After a day in the city Christmas shopping, my wife and I took the train home, and I positioned myself on an inward facing seat so as to better sketch the people in the train car. When this little girl sat down right across from me, I thought “What luck!” With her formal grey coat, her plaid dress, and her big head of hair topped by her pink headphones, she was already a picture. All I had to do was draw what was in front of me. When her father tried to move to the back of the train, I protested. He laughed, but made her join the rest of their group; nevertheless, five minutes later she marched back. Her father told her I had wanted to draw her, and she insisted on returning. She didn’t move a muscle. I showed her the sketch when I finished. She nodded her approval, and THEN returned to her parents. Elena was her name.
Ray was a student of Chinese medicine, a bright and lively face with lots going on. He never takes off his hat, so he’s always ready for the outdoors. His eyes sparkled behind his glasses, and the mischievous mustache curling up at the corners of his mouth added a devilish delight. A gentle soul, he seemed to me, sturdy and direct and guileless, with a certain childlike innocence. The more I draw portraits the more I see pieces of myself in every face I meet, a possibility from a parallel universe, a turn I just didn’t happen to make. But Ray did, and I’m glad to know his path is being walked, and that somehow if Ray is walking it, so am I. Portraiture: growing oneself by learning to see others, groping for the line that separates and connects us.
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.