Last week I flew to Denver to celebrate my Dad’s 90th Birthday. People in airports are captive, so I sketched a few. I quit if they noticed — I didn’t want to make them feel creepy. It’s pretty amazing how you can be sketching the back of someone’s head and they will turn around and look right at you. I’ve been attending the figure drawing sessions at Studio b since last August, and I can sketch more quickly now, a handy skill for this exercise, because people move so much even when they are sitting still. It really makes me appreciate models who can hold a pose. The following sketches are just moments in time, bored and waiting to board.
Wm. Coleman Mills was our guest artist at the Wednesday night figure drawing session at Studio b this week. He showed us how to use a vignette to more accurately set up the subject on our paper. The exercise began by looking at the model through an 8½”x11″ piece of plexiglas, tracing the outline of the model onto the plexiglas, and finally, drawing lines from various “landmarks” across to the edge of the plexiglas, to begin to chart the landmarks. Drawing lines on the paper that corresponded with the lines on the plexiglas, and then transfering our drawing, enabled us to proportion the figure and account for foreshortening.
Coleman talked about his approach to art, which is to express his memory of an event or a scene, a sort of vignette of a moment in time and space. He brought some examples of his work and talked about the encaustic process that he uses to create his works which might be considered abstract expressionism. He showed us a couple of paintings from his Estuary Series. He painted them in oils, which he coated with bees wax, and then scratched into the wax and rubbed acrylic paint into the scratches to create a highly tactile presentation. He also showed us a couple of paintings from his Summer Storm series, which have very strong texture. His paintings on his website are impressive, but seeing them in person is so much more of an experience.
As always, the energy in the room was very high, and I think Coleman’s energy doubled it. I liked him and I liked his style. But I found vignetting to be difficult. When I draw the figure, I almost always start with some sort of gesture drawing, to lay down an initial “feel” for the movement and weight of the model. The use of the sheet of plexiglas, and the process of transferring, made me tense. It didn’t feel “artistic” to me – it felt more like drafting instead of expression. And yet I know that I am constantly comparing landmarks in relation to each other when I draw…. where the eye is in relation to the nose, in relation to the ear, and how far down the elbow is from the line of the shoulder, the angle of the upper leg to the lower leg, etc. With a live model, you can’t be too much of a stickler for exact position or proportion, because there will be some movement during the pose — just because the shoulder was lined up over the right toe when you started the drawing doesn’t mean it will be there when you finish.
OK, now you get to see how I can mess up my web-guy’s fine work. I moved a bunch of sketches from my Figure Drawing Gallery to Sketches and Gestures, and although both slide shows progress correctly, the thumbnails shift on every other slide. This kind of thing just stops my right-brain dead in its tracks! “Oh W-a-r-r-r-r-r-r-e-n!”
So why have two categories? The Figure Drawing Gallery contains pieces I would show. The “Sketches and Gestures” section contains pieces I probably would never show, but that I haven’t thrown away yet. Sketches and gestures sometimes have more of a sense of immediacy and intimacy, even though they are probably done hurriedly and might contain serious inaccuracies.
How do I decide what to keep and what to throw out? The initial decision is easy, because most of what I do are warm-up drawings, and practice pieces, or compositional planning. Many are not even recognizable, and since I prefer representational art, recognition is important to me. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but for me, it is all about whether the piece keeps my attention, in that I want to look at it for longer, and look at it more often, as opposed to looking at it and saying ‘Yeah, OK, that’s pretty,” and just moving on without a second glance.
This week, Studio b‘s figure drawing instructor Heather Clements gave a demonstration, drawing the model by using one continuous line. Never lifting the pencil from the paper proved challenging, especially the process of drawing without laying in a gesture first. Proportions and shapes had to be corrected by successive efforts. Tonal values and textures were the result of an accumulation of lines, or by varying the pressure, to give lines more weight.
I warmed up using nupastel, and switched to a water-based non-permanent marker, and finally to watercolor pencils. I washed over the non-permanent marker drawing and the watercolor pencil drawings when I got back to my home/studio afterwards.
The energy at these sessions is very high. One of the participants said he had never been so productive! It’s such a pleasure working beside talented, enthused artists. And working with a larger model is freeing. When the subject is less “perfect”, I don’t focus so much on getting things exactly right, which allows more play just for the fun of it.
Eileen West was the guest artist at Studio b this week, the first in a series. She gave a presentation about her approach to the figure, and she referenced Henri Matisse, in particular his Nude at the Mirror (shown at right). She pointed out how Matisse did not strive for accuracy or for tonal expression of the form in this drawing and yet it conveyed such emotion. She quoted Picasso as saying that he spent 4 years learning to paint like Rafael, and the rest of his life learning to paint like a child.
She asked us to try to express emotion in our drawings and she asked us to look at the entire setting, not just figure and ground, and not to get stuck on absolute accuracy. I thought it was easier to express emotion when we were warming up with 1-minute gestures, but more difficult when the model held sustained poses. Eileen said to consider everything she said to be lies, but I knew she spoke her truth and I felt privileged that she shared it with us.
My first drawing here adds in some of the elements of the studio and makes almost no attempt at modeling, sort of Matisse-y, although any inaccuracy in the contours was unintentional. In the second drawing, I just emptied my mind and went with the moment.
A few weeks ago at our weekly figure drawing session at Studio b, our exercise was to draw with our non-dominant hand. I stayed with the exercise for the entire 2½-hour session.
Although I had attended many figure drawing classes for my undergraduate area of emphasis, I had never before drawn with my left hand. It was grueling. I had no hand-eye coordination. My right hand will usually draw the approximate angle for the intended distance while I am just looking at the model, but when I was drawing with my left hand, I had to watch my hand to see what on earth it was doing.
Having no fine-motor control, I found myself gripping the daylights out of the crayon. In fact I broke every implement I used, by holding it so tightly. But interestingly, even though my line-quality on each finished drawing was jerky, the proportions and masses were basically correct, perhaps even better than when drawing with my dominant hand. No doubt I was forced to a greater degree of observation.
And I found myself reaching for crayons and colors that I rarely use, free to experiment, since I had low expectations.
I was surprised to find a different appeal to the pieces I produced.
In the fall of 2008, I took my second solo “artist” vacation. Once you get past the aloneness of it, there is something almost sacred about solitude. I had packed up two boxes of art supplies and shipped them to myself General Delivery at Stonington, Maine, on Deer Isle. Due south of Stonington is Isle au Haut, most of which is a part of Acadia National Park.
On this particular trek I rode out to the island on the mail-boat, intending to hike the cliffs trail. It was an easy hike to the other side of the island. I rounded the first curve and the view of the cliffs opened up in front of me. I saw no need to hike further! I ate my cheese and crackers and fruit lunch, and then set about sketching the cliffs.
I was completely absorbed for a long time. I had even lost awareness of how hard the rocky ledge was that I was sitting on. All of a sudden I was attacked, literally, by a very territorial American Kestrel, who dove at my head repeatedly, screaming threats of massacre. At first I was amused and awed by the small falcon, but after one fairly close call, it dawned on me that I might want to keep my scalp, so I raised my arms, and stood up, and he flew up to the top of a nearby tree.
Shortly after that, he flew away the length of the cliffs and disappeared. I guess he just wanted to make sure I understood that this was his territory. Several hikers walked past me over the next hour or so, and I asked them if they had seen him, but none had. I was left a little unsettled by the experience, to have incurred such wrath while I was innocently sitting and painting. Usually when painting plein air I feel like I blend in and become an invisible part of nature. This time I wonder if I had shape-shifted into another kestrel — clearly I posed some kind of threat to this little guy.