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Archive for June, 2012

When I set up a still life for my drawing class, I look at the placement of the objects from all angles and do some fine tuning to allow for interesting compositions.  But the objects themselves?  Nothing fine-tuned or interesting about them. For this class, I brought in some very stressed, dirty gardening gloves.  What else? An old piece of crockery from the supply shelf and a plastic flower.  These objects don’t come close to the idea of beauty as it has been handed down to us through Western Art.  My modern sensibility is moved to appreciate a fine drawing inspired by—what?—refuse.

As he started to work on this fine drawing, Linné first took the time to look.  This may seem like an obvious first step, but looking, really looking takes practice and discipline.  I’m reminded of Cézanne, who spent a lot of time just looking quietly without working the brushes and paints.

A number of things are impressive about this drawing.  You can study the intensity of the composition by following the color associations at right:  alignments (blue),  repetition of shapes (pink), quadrant division with implied horizon (green). The cropping (yellow) did not come about through erasing or matting, but was planned for in the initial contemplation, a la Cézanne.  That takes an eye!

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If you want to learn how to draw, you have to spend time drawing.  Well, duh.

What makes the learning process tricky is that your progress will not be obvious from one week to the next.  Tricky?  How about frustrating.  You can go for weeks doing, apparently, the same thing and you just want to throw your #5 across the room and pout because you don’t seem to be getting anywhere, repeating yourself in your scratchy little pencil marks.  That’s because you can’t pick up a reading on how furiously your neurons and synapses are trying to catch up with your hand. All those weeks, when you just want to cry, your brain is working it out for you.  Then suddenly, one day–whamo!— it all comes together and you look at the drawing you just made wondering who this genius is that produced this amazing piece of work.

My drawing class is called Multi-Level Drawing because it welcomes new students who have never tried to draw before and it also challenges students who have worked with me for a few years (the self-described “lifers”).   So naturally, I present basic demos for the

newcomers, like this topic on how to think about eyes and curved shapes. (The brown paper is 3 ft high and I use markers for the demos.) The lifers have heard it all before and start drawing on their own, selecting magazine photos of faces that I have spread out on a long table.

One of the lifers suddenly decided to switch from graphite pencil to charcoal pencil, which deposits much more black stuff on the paper with much less effort. Charcoal allows for a more assertive line and more accidentals, like smudging.   The drawing (top) was unlike anything Maggy had ever done before.  It’s animated and daring in execution. And it was fast.  Then, with plenty of time left in the class, she drew another face, with equal daring.

I can’t predict how the process will work for you.  But that bit about the neurons slugging it out in your brain, that part is sure.

At right, Maggy’s drawing from just five weeks earlier.  With hindsight, we can see the potential: it’s loose and suggestive, and at the same time anatomically correct. But still, there was no gradual progression from this to the masterful drawing she produced in charcoal.

It’s not a linear process.

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Take a box  or a pile of books. Throw some cloth over it, or a t-shirt.  Put an old lace-up boot on top of this.  Look at this pile, say to yourself “this is really beautiful, I’ve got to draw this.”  Turn off your phone, grab a soft pencil and a piece of paper, sit down for a couple of hours and make a work of art.

I didn’t take a shot of the still life, but the above describes its simplicity.  How ordinary.  How intriguing!

It’s not about documenting the silly boot.  It’s about, how can I see this in a new way, surprising myself in the process.  As you look at Gaby’s drawing, remind yourself that the boot and the laces were black.  She invented the inversion.  She chose the placement of the boot way on top and its radical incompletion.  The laces set up a paradox: we are reminded of the arbitrariness of their real-life softness and at the same time they appear to support the thing at the top, which we identify as a shoe with the help of the crisscrossing at upper right.

The drawing plays with your perception.  Shoe-notshoe.  Laces-notlaces.  Form-content.  As an exercise in seeing, notice repetition of forms, rhythm, positive-negative space.  When you’ve said everything about the drawing that you notice, you will still be fascinated by it.  You can’t talk this thing to death.  It’s art.

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Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was a prodigy.  He drew incessantly as a child, filling the margins of his school books with sketches.  His father, an art teacher, is said to have handed his son his own brushes and paints, saying, “here, you have surpassed me.”  When Picasso was fourteen, his drawings looked like this.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), the son of a strict Calvinist minister, was interested in drawing as a child and as a young adult while he worked as an assistant art dealer, teacher and missionary.  It wasn’t until his late twenties that he devoted himself to art full time.  At the age of twenty seven, his drawing looked awkward and tortured.

I cringe when I look at this.  But he persisted.  He worked at it, for ten years, never achieving the grace of Picasso’s draftsmanship.   Van Gogh is not admired for his drawings, but for the evocative power of his paintings.  The passion we sense in his paintings relies on primary colors and, oddly enough,  an unaffected calligraphy in the handling of the brush, course and immediate.

A graceful line can be so admirable as to challenge imitation.  But not everybody can make a line dance.  What to do?  Must the line dance?  What if, like Van Gogh’s ten years after the above drawing, it screams, groans, and pounds its fists in rage?  What if the line you produce speaks a language you have never heard before?

The next few posts here will be devoted to my students’ recent work. Amazing things happen in that drawing class all the time.  That’s because (I think) the students are beginning to respond to their own markmaking, their own line quality, their own dynamics.  None of them are Picassos.

An article on Picasso’s early work: http://www.salon.com/2012/01/09/picassos_fascinating_early_works/

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Foreshortening is frightening.

But we see foreshortened shapes all the time.  When you look at a face in a front view, the nose is foreshortened; when a person sits in a chair in front of you, the thighs and forearms will be foreshortened.  So, how can this be frightening?

When you draw a foreshortened limb and you really have to look at that shape, it looks weird.  It’s so frightening, you go into denial.  Can’t be, your eyes say. Your drawing hand will aid and abet this denial, by elongating what in fact is seen to be compressed.

When I announced that we would do foreshortening next class, a student said, “sounds like surgery.”  So I brought flowers to place near the Barcsay nude we were going to work from.

Jenö Barcsay’s book Anatomy for the Artist, makes a fine reference book.  I have blown up one of his reclining nudes to three feet.  When it’s tacked up on a wall, I can be very specific in guiding the students in the seeing process.  How do you approach this thing?  Well, first, you need to find a unit of measure.  Take the head.  Whoa, the head is half the picture! So counter-intuitive!  But that’s how foreshortening is.  It will drive you crazy, unless you have a disciplined approach that measures and aligns various points with one another.  It’s the only way, you can’t wing it.

One student, Isabella, insisted on working out her drawing with chiaroscuro effect. Quite an accomplishment.

Like upside-down drawing, foreshortening has the effect of focusing the mind. The students who did not completely work out their Barcsay nude, still benefited from the rigorous seeing process, and then produced satisfying drawings using various other images to work from.

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This is a sequel to the previous post. One student, Maggy, really got into the Up-Side-Down thing—meaning, the value of this approach really sunk in.  So much so, that when the Caravaggio exercise was done, she was the only one in the class to draw a face upside down from a photo.  In the process, she noticed how asymmetrical the face was and was delighted by this discovery.  When you’re drawing right-side-up it’s harder to notice such things because you tend to equalize, to perfect.  That’s a no-no!   The expressiveness and character in a face lies precisely in asymmetry.

Being all fired up by the Caravaggio exercise and then by drawing a face up-side-down, she then turned the magazine page right-side-up and drew the guy again.  This was easy now, because her seeing was “true” and it took her no time at all, with very impressive results.  It’s interesting to compare the two versions.  The second view of the face, with the photo placed right-side-up, didn’t look anything like the UPS photo drawn previously.  So, it’s not a case of doing the same thing twice, not at all.  What matters here is the ease with which the second drawing came about and that was the result of the nature of the exercise itself.

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

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