Archive for December, 2010

Life drawing

In this drawing session I worked with charcoal pencil, 6B, on smooth paper.  In the pencil version, charcoal is not as powdery and blendable as charcoal sticks, but still quite fluid in feeling.  It lends itself better to smaller formats, 14 x 11, in this case.



——————————-The drawing at left came from ten minute poses.  The page of studies was made from three minute poses.

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The word texture has the same root as the word tactile, which means touching. The sense of touch is the most intimate of our senses, above seeing or hearing.  If you can produce a work that reaches the viewer’s sense of touch, you’re literally hooking him/her.   If you can make my fingertips tingle because I feel I’m touching your drawing or painting or sculpture, you’re onto something.  The sensation of texture goes right to the heart.

Let’s take this drawing by Maggy S. and imagine it with a nice clean outline (traced by me from a copy of the original).  This outline, also called the contour, gives us all the information we need to figure out what we’re looking at. The contour gives us information.  It separates the figure from everything else, namely the space around it.  This information is basic because we want to know what’s what.  This is how small children draw and no wonder, since the child’s brain works full time at labeling, i.e. figuring out what’s what.  While such drawings are endearing when produced by children, when they are the work of adults we tend to associate their hard edges with the urgency of advertising or the punch of comic books.  Hard edges and clean contours make the image easy to read; we take in all the information at a glance and move on.  Hard edges do not encourage us to take time for feeling; they do not extend an invitation to the viewer to linger, contemplate and introspect.

For the beginning drawing student, texture is a luxury.  When you’re looking at a still life or a model, you do want to get the information down first.  That’s hard enough.  Just seeing what’s there, the what’s what, can take up all your time and energy.  But Maggy S. seems to have set herself the assignment of drawing the figure—a very complex subject—without contour lines, or very few.  They’re there, of course, but faintly.  We don’t read the figure by its contour.  Instead, the presence of this figure comes about through the shimmer of the rough texture, created by repetitive zigzags of the pencil.

The choice of the angle at which she sees the model is telling.  Students can move around and situate themselves in the class room according to a view of the model that appeals to them.  It’s possible that this angle, with the concealed face, inspired the artist to go for texture.  When the face is visible in a drawing, the viewer is often directed to psychological, personal associations.  Here, however, with the hair concealing the already averted profile, we get a sense of privacy and introversion.  We easily slip into a state of contemplation and the textural surface of the drawing encourages that state all the more.  Except for the slightest suggestion of a forehead and nose, the entire head is hair—and the hair is all about texture.

The impact of the drawing is not diminished by the fact that it ignores the anatomical niceties of the deltoideus and bachioradialis or that it makes a ghost of the hand.  Maggy’s drawing doesn’t come out of the dictates of the Renaissance or the École des Beaux Arts where texture is a no-no since it evokes the personal and subjective.  This drawing comes out of a modern sensibility.  We are individuals.  We are subjective critters. We’ve been modern now for a hundred and fifty years and it still takes courage to let go of academic dogma and mess around with texture.  In the context of my teaching experience, I appreciate this drawing for its competence, courage and  subjectivity.

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This is the third of four posts about the process that starts with a collage as a source of inspiration and ends with a painting.  The early steps of the process were outlined in the November 15 post, titled “Colliding with Collage.”  We’ve seen how Beatrice and Naomi adapted the process to make their paintings.  Now, let’s look at Elaine’s adventure.

From the several collages Elaine had made, she was most attracted to the red one.  She brought a 24 x 30 canvas to class.  The red paint she started to work with immediately appealed to her and was never changed throughout the painting process.  It remained a given to which the other color choices had to relate.  When all the elements from the collage were roughly painted in, we talked about the use of a horizon line as an orienting device.  There was no such line in the collage, but the painting seemed to call for a horizon.  It came about, not as a line, but as a differentiation in hue, the top being more orange than the red ground below.  While the elements in the collage referred to clouds, skyscrapers, and roads, once these were rendered in paint on canvas, they lost their literalness and seemed to demand their own painterly existence.  This became Elaine’s struggle, a challenge none of the other students had to face.

The first breakthrough came when the cluster of black vertical rectangles achieved a coherence and completion that set the visual language for the whole painting.  When a painting has found its language, the artist is more than half way there.  Now the painting has taken a stand; it’s become a partner in a dialogue.  From this point on, we’re merely solving problems.  Merely, ha.

The blue elements on the top easily adjusted to the pictorial language Elaine had found, but the other elements did not.  Yet, they were there, filled a lot of space, and had also taken up a lot of her time.  For those reasons it was difficult to give them up.  If they were eliminated, there would be a large “empty space,” a concept that sounds chilly and lazy.  As it turned out, however the “empty space” adds drama to the whole composition.  There is no such thing as empty space.  That space on the left directs the eye to the black vertical elements on the right.  The blue elements on the top direct us to the left.  Once the thin white lines at the bottom were added, we had a distinctive foreground because the white pops forward in our perception.  The result is that the eye circles through the composition.  While we have a strong sense of foreground-middleground-background and a feeling of deep space in a landscape, the painting does not pin us down in specific references to known reality.  The painting’s intellectual severity is counteracted by the tactile, emotional attraction of its texture.  When she painted over the diverse elements the painting had inherited from the collage, the artist did not obliterate them completely (which would have been easy), but left them “bleeding” through, an effect called pentimento, which adds emotional depth.  (Pentimento deserves a full discussion, planned for future posts.)

This painting underwent its most drastic development during the last class period.  It shows the most dramatic departure from the original collage of any of the students’ projects.  Elaine struggled for six hours in the previous classes and then, finally and suddenly, the painting came through with clarity and integrity.

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These are some of my ten minute drawings from last Monday.   We are a group of artists who meet at the Evanston Art Center for three hours to draw and paint from the model.



















I drew on gloss paper with China marker; 11 x 14.

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In the December 14th post I described how Beatrice transferred the outlines of her collage to a medium size canvas.  For precision, that’s the way to go.  But not the only way.  Naomi, for example, decided to make the transfer freehand.  Her collage was on 8½ x 11 paper and her canvas measured about 11 x 15. She painted directly without a preliminary drawing on the canvas. In comparing the collage (right)) and the painting, one can see that the collage definitely presents a sense of foreground, middle ground and background but that the painting allows for a much richer sense of depth. For a landscape painter, the techniques of creating the illusion of receding space are essential.  In this regard, a fantasy landscape is an ideal challenge:  the space has to be made convincing even though it is plainly incredible.  In this fantastic landscape we can identify references to real landscapes: trees, mountains, ocean. This makes the task easy, because a big tree has to be in the foreground and a small mountain in the far distance. Not only that, the mountain has to be hazy and soft edged, while the tree has to be sharply delineated.  The willowy orange tree trunks on the right read like something in the distance because they are so much smaller than the black tree in the left foreground, but they are also bigger than the mountain and therefore they simultaneously pull us back into the imaginary world.  The effect tickles the imagination and keeps the eye wandering through this enjoyable illusion.  In the collage the foreground vegetation took the form of crinkled clumps of colorful paper.  In the final work this “vegetation” is masterfully painted to suggest clarity, detail and proximity to the viewer without being painted with any specificity or literalness.  It’s juicy and painterly and thrilling.

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Daniel Chester French, (1870-1931) came out of the Beaux Arts decades which came out of the Renaissance which came from the ancient Greeks.  We love all that:  contrapposto, balance, measured grace, serenity, idealization of the feminine form.  You’ll find this lovely figure in the sculpture court in the Rice Building at the Chicago Art Institute.

For my drawing class, we have a model who knows her art history and often presents us with poses that embody all those well-loved characteristics I just enumerated.  Students are pleased when they have the chance to make a drawing that hooks into our western tradition of the beautiful.  That is, before modernism threw out the concept of beauty.  If you’ve had a chance to read some earlier posts here  dealing with the concepts from modernism that I keep introducing in class (you may be reading “pushing” here instead of “introducing”)  I need to remind you that I like to work both ends of the continuum. I really do share my students’ love of drawing “well,”  that is, in the classical mode.  Here’s one drawing I did recently from our model in class as I sat between two students who watched the drawing develop.  (Charcoal pencil, about fifteen  minutes.)   It’s very satisfying to slip into the 16th century and the 1890’s to draw in this idealized mode.

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Negative space is a tricky concept because it’s so obvious.  If you’re drawing a vase on a table, the vase is called the positive space (or the figure) and the space around it is called the negative space (or the ground).  The reason is simple:  we look at the vase because it’s a thing that holds our attention and we can name it;  everything else, the space around it, is unnamed, and we don’t look at it.  So, what’s tricky about this?  And why does it take some people years, like twenty, to get this?

The tricky part of negative space is that the vase in reality is not the same as the vase in the image you make.  I hear you say, so?  Let me try again.  We look at the real vase on the real table one way and the vase drawn in graphite on paper in another way.  Right, you say, I got that, so what else is new?  Ok, here’s another try.  The real vase on the table has a function in your life (for example, you use it), while the vase in the drawing serves no purpose, doesn’t do any work for you.  Hmmmmm, you say, we may be getting warm here. You’re still listening, so I’ll say one more thing before you get up and leave.  Here it is:  the vase in the drawing is part of a composition that is bounded by the edge of the paper and every square inch of that paper is important, not just  the three or four square inches that are taken up by the vase.  You curl your lip.  Duh, is that supposed to be deep or something?   You get up to leave.  Yes, I say after you with a fading voice, it is…deep…actually.

That’s today’s attempt to verbalize the tricky concept of negative space. Applause, thank you, thank you.   Failed again.  It’s still tricky.

One of my drawing students, Karen G., has been working with negative space in all her still lifes and with rich effects for almost a year.  As you look at these drawings you can see that they are not about pots and canisters and old buckets.  These mundane objects are certainly there and granted a certain privilege in the middle of the composition.  But your eye doesn’t get fixated on them. Instead your attention moves over the whole page.  Every square inch is alive.

Even in this drawing of loops we see the use of negative space in the way the artist/student creates tension between the two rows.  The negative space itself has a lively shape.  This was the result of inventiveness and the artist’s  sense of “the whole picture.” The physical object she worked from was a pretty dismal line of loops that had been cut from the edge of a trampoline cover or somesuch thing.  We’re not talking about some noble display of Greek amphoras here.  To make an image of these loops she had to see rhythm and form.  Not only form-meaning-positive-space,  but also form-meaning-negative-space.  This is tricky and a really big deal.

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A collage can be a work in itself or it can serve as a stimulus for another work in a different medium, like painting.  In my landscape painting class this past term we took the second option.  For a discussion of the first step, the actual collage work, see post for November 15, “Colliding with Collage.”  That class was a revelation to all students because up to that point they had painted fairly representationally.  Now this!  After an intense three-hour session of composing with snippets of color paper, the students were eager to realize these compositions in painting.

To transfer a 3” x 5” idea to a 24” x 30” canvas we used an old, well-established method.  In the Renaissance, the master would make a drawing on a piece of paper.  His assistant then drew a grid over the drawing.  Then he drew another grid on the wall that was to hold the final mural.  A square on the drawing’s grid might be 1 inch wide and might correspond to 8 inches on the mural wall.  Similarly, for my students, the 1 inch on the 3 x 5 collage corresponded to about 5 inches on the 20 x24 canvas.  The ratio was, obviously, not exact, but adjustments were made.  It was a creative process throughout.

I want to emphasize that the 3 x 5 passage was selected from an 8½ x 11 collage. That selection process in itself was quite exiting and revealing. Once the drawing was transferred to the canvas in pencil outlines, color selections and painting techniques concentrated the student/painter’s energies.  This is not a mechanical process.  Never a dull moment.

The work I’m highlighting here is by Beatrice K.  The red as a background will pop up again in other students’ work.  The red was an accident.  I happened to have a supply of gently used red construction paper to recycle—happy grist for the collage mill.  It turned out to be a fortuitous accident. Red is a color that is perceived to move forward. It’s conventionally used as a foreground color. But here it was used as background.  The effect is that it is neither or both.  Our perception of the red shifts, like an optical illusion, between foreground and background.  This makes for a dynamic visual experience.

Let’s look at the painting from left to right.  We can see three over-lapping shapes:  the beautifully nuanced orange-to cream sphere is over the brown squarish patch, which is clearly on top of the purple leaf-shape with the green-orange mirage inside it.  And the next step in this progression into the center of the painting takes us to the red, which must be the base, background color.  But the purple recedes visually and the red pops up, negating our expectation.  This is exiting.

There are echoing shapes.  For example, the purple leaf shape shares the canvas with other leaf shapes, such as the green-yellow one in the lower right corner, and you can easily find others.

There is also a play on edges:  the wonderful ambiguity in the upper left corner with black and white; the purple leaf’s white backlighting; the swan’s-neck shape on the right appears to be on top of the red background when we look at its left edge, but on its right edge,  the red appears to be on top of the white.  Once again, the red is coming and going.  You can also see the interplay of sharp edged and fuzzy, graduated ones. This guides you in out of various degrees of certainty and disorientation.  Without telling you what you’re looking at or what you’re “supposed to think” the painting engages you visually and thereby subdues your need to verbalize.  It keeps you alert, like a hike through new territory.  Even though for the purpose of this little exposition, I used words like “leaf” and “swan,” you will not get stuck in any interpretation anchored in these concrete images.  The excellence of this painting will not pin you down with a facile interpretation.  It will be fresh and offer new mysteries every time you glance at it.

The original collage was chosen on intuitive grounds.  It needed to be realized in paint—and in a large format—to offer up these wonderful mysteries and revelations.  Snippets of paper, ha!  Never underestimate the power of scraps and their coincidental meetings on a studio table.

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Cartooning looks ease.  The only way it can be effective is if you make it look easy.  Like magic:  the rope trick can be learned, for example, but it takes a lot of practice to make it look smooth and convincing.  Similarly, cartooning is not an easy art form.  Practice, practice.

I teach a class called “Cartooning for Teachers.”  It’s not just teachers who sign up, but also therapists and public speakers, a population that knows the importance of practice and making things go smooth. This week one such class came to an end, after eight sessions.  It was actually organized privately, by teachers and a school psychologist, who were determined to get this skill under their belt and onto the chalk boards.  What fun!  But also, you guessed it, a lot of practice and perseverance.

We started with a simple pudgy bear and progressed to the cat, dog, tiger, bull, viper, and sassy bunny.  All of these characters were accessorized with hand gestures, tails, and attitude shoulders.  Gotta go for attitude, it’s the name of the game!  By the middle of the course, the students were eager to get into human forms.  The whole thing is about humanness, of course.   Animals in themselves are not funny.  We think they’re drole because we project  human attributes into them. So, when you’re learning to draw the pudgy bear, for example, you’re actually learning a lot about what makes a face a face and what makes for nuances in expression—meaning human expression.  In the course of these eight weeks the nuances got more complex and the layers of meaning piled on.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that I recommend this course for serious portrait artists.

During the class I drew with marker on three-foot- high brown construction paper taped to a board.  Shown here (above) are some of the sections from that paper.   I also sat next to students and drew along with them (white paper) so they could see how I would develop a character, face and gesture.  We easily transitioned from animal to human faces.  The value of the course was obvious to all.  But it was just a beginning–like most everything else we do.  Practice, practice.

See also, www.khilden.com

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