of concept, or judgment;  or are you stuck through  repetition or from denial?  Each of these topics is discussed in practical terms and in spirited language, without any glibness.  Then, what can you do to get out of your rut?  I’m resisting the temptation here of quoting particularly pithy sentences because there’s no instant fix. There’s not one quote that will illuminate you and set the juices flowing again.  Art making is basically serious, often painful, and most of the time–difficult.   The book as a whole—and it has to be taken as a whole—is a guide for putting something together, in this case, the creative process.  I recommend that every artist, in whatever medium, make a serious study of “The Creative Habit.”

While we’re on the topic, I’ll make two more recommendations:

Another book, “Art and Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland, 1993.  118 pages.

And a documentary, “Inspirations” by Michael Apted, 1997.  140 minutes.

For videos on Twyla Tharp, you may want to start with


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A student in my landscape painting class has made a donation to the Evanston Art Center in my honor.  I am honored, indeed, and grateful.  It’s true, my students produce work that amazes them. They will suddenly do something that seemed to be unattainable, then just happens out of the blue, breaking the mold.  Because this happens so often with my students, I think it probably does have something to do with the way I set up exercises and the ambiance in these classes.  Maybe, maybe not.  Maybe they’re inspired by the view of the ever-changing, awesome lake when they pull into the parking lot.

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This morning, after reading just a few pages of “Nomad” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I knew it was time to draw this face.  I knew there would be no shortage of videos of her on the internet.  Drawing from photos is now a thing of the past—thanks to You Tube!  It’s important for me to see the face animated.  When a person talks spontaneously on a topic that engages her/him,  the face will reflect the mind’s involvement.  Very often the eyebrows move and it’s most interesting when one eyebrow moves up higher than the other.  The smile changes the angle of the eyes and is often a little asymmetrical.   The eyes blink or squint during the conversation, again unevenly.  The person will have an inclination to tilt the head a bit.  In Psychology 101 all this squinting, pulling and inclining is summed up in the word “affect.”  Affect, which simply means expressiveness, is what I look for in a face.  When I can’t find any expressiveness, I can’t seem to get interested.

Well, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a delight in the department of expressiveness.  I worked from just a couple of videos.



I started drawing in China Marker on gloss paper.  The first drawing was stiff and literal.  But the second drawing, also in China Marker, shown above, is already quite animated.  Then I reached for the PITT B pen and did three fluid drawing.  The third of the pen drawings, left, is a caricature.

For me, the word caricature is full of excitement, lacking any pejorative tone.

See http://katherinehilden.wordpress.com for more reflections on the art of caricature.     Also www.khilden.com

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I have a box in my studio where clippings get tossed, from magazines I subscribe to and magazines that people give me because they know about that infamous box.  In general, when you’re an artist, people give you things, either in earnest or because they think it’s time to rib you about being an arteeeeest.  A friend once gave me a banged up aluminum kettle that he had found in his apartment building’s garbage because he thought I would want to draw it.  Another friend bought me a 25 cent painting at the Good Will store, something with an American flag and a coyote, you can’t imagine how awful, and I got the joke.  No matter, that infamous box is a treasure trove.

I scooped out a few handfuls and brought them to my landscape painting class.  Spread out on a long table, the pile of paper looks like a hopeless mess.  Of course.  So is the oil paint being mixed on a palette.  That’s exactly what the mess of paper on that table is, a palette.  But whereas painting requires mixing, cleaning, scraping, wiping—a truly messy process—collaging presents you with an ironically neat working process.  It’s all there.  You cut, rip, try this, try that—all in a rapid, intuitive thought process where color is instant and shape is in a quick cut or the ripping gesture of the wrist.  Because there’s no technical complexity, the imagination has a field day.  My students, all over-educated high-achievers, plunged in, bringing their usual energy and concentration to what to an outsider would have looked a bit silly.  Not silly, folks.  Collaging opens up possibilities not accessible by the habits of brush and turpentine.  Most students produced three collages in three hours, each more freed from literalness than the one before.  The liberation from the literal is at the heart of abstraction.  But abstraction is hard to get at if you clench your jaw and try to will yourself into it.  Doesn’t work, results in phony, flat, klutzy arrangements and we’ve seen plenty of that kind of stuff.  Abstraction, I’ve observed, happens when your love of color and shape sneaks up on you and boo! derails you out of your complacent loyalty to polite representation.  “I’ve never done anything like this before,” more than one student said, and  “I always hated collage before.  This is amazing.”

It was a productive day.

Some of these collages will be framed as independent works and some will serve as the point of departure for paintings.  The collage work was so engrossing that none of the students felt worried about how they were going to tackle the painting stage.

The process of transferring a collage to a canvas will be discussed in a future post.  After that, in yet another post we will see the paintings.

Collages shown here by Spike S., Elaine C., Beatrice K., Ivan T., and Naomi P.

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No, I’m not kidding.  And yes, I’ve heard of a thing called a pencil sharpener, own a couple myself.

But I also own dozens of single-edge razor blades and I buy them in packages of a hundred.  Here’s why.  The pencil sharpener only does one thing:  it gives you a point. This is great for precision in illustration, for example in a medical textbook, and it’s also useful in creating certain textures, but it’s somewhat limited as a tool.   That’s the point.

Now, consider shaping your pencil to your unique way of drawing.  I present to you the razor blade.  The single-edge razor blade can do interesting things to your lead. Use it to  customize the lead to the way you hold the pencil in your hand. Not only that, the humble rod of lead is transformed into more than one tool.

Here’s what you do.  Take a single-edge razor blade or an Exacto knife or equivalent and trim the wood back to expose about ¼ inch of lead.  When you do this, your pencil will not look pretty, but you’ll soon forget about such a trivial consideration.  Now shave the tip of the lead so that you get an elliptical surface. The angle of this surface is something you’ll want to experiment with because it should feel just right depending on how you hold the pencil when you draw.  When you draw on this elliptical surface of your lead you will produce a smooth SURFACE, i.e. shading without lines.  Wonderful.  When you tip the lead so that just the sharpened edge touches the paper,  you will get a fine line.  Again, wonderful.  You now have a versatile tool.  It gives you a fine line, a bold line and a shaded area.  And it’s all a matter of touch.  As you draw, the lead will develop other facets (like a cut diamond) and you will handle the pencil by turning it.  The pencil will feel fluid, like a brush.

Instead of using a pencil (requiring that you cut back the wood), you can buy a Lead Holder and a dozen 2 mm leads of your choice (4B and softer, recommended).  The Lead Holder allows you to advance the lead as far as you like.  It makes shaving the lead easy.  At the end of your drawing session, you retract the lead.  Cool.

Once you enjoy the feeling of drawing with the faceted lead, the pencil sharpener will seem like nothing more than a useful  invention for accountants.

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When Louis Sullivan saw the Tribune Tower going up in the 1920’s, he said it set American architecture  back fifty years.  I feel that way about James McMullan’s column in the New York Times.  What a great opportunity–wasted!  The majority of the people who write in their comments  are starved for this topic.  But what we get from Mr. McMullan are stiff drawings and the encouragement to keep thinking literally, instead of visually.  I’ll stop here before this turns into a rant. My recent and very restrained comments can be found at



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You know at first glance that this is a fine drawing.  There are three possible reasons why you might come to that conclusion:  1) you’re seeing it in a museum, at Buckingham Palace, or reproduced in a book on Leonardo da Vinci and, therefore, you assume this must be worth looking at; 2) you’ve looked at a lot of art and you’ve trained your eye to recognize good work; or 3) you’re an artist yourself, at whatever level of accomplishment.

I’m, of course, addressing all of you who fall into categories two and especially three, those of you who really LOOK.

Since you’re taking the time to really look and enjoy this drawing, you’ll notice all sorts of lines that appear to be redundant.  Some of them are faint, but they’re there.  To make them more visible, I placed transparent paper over the drawing and traced these redundant lines.  Now, you are fully aware that this drawing of a young woman is by the great Leonardo da Vinci and you ask yourself, quite naturally, if this guy was so great, why didn’t he get the contour of the face right the first time, why are there three lines instead of one line that is sure and RIGHT?  And the neck.  What’s with all those lines!  Hey, Leonardo, you’re so great, just do it!  Get it right the first time.  We want to admire your greatness.  We don’t need to see your hesitation, your thought process, your scribbling, your explorations.

But we do.  It’s precisely because we see all those apparently redundant lines that we enjoy the drawing.   Let’s call them “exploratory lines.”  The great Leonardo is exploring.  His model has arrived, he sits down at his drawing board, he looks at the young woman and he goes into a state of, let’s call it, wonder.   He has drawn hundreds, thousands, of faces before, but not this one, not at this angle, not in this light and not today.  He can’t say to himself, oh, yeah, another one of these, I’ve drawn plenty just like it, here’s how we do this.  Uh-uhh.  If he’s complacent, he’ll blow the whole thing.  Instead, he feels that this is an adventure, an exploration.  He has to feel the uncertainty that’s at the heart of an adventure.  Drawing is like walking a tight rope. The uncertainty heightens his concentration.  Instead of thinking of how it’s supposed to look when finished, he enters the drawing process itself.  He’s not performing for applause; he’s completely absorbed in the work process itself.  He’s working it out.  That means he puts down lines that trace his thought process.  In that process his perception shifts and his hand follows.  The result looks like scribbling.  But it’s precisely the scribbling that makes the drawing exiting to look at.  Because when we see those exploratory lines we are drawn into Leonardo’s mind and his concentration at that very moment.

That’s why a clean line drawing of his equestrian statue looks boring and lifeless.  But the sketch in which he worked out the movements and showed all the tracings of his thought process, this “messy” sketch is exiting to look at.  The clean line drawing (again, a tracing by me) has all the information, but that’s not why we look at drawings.  It’s not information we want, it’s the glimpse into another mind, another sensibility.  To get that glimpse, we have to be invited to enter into the drawing process itself.

A hard point to get across.  My students want to produce neat drawings.  When I encourage them to scribble and leave the scribbled lines without erasing, I know I’m opposing everything the culture and their past schooling value.  This is certainly true of returning, mature students.  It is even more true of students in their twenties.  Why?!   When a teacher encourages you to be “messy,” why  can’t you revel in that freedom?   One young art major recently enlightened me:  most of us, he said, started drawing by copying Manga.   We will talk about the crippling influence of  Manga in a future blog.

In my class, I recently drew a model while my students stood around me and looked over my shoulder.  I drew with a waxy crayon (China marker) that makes erasing impossible.  That’s the point. Don’t erase. Let your hand move lightly over the paper, tracing your thought process.  As your perception shifts, so does your line.  Change your mind and leave the first impression under your new “take.”  As you get more and more into the process, your line will become more sure of itself.  It will take off.  Seeing takes time and seems to occur in layers.  Draw for the adventure.   Draw for the pleasure of the process itself.

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