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Drawing Through the Fog of Cold Meds

Nude Female Reclining Away
Value Study

Before last November, it had been a long time since I had a cold.  I know the last time I had the flu was New Years Day of the year 2000.  I’m pretty sure I had gone at least 7 years without a cold.  I have an immune system made of steel.  And then came this winter.  This week in March of 2010 was Round 4 of allergies or colds dragging on and on.  I went to the doctor yesterday and got some antibiotics and other medications to kill the germ and relieve the symptoms.  The most noticeable side effect was a distinct lack of patience and the karma of drawing to myself a number of taxing situations testing what little patience I had.  Tonight’s figure drawing session extended my torture.  I kept losing track of time, getting very little done with each pose before it was over.  It was taking me nearly the whole allotted time for the pose, just to lay it out on the paper, which left no time for development of tonal values.  On the last pose I moved around the room to see if there were any other more interesting viewpoints, and discovered that just about anywhere else in the room was a better place to be than where I had been.  Instructor Heather Clements’ suggestion at the beginning of the session was to focus on light and shadow, with development of a full range of values, from the darkest dark to the lightest light.  I had been drawing in the one location in the room that had very diffuse light, so that the form was almost all one value except for some very dark cast shadows underneath — no wonder I had been having such a time!  I moved to another part of the room, and found a lot more variation of values for the last pose.  Even so, it was a struggle — I think my cold meds made me stupid.  But the other artists there at Studio b were encouraging.  It’s nice to be in the company of other supportive artists.

Value Scale
Value Scale
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Airport Sketching

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.

Airport Sketch, Elderly Man Airport Sketches, Man Eating Airport Sketch, Man on Cell Phone
Airport Sketches, Man Dozing Airport Sketch, Man Texting Airport Sketches, Backs of Heads
Airport Sketches, Elederly Woman and Man in Cap

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Guest Artist at Studio b: Wm. Coleman Mills

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.

Vignette Transfer
Vignette Transfer

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.

I don’t normally drink and draw, but on this night, I was glad when the owner of Studio b, Colleen Duffley, came around offering the artists wine or beer, or water.  I chose beer.

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Website Challenges

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.

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Figure Drawing with One Continuous Line

Large Female Standing by Stool
Non-permanent pen and wash, collection of Tracy Rothstein

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.

Large Female Wearing a Ring Large Female Kneeling Large Female from Behind, Leaning Forward Large Female on Folding Chair
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Guest Artist at Studio b: Eileen West

Henri Matisse - Nude at the Mirrow - 1937
Henri Matisse - Nude at the Mirror 1937

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.

After Eileen's presentation 1
After Eileen's presentation 2
Eileen West, of Seagrove Beach, FL, was our guest artist at studio b this week.  She talked about being aware of the entire setting, and encouraged us to incorporate the setting into our drawings, as opposed to ordinary figure/ground drawings.  She showed us some slides of art by Henri Matisse, including this one pictured, Nude at the Mirror, to exemplify how he incorporated the surroundings and was not very worried about exact accuracy, and not at all worried about modeling of form.  She quoted Picasso as saying he spent 4 years learning to draw like Rafael, and the rest of his life learning to draw like a child.
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Figure Drawing with Non-Dominant Hand

Drawn with Left-Hand

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.

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Plein Air Painting in Kestrel Territory

Western Head, Isle au Haut, Maine
Western Head, Isle au Haut, Maine

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 at me the whole time.  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 stood up and raised my arms, 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 caused such drama just by sitting there.  Usually when painting plein air, critters come either ignore me or they come right up to me. I must have posed some kind of threat. It certainly made for an unforgettable experience!

Bird image from

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Drawing in Reverse

Figure Study

This week at the figure drawing session at  Studio b, instructor Heather Clements suggested that we draw the mirror image of the subject.  This required us to transpose the figure in our minds, because we didn’t actually use mirrors.  As usual, we drew a number of warm-up gesture drawings, and then some longer poses.

Somewhere along the way, I stopped drawing the mirror image — I’m sure it was a valuable exercise, but the process was boggling my mind.   So to continue along the vein of thinking in reverse, I decided to reverse my procedure.  I usually draw the shadows to define the form.   Instead on this final pose, I drew only the lighted areas, using nearly-white Nupastel on gray paper.  At the end, I used a little black Conte to define the form, leaving the gray paper to show through for the midtones.