Charcoal portrait from life with photo assist.

Charcoal portrait of J.

July 29th  and August 13th I’m teaching classes on drawing the portrait from a live model at Town Hall Arts/Gallery Copper in Copperopolis, starting at 9:30 sharp. If you live nearby, I hope you can make it.

Making portraits from life is a hard task, but it’s about my favorite thing to do. Why? Because I love to hear the sitter’s stories, and I love to get to know them. The subject in the portrait above is a new friend, and I found this session to be wonderfully interesting and relaxed.

I admit that I cheated a bit. I took a couple of photos, and when I got home, I spent a bit more time on this portrait, cleaning up the eyes, and developing the form a bit more. It’s a better drawing; the photo gave me a fixed pose, without a lot of wiggling from the subject, but without the initial 2-3 hours of drawing her from life, it would have been a very different picture, and not nearly as much of a likeness. It really helps to get to know your subject when you draw or paint them.

BoyatContra

Sketch of young boy, graphite with watercolor. Stillman & Birn Beta Series

I was sketching at a contra dance Saturday night. I was on stage, playing whistle and sketching during tunes I didn’t know. Normally at these things, I sketch the other musicians, as the dancers are moving too fast for all but the most brief gesture drawing, but a boy was sitting on the sidelines of the dance watching the figures. Being still. In good light.

Since I was flanked by fiddlers and behind a guitar player, I felt like I was not really noticeable. And the kid seemed to be engrossed with watching the dancers. So I began drawing.

Suddenly he whipped his head around and glared right at me, watching me watch him. It’s funny how sometimes we can feel people looking at us from across even a crowded large room, and we seem to be especially sensitive to the direct stare of the surreptitious portrait artist.

I nearly always have a sketchbook with me, and most of my friends, and the people at musical gatherings have grown used to my scratchings. But not this subject; he glared for a while longer, then got up and moved out of my line of sight, and so I was not able to get any kind of likeness, merely a sweet drawing. Oh well, sometimes that’s enough.

BoyatContra_Detail

Detail of sketch

ColoringBookSketch1As I wrote yesterday, I lost my sketchbook while hiking and sketching in Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area in Nevada. I think I put it down either in the bathroom or the visitors center.

Yes, I did ask at the lost and found. In fact, I filed a lost report with the administrative offices. Keep your eyes open; I really would like to have that sketchbook again.

I admit, I was quite upset about losing this little book that was half-filled with good and bad sketches. A sketchbook is intensely personal, although I don’t write a lot of personal stuff in it. Still, it’s a record of my life—sketches I’d made at my granddaughter’s first birthday party; a painting of my mother; people I meet and places I go—as well as a place where I can work out ideas for projects.

Besides,  I was not there in the stinkin’ hot desert sweating like an old mule to hike (as was my friend, who is oh-just-slightly crazy), but to sketch. I was there to draw the beautiful rocks and mountains in that canyon, dammit.

I looked at the visitor center for some kind of sketch book, or even just a notebook with lined paper, but all they had were tee shirts, desert kitsch, and expensive books about flowers you might see in Nevada were it not 104 degrees in the shade and in the middle of a drought. But I found this little book:

yhst-137970348157658_2374_637844980It’s a nice coloring book, with good information about cactus. There were some blank spaces. It didn’t have clay coated paper, so it would work (sort of) with watercolor. And it was inexpensive.

While my friend courted heat exhaustion on the park trails, I collapsed in the shade of a gigantic rock and disgorged my painting kit. Painting in a coloring book was not the same satisfying experience as painting in my Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook, but it was interesting to attempt to incorporate the artwork in the book into my paintings. I recorded some of the landscape. And it satisfied that awful craving to paint.

Finally my friend crawled off the desert, having decided that it was too hot for even her lizard-lady blood, and we drove around in the air conditioned truck as the sun sank and the hills glowed in the heat.

ColoringBookSketch2

Last week I was hiking and sketching in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (an amazingly beautiful area) near Las Vegas, and lost my half-filled sketchbook. I’m placing my trust in the power of the internet and hoping that by announcing it enough times in enough places, I can bring it home to me.

The images below were scans from the sketchbook; it also had drawings of my grandaughter’s first birthday party, a painting of my mom, and ideas for future work, all images I didn’t record. I sure would like to have it returned. If you’ve got it, please contact me!

Day_of_Sketching

Lots of life drawing. Drawings on the back of the paper too.

“The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind.” ― Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice

Yesterday I wrote of the need for the teacher to practice the beginner’s mind. Today I want to talk about that childlike inquisitiveness as a student.

By student, I mean that we should all be learning constantly, and especially when practicing art. But it’s easy when creating art to fall into habit, to be mindless, bored, resistant, or just lazy. Or to be so driven by results that we forget that the process is where we make progress.

I practice figure drawing a lot. I draw from internet sources like the Croquis Cafe, life drawing sessions, and real life. And I consider accuracy to the form to be important.

I usually draw with line, or block in my figures, then progress to value to build the form. There’s nothing wrong with that. But a recent discussion with a student who wanted to draw the figure as if it were a painting—using only values and no line—made me start thinking about other ways to create a figure. As I said yesterday, I need to get out of tunnels I’m stuck in; they’re dank and sloggy, and I feel like I’m not getting anywhere. So I decided to force myself to adopt a different kind of process for drawing the figure.

Gesture_2_minute_Line

2-minute drawing from model on Croquis Cafe

The drawing above is how I normally approach life drawing. I like to make sure everything on the contour is accurate before I begin describing form shapes.

GraphiteSketch_Line

15-minute drawing from model on Croquis Cafe

I usually make a contour drawing describing the shapes of the form and cast shadows, then fill in the values. This is my classical realism tunnel; thanks Bargue plates.

Drawing from model on Croquis Cafe

2-minute drawing from model on Croquis Cafe

So I decided to change things up. Instead of a charcoal pencil, I used a block of charcoal, and tried really hard not to let myself devolve into line, but instead, draw the figure using broad strokes to create shapes that described the form, without the benefit of line and pre-planning. Something different happened here, although I was unable to complete the entire figure in 2 minute gesture poses.

CharcoalSketch_Shape

20-minute drawing from model on Croquis Cafe

I tried a longer pose, still trying to limit myself to shape only, carving out the form with an eraser when needed. You can see that some lines snuck in to the drawing, despite my best intentions. However, this one has a different life to it than the other (although it’s very hard to manage proportions with this method).

My point is not that I drew better or worse using either style. My point is that, as an artist, taking a beginner’s mind attitude when I work leads to new discoveries. I don’t get so bound up in what I know, or the need to have a successful drawing. The outcome for my own personal projects (illustration work-for-hire is another story) is not as important as the process.

Dear reader, next time you’re creating art, do something you’ve not done before, or that you don’t like to do. Do something that makes you feel silly: Dance while you draw. Paint with a leaf and a feather, or even a rock. Be happy and light-hearted, focused as well as scattered, and learn something new!

Watercolor of laughing baby

Noah
Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press
© 2014 Margaret Sloan

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”—Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

A friend (and fabulous painter/film maker) George Durkee recently introduced me to the concept of beginner’s mind. It’s the idea that you need to keep a child’s mind—open, curious, and free of expectations—when studying. The attitude that you should attack your studies as if you are not an expert, even if you are studying at an advanced level.

I’ve only recently begun to teach life drawing, transmitting the knowledge of figure and form I received from my teacher, Rob Anderson (you can see his work here, but sadly, he has left us for that studio beyond this world), and I sometimes struggle to explain my methods.

So when George mentioned the beginner’s-mind attitude, and I thought about it a little, I realized that it doesn’t apply only to student, but to teacher as well.

When I’m talking to a student, sometimes my brain descends into a mental tunnel, where the concept I’m trying to explain becomes a mere whisper of what I want to teach. That faint echo is only slightly audible over the noise of my own pedantically droning voice and blathering insecurities.  Over all that racket, of course I have trouble hearing the student.

But the students are my real focus, are they not? And if they ask a question, or encounter difficulty in figuring out overlapping forms, proportions, or lines of action, then I need to figure out how to answer them with my own beginner’s mind. To find a different way to explain, or give them another tool for translating the human form to a 2-dimensional drawing. And to do that, I need to stop and open my mind up to other possibilities.

Sometimes it’s hard to make a sharp left turn when I’ve been so focused on trudging through a tunnel, but I’m learning (slowly) that it’s best to surrender to the dog-leg and play on lit like a child so that it leads me to the open air.

Market Baker Pencil sketch in Stillman & Birn Zeta Series Sketchbook

Market Baker
Pencil sketch in Stillman & Birn Zeta Series Sketchbook

I love the Sonora Farmers Market. It’s what you expect from a farmers market: great produce, homemade goodies, local musicians, and the occasional friend who greets you as you’re sorting through summer peaches.

There’s also a small seating area where you can eat any delicious purchases you’ve made, and sip a smoothie in the shade (criminey, it’s blazing hot in these foothill towns!). As I snarfed down a gluten-free scone (from Schnoog’s Cafe) and the fiddler delicately devoured a chocolate croissant (from I know not where), I took the opportunity to sketch one of the vendors. The inset is an idea for a painting that I noodled out while I was waiting for my turn at the loo (Yes, Virginia, you can and should sketch anywhere).

I credit my years learning  life drawing for my ability to sketch a moving target. Life drawing hones the artistic memory, so I was able to work even though my subject was moving about as she helped customers.  Fortunately, she often resumed the same pose so I was able to check my marks.

Then, at home, I added color. I wish I’d made better color notes while I was sketching in pencil, but it was getting ever hotter, even in the shade, so we retreated to the coolness of our air conditioned automobile.

Market Baker Watercolor and color pencil in Stillman & Birn Zeta Series Sketchbook

Market Baker
Watercolor and color pencil in Stillman & Birn Zeta Series Sketchbook

Class alert

I will be teaching a figure drawing class this Thursday, June 18 at 9:30 – 12:30, at Town Hall Arts/Galerie Copper in Copperopolis in the Central Sierra. We’ll be learning more about proportions, and embarking on a long pose that will last the whole class. My goal is to help all the students complete a blocked in drawing, and start building form with value. All you need is paper and charcoal, and some tracing paper,  and you can buy those items at Town Hall Arts.

 

Life Drawing Group

Shakespeare while waiting for the train
10-minute poses in charcoal on smooth paper.

Life drawing can quickly get out of control, with the figure’s head and feet disappearing off the edges of the paper, or a little  drawing floating lost in a sea of newsprint. One way I like to corral my drawings is by arranging the figures so that they relate to each other on the page. This forces me to design the perspective (what size should they be for the figures to make sense?); imagine overlapping forms (correctly layered, the forms will then indicate depth); and practice size and proportion control (no more figures falling off the paper). And I have to do this all on the fly, as the model changes position.

I often tell myself stories while I do this. I’m a compulsive story teller (yeah, you say lies, I say plot) and I often create narrative arcs, complete with build up, climax, and denouement, when I’m drawing. That inner literary tension, coupled with the stresses of figure drawing, makes life drawing doubly exciting for me.

The drawing below, for example, became a scene from a book the Fiddler and I are enjoying right now, World Without End by Ken Follett. My drawing is not about the main characters, but the faceless prisoners of war that might have been taken during Edward III campaign in France (Yes, I realize those luckless souls were probably not taken alive, but in my story they lived at least bit before they were chopped into bits.) Telling a story entertains me as well as directing the placement of my figures, and the discipline of grouping the figures really improves my life drawing.

Figure drawing group

Prisoners of war
5-minute drawings with charcoal on smooth paper

Class alert

I will be teaching a figure drawing class this Thursday, June 11 at 9:30 – 12:30, at Town Hall Arts/Galerie Copper in Copperopolis in the Central Sierra. We will be studying how the head fits on the torso. All you need is a pad of newsprint and some charcoal (that’s the beauty of drawing), and you can buy those items at Town Hall Arts.

FarmersMarketThe fiddler fiddled at the Sonora Farmers Market last Saturday. He likes me to be present for moral support and to bring him pastries. I go and spend dollars while he plays for dimes. (Folks, please support your farmers market musicians; throw quarters in the fiddle case, at least!)

After my dollars are spent, it’s lovely to sit on a curb and while my butt falls asleep, sketch the crowd. A little chair would be more comfortable, but there’s a neat thing that happens at curb level. I’m closer to the kids, and instead of looking down on the tops of their heads, I can sketch at their eye level.

I’m not sure why, but farmers markets seem to bring out the goofy in kids, and they are often beautifully dressed as pirates or fairy princesses, or pirate fairy princesses. Leprechauns. Furry animals. It’s like there’s this alternate world that’s swirling around adult kneecaps, and curb sketching gives me a window into it.

FarmersMarket2

The Prenologist's Wife, Calliope Dodge Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook

The Prenologist’s Wife, Calliope Dodge
Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook

Yesterday the fiddler played at Columbia State Park for an event known as The Diggins. Why not? He has a costume reminiscent of that era (despite the back pocket), and he plays tunes that would have made gold miners stamp and strut.

I went along for the sketching.

Professor Flatbroke B. Dodge, Phrenologist Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook

Professor Flatbroke B. Dodge, Phrenologist
Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook

Making portraits on the fly, in real time…yeah, that’s kind of scary. But it’s enormously fun too, especially at costume events.

I’ve only recently gotten brave enough to ask someone to sit for a portrait (only if it’s not busy and they seem friendly. And bored.). And I absolutely love it!

When I ask,  I assure my subjects that while I may not catch a good likeness, I will make them look like a human (which is a big improvement over the days when my off-the-cuff portraits looked like pigs in bags).

I also let them talk. I encourage it, although it is harder to capture their likeness when they’re moving. But I hear such interesting stories, and I feel like it helps me draw better likenesses after all.

Carol Bassoni, Lace Maker Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook

Carol Bassoni, Lace Maker
Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook

This question runs around in my mind: If portraits are about unmasking the subject, what then, to make of a subject who’s assumed an identity  that may well be the real person under the everyday mask they put on for their pedestrian life?

Links for this post

Go to the Diggins. Costumed docents, banjo players, and bean soups that give you a flavor of what the California gold rush must have been like. This weekend (May 29-31)
http://www.columbiacalifornia.com/diggins.html

Or visit Columbia State Park when ever you can. http://www.visitcolumbiacalifornia.com

Carol Bassoni makes lace at www.misslaceydesigns.com/

You can find Professor Flatbroke B. Dodge at www.oslhp.net/m-charframe.htm

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Painting and drawing and playing tunes are the things that make life real. I paint or draw or think about it everyday, and love sharing what I've discovered with you.

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All work on this blog is copyrighted by Margaret Sloan. I don't steal from you. Please don't steal from me. If you'd like to use something you see here, please contact me. We can work it out.

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