David was a danseur, appearing at the Chicago Opera’s performance of Cinderella while he was modeling in my portraiture class with Don Yang. He had a fine head, with sharp cuts in the planes that made him fun to draw. He sat erect and yet relaxed, with the discipline and grace of a ballerino. He was a dancer who could sit wonderfully still. I was trying to capture the sadness in his eye and the androgyny in his look, the femininity in his still very male face.
Lamont Williams is a Chicago homeless man. I met him on the corner of Michigan and Monroe, across from the Gage Restaurant. He was sitting in the shade of the El entrance shaking a cup for coins. I offered him five dollars to sketch his portrait. He was all for it. I had tried two homeless people before Lamont. One told me to get myself another willing subject; another told me, in all the miasma of mental illness, that she didn’t like me. But Lamont did. We hit it off, chatting the whole time I sketched. I stood beside and above him, looking down, as a passerby might, so as not to interfere with his panhandling. He told me he had been laid off from his janitor work in a Chicago hospital. He was pleased with the sketch, so I asked him to sign it, and I told him I’d take a picture of it, post it to my website, and show it to him the next time I was downtown. Lamont Williams.
Isn’t everything gloriously unfinished?
The designers of the new Maggie Daley Park in Chicago (Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates) had the magical idea of taking a bunch of dead trees, turning them upside down, and creating an inverted forest where the big branches become an intricate maze of arches and domes for people to explore. The trees stand in the city like the preserved remains of giant aliens. I liked the subject for the simple juxtaposition, the steel skyscrapers rising up behind the stripped trees. I liked it for all the apertures that opened up between the branches. I liked it for all the associations of the modern and primitive hovering in the air between the two, which stirred in me thoughts of the living and the dead. A contemplative spot, so a good place to sketch.
Earlier this evening I went down to sketch at Frontier Days, our town festival. I fixed upon an old man walking near the Bottle Throw, and when he happened to sit down beside me, I asked if I could draw him. He and his grown children were game. When I finished the sketch, his son suggested I let him sign his name, and I thought that was a great idea. So here you have him: Andrew Ramos, an 87-year-old Greek (born January 26, 1928). A great family, and a really nice old man. Handsome too!
Last month I went to a cage fight at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. Gabe Mota, an old student of mine, was fighting. I went only to give him some support, but I came away with a whole new appreciation for Mixed Martial Arts–and two sketches. This one is a view from our table, #14, which was positioned just behind the media crew recording the fight. The audience drew my interest as much as the fighters. My focal point here was the husband and wife at the right, two of Gabe’s supporters. I loved the woman’s dark hair next to her grey and white striped shirt and the way her husband reached out his arm in a protective gesture (she was pregnant). There was also something strange about the mild-mannered man at the neighboring table behind them. He was not your typical Mixed Martial Arts fan, a connoisseur of the street, perhaps.
The Fire Island Lighthouse on Long Island’s south shore looms large in the landscape of my imagination. I grew up on the Island, and we used to swim at Robert Moses, the beach just West of Fire Island, so the figure of this lighthouse runs deep in my psyche, appearing every so often in my dreams. Some of my best childhood memories are of my father taking me out to Fire Island in the winter to let Babe, our family dog, run in the surf with the lighthouse watching over us from a distance like some giant sentinel. Picasso said “I put in my pictures everything I like. So much the worse for the things – they have to get along with one another.” Here I painted what I like: dune grass, boardwalks, and lighthouses, and they get along just fine.
I visited a friend in New York recently, and on our way to a Broadway show, he ducked into a cafe to get a coffee, so I waited outside and did a quick pencil sketch of the street and billboards of Times Square. What a visual orgy! If I had known Sodom and Gomorrah was going to be such a fun place to sketch, I’d have visited much sooner! In this sketch, I knew I didn’t have much time, so I didn’t bother consciously choosing a focal point. I just dove into the drawing process, drawing as much as I could before my friend returned. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for me to want to take a reference photo and finish it up at home. The focal point in the welter of imagery emerged only slowly; naturally, it was the larger than life-sized blonde in the billboard behind the sign. The textbooks and teachers say to choose your focal point carefully, but sometimes it’s better to let it come into focus more deviously, through the backdoor of the mind.
I suppose this little series of pencil and watercolor pictures of the Artist’s Cafe are studies. It has taken me a while to figure out the nature of a “study.” And I suppose that’s one of the characteristics of a beginner; he often mistakes his studies for finished works. But it’s only now, as I am acquiring new skills and realizing just how far I have to go, how much better my work can still be, that I am appreciating the advantage of a value study. I’d like to do this piece again, giving a little more space between the far chair and Nazare himself so that the viewer can see his feet! I’d also like to move the coffee machine to the left, give him a little more air. Still, I like this portrait of Nazare, the Ukrainian busboy at the cafe. The pose was all his idea, but I liked it.
Karina is a waitress at the Artist’s Cafe. She is full-bodied, strong, with a girlishness in her eyes that will probably last into her 80’s. I like to imagine that right here, in a Michigan Ave. diner, some Aztec princess is peeking out from behind those shoulders and the cafe monuments, the rows of glasses, the milk machine, and the cash register, were all erected in her honor. But then I get hold of myself, try to remember she’s just a waitress, a handsome woman with a strong back.