Dallas was a big strapping young man who wanted to be a writer. A gentle giant, he liked the Beats. He certainly reminded me of those big hearted American writers of the Sixties, like Allen Ginsburg and Ken Kesey. His height, his long hair and beard, and his bear-like bulk made it easy to miss his sad eyes. In doing his portrait, I felt like I made a little leap beyond mere likeness, a step into character study. My teacher tells me portrait drawing has nothing to do with seeing into a person’s soul; it’s a matter of measurement. I’m not so sure. I mean, I know he’s right: measurement is the key. But to turn the key in the direction of art, you need empathy, a feeling for the sentiment in the arch of an eyebrow, the turn of a nose, or the hang of a lip, no?
When trying to learn art, it’s easy to forget to have fun. There is so much heavy lifting to do just to gain basic knowledge and technique. And nothing makes an artist more grim than the dreary prospect of plodding work. For an artist, “having fun” means using one’s technique to express one’s visual experience. That can’t be done without first learning the technique; but one can’t summon the energy needed to learn the technique without tasting the reward of doing art–the chance to show what one feels for the visible world. That’s why I liked this sketch. I had just done a good three hours of work in a figure drawing class. I had jumped on the train. I was tired of all the measuring. I needed to get a taste of the Why–the motive for measuring. I found it in the sight of a woman looking out a train window. In her simple gesture, I see something of human hope, curiosity, and wonder.
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.