I’ve begun sketching a series of pictures at the Artist’s Cafe on Michigan Avenue. This is a sketch of Irene, the owner, a large, dour woman who doesn’t say much. But she rules the roost at the Cafe. She’s daunting, and all the workers hop to it when she wants something done. She is shown here dug in behind her cash register. She accepts only American Express and cash.
I’ve been trying to figure out why I don’t like a fellow artist’s art, and I’ve decided it’s because he prettifies things too much. Art is not prettification; it is the attention that allows the beauty of objects themselves to shine. Reality is beautiful. That’s a premise of the arts, and I see no reason and a lot of poor taste in trying to amp it up beyond reason. It’s as if, not trusting in things themselves to do the revealing, he rushes in to wash them in pretty colors, cheapening the object, like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Like a 15 year old caking her lashes with mascara, he hides the truer beauty beneath A still life of Chardin and an etchings of Rembrandt teach a different lesson. In protest, or at least as a reminder of what I’m aiming at, I painted my kitchen window on a winter night.
I’ve been working on my sketching skills. During a recent portraiture class, my teacher, Don Yang, told me to stop multiplying my strokes. “The rule in art is that we don’t take ten strokes to do what we can in one.” Later I realized that the sketches I liked best were those that took one stroke at a time, making each one count. In short, even in my sketching I was hesitating, slowly zeroing in on the line instead of decisively putting it down. I worked on that approach this morning, on Valentine’s Day, while enjoying my morning coffee. And now I am falling in love with sketching.
Valentine’s Day is coming up, so hearts it is. I have found that adding a little heart to any sketch is enough to make me love it, just as adding a little love to any heart is enough to make it sketchy. I mean, who knows what dastardly plots the ole black-hatted villain of love has set for you in this life. It is frightfully easy to find oneself tied to the railroad track of love, but who isn’t ready and willing, any day of the week, to be run over by its steamy engine? Hark, is that a damsel in distress I hear?!
This morning I worked again on more winter heads. These little watercolor drawings of the a.m. crowd at Starbucks teach me two things. I’m working with a number 4H pencil, so as not to dirty the watercolor paper before I lay in a wash. The hard pencil teaches me to be quick and simple with the line. Laying in the wash later in the studio teaches me to be equally simple, clean, and even a little expressive with the wash. The simplicity attracts me in both the product and the process. Overworking is a sure sign of doubt, second thoughts, and lack of attention. I believe this is what the Japanese Zen artists practice in Sumi-e, the individual brush stroke reflecting the artist’s inner state. Refining the art refines the artist.
Early in the morning I sketch the customers buying coffee at my local Starbucks. I have a few seconds to capture in pencil the person’s essence. I make a few notes about color, especially when the customer’s personality seems bound up with the color of a coat, a scarf, or a hat. I watercolor them later in my studio. It’s a pleasant way to spend the morning, giving me a record of very momentary impressions. In The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, Walter Pater wrote: “To such a tremulous wisp constantly re-forming itself on the stream, to a single sharp impression, with a sense in it, a relic more or less fleeting, of such moments gone by, what is real in our life fines itself down.” That’s how I think of sketching, as the practice of fixing the fleeting impressions of our lives, and will-o-the-wisp as they are, it does after all seem like these are the most real part of life.
On the way home from London, on American Airlines Flight 87, my wife and I sat next to an Indian woman, her husband, and their little girl. The father was warm and friendly, though somewhat harried and disheveled, and the little girl was as cute as a button, but it was the mother that most interested me. She sat closest to us, so she was the easiest to see and draw (on the sly, of course), but she also had that full and blooming glow of all young mothers that makes them such wonderful subjects for art. I understood how an artist like Mary Cassatt would want to specialize in painting mothers and their children. There were so many beautiful pictures of the woman with her child in her arms, but the kid just wouldn’t sit still long enough for me to capture them both together, so I had to settle on the mother alone.
On Thursdays the Palette and Chisel runs one long-pose session on the 3rd floor, and one short-pose session on the 2nd floor. The first time I attended the long-pose session, I took my time and aimed for accuracy.
When I arrived I had to find a place at the back to work. There were a lot of painters at the session. This was their second week on the pose, and they had already claimed the prime real estate. My drawing was somewhat dry and stiff, but I liked the results. It was accurate, which was my main goal.
The second time I attended the Open Studio, I went to the short-pose session. At one extreme, we practiced one-minute poses, which were good for loosening up and looking for the largest gestures in the figure. I trashed those. At the other extreme we practiced 30- minute poses, which I found frustrating. They were too long to not want to launch into a full-scale drawing, but too short to draw as slowly and carefully as I felt I needed to.
I got the best result when I went a little more abstract, reducing the figure to sharp angles and simple lights and darks.
My best drawings were the three-minute ones below. The time was short enough to force me to go loose and easy but long enough to actually get something that looked like the model.
The model matters. This one was imaginative and expressive, calling on all of us to get the motion of her body–its dynamism–into our sketches.
I told my teacher I liked the long-pose best, but he reminded me that poses of varying lengths have different skills to teach me, and these figure sketches helped me figure that out.
Sometimes, in the course of learning how to do something as complex as drawing, it’s important to write down the big lessons learned. Here are three that have been key for me.
The first was that learning to draw is about learning to see–not symbolically, for a subject’s meaning, but aesthetically, for its form. Accurately judging placement, proportion, and perspective is the key to representation. Cezanne said it best. “Monet is only an eye, but my God, what an eye.”
The second was that learning to draw is about learning to feel–with a pencil. Learning to feel with a pencil is not pouring the same sentimental wash of pretty color over every subject. It is searching with the pencil for the distinctive features of a subject: the texture of its surface, the direction of its energy, or the balance of its forces.
The third is that learning to draw is about knowing how things are built. Drawing a portrait well demands anatomical and structural knowledge of the head as a whole and of each part individually. We only “see” some things if we “know” they are there.
An eye, a heart, and a mind. No wonder learning to draw is so difficult.
Originally I was using this site as an artist’s portfolio, a place where art directors in the children’s book world could access my work. I had written, illustrated, and self published one book of poems for children, but I wasn’t having much success trying to find a publisher for my second or third books. Worst of all my narrow focus on producing a children’s book was limiting my growth. So I did what everyone tells you never to do.
I cried uncle. I gave up. And it was one of the best things I ever did for my art.
First I painted abstractions, compositions of simple shapes that allowed me to experiment with different ways of putting paint on a canvas. With brush, with rags, with fingers, I used everything from thin watercolor-like washes to thick, juicy impasto. Then I took to sgraffito, scratching out monsters, demons, and love cowboys by the dozens, filling the walls of my home with anything that bubbled up from the deeper recesses of my mind. And when I grew sick and tired mucking about in my subconscious, I took a hard turn right into realism, setting out to master portraiture and the human figure.
I don’t know know where I am going, or where this blog is going. But I do know that giving up on getting somewhere is sometimes the only way of getting anywhere.