Posts Tagged ‘James McMullan’

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’ll find a two minute video on YouTube in which I demonstrate how to swing your hand in the air in an elliptical path.  When you do, the ellipse on paper will just follow.  I invite everyone to watch this short video, because it simulates a class room demo where you watch over the shoulder of the instructor. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLD9aCjoNWc

Here are the steps:

1. Place your forearm at about a 45 degree angle to your body and adjust the angle of your paper so that its vertical edge is parallel to your forearm.

2. Hold the pencil with fingers not curled in a writing grip, but slightly extended.  Let the pencil rest on your middle finger with your forefinger about an inch-and-a-half from the tip of the pencil.

3. Your hand is high over the paper. Only your pinky is resting lightly on the paper.

4. Gently swing your wrist in the air in an elliptical path.  Feel the pinky brushing over the paper and allow your forearm to move slightly. Find a speed and rhythm that’s comfortable and even.  Draw some ellipses in the air in a continuous movement.

5. Without interrupting the rhythm, lower the pencil to the paper. Then resume the ellipses in the air. Move the paper. After 3 or 4 ellipses in the air, lower the pencil to mark the paper without breaking the rhythm.

6. As you continue practicing, move the paper over and up.   Keep the position of the arm the same.

I love the paradox of this process.  The ellipse on paper–which is real and visible—is the residue of the ellipse in the air, which is an illusion.

I talked about the ellipse in an earlier blog, dated April 19.  I’m returning to the ellipse now because the New York Times has started a 12-week series on the art of drawing by James McMullan.  His second article, September 24, was on the ellipse.  Unfortunately, it is, at best, confusing.  Mr. McMullan offers no real guidance on how to approach the drawing process.  The comments left by readers show that they learned nothing from the article, though there was an abundant outpouring of enthusiasm over the fact that the Times is running a series on—what?—drawing !  I, too,  am delighted that the art of drawing has found space in a newspaper.  Here’s my own comment,  # 83, quoted in the Times:

“It’s wonderful to see that the Times is running a column on drawing. I agree with commentator #32 who laments the fact that most of us are visually illiterate. We should all be drawing! But Mr. McMullan is a poor choice as a teacher. After you’ve imagined the tops of glasses and bowls as so many floating Frisbees, you’re still no closer to learning how to actually move your hand to make an ellipse. I start every one of my new drawing classes with a demonstration of how the hand moves when drawing an ellipse. It’s a smooth, graceful gesture and it needs repeated practice over weeks and months. After students have watched over my shoulder to see the demo, I sit next to them and correct their movements. In my own blog about the art of drawing, https://artamaze.wordpress.com, I gave a lesson about drawing the ellipse (April 19, 2010), in which I used the analogy to the Frisbee– not as a shape because that’s useless–but as a reminder of how the wrist moves when you throw the Frisbee. That’s the real connection!
Mr. McMullan mentions that the hand needs to be loose in drawing the ellipse, but then he shows us ellipses drawn by a very stiff hand. His ellipses are not drawn with any swing at all, but with a scratchy, hesitant line. Mr. McMullan, you are most welcome to attend my drawing class. With empathetic, insightful instruction, you, too, can learn to swing your wrist to draw a lively ellipse.”

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