Two drawings

In The Art Spirit, Robert Henri says, “The most vital things in the look of a face or of a landscape endure only for a moment. Work should be done from memory. The memory is of the vital movement.”

Often, when setting up a long pose, I see the moment I want to capture right away; sometimes I have to watch the model for a while, even talk a little with him or her, to find what I’m looking for. And then, after the long days of model and artist assuming the same position, the pose loses that crystalline moment that interested me to begin with. I must remember to continually restate that first found emotion, that vitality of personality that captured my eye and intellect.

Gesture drawings are good for capturing initial emotions and impressions. The two drawings connected to this post were started each as 10-minute drawings. My goal when I made the sketches was to choose a composition that clarified the spirit of the pose and then get down as much information as I could while the models were there so that I could finish the sketches at home.

Things suffered: perspective, proportion, hands, foreshortening. But in general, I feel like I remembered the feelings—and the narratives—I had in my head when I composed the drawings. I wonder, what narratives do you see in these two paintings?

Life drawing

This Albert Einstein quote (if it is from him—I didn’t have time to fact check) seems to say it all:

Formal symbolic representation of qualitative entities is doomed to its rightful place of minor significance in a world where flowers and beautiful women abound.

And, I might add, in a world where beautiful men abound as well.

Life drawing: freedom within structure

This is one of my favorite drawings from last week—a series of 2-minute poses—simply because I was able to control placement of the figures on the page. I was able to do it in a somewhat organized and pleasing fashion. And I was able to do get this information down fast. 2 minutes a sketch.

I could not have done this four years ago. In fact, a year ago I could not have controlled my drawing this much. Over the last year I’ve taken another leap in abilities.

I’ve been studying life drawing at the atelier for nearly four years. I’ve been focusing very hard on proportions, angles, measurements, and it’s only recently that I’ve been able to exert some kind of discipline over my errant and mindless drawing arm. (Sometimes I wonder, does this left hand even belong to me? My brain tells it to do something and like a spoiled puppy, my hand widdles charcoal all over the drawing even while my brain is chasing after it with a rolled up newspaper yelling NO! NO! NO!)

In open drawing classes (not at the atelier, because there we strive for proportion) I see a lot of people who just draw as they feel. It’s an experiential gig for them; they’re drawing to feel good, because, let’s face it, drawing feels good.

I’ve noticed that some folks have the kind of brain that allows them to see the model clearly and they are able to naturally get the information down on paper in proportion. But others struggle to see and don’t know what they are doing wrong. They often quit drawing in frustration. I was like that four years ago. My drawings were floundering attempts at something I could barely visualize, let alone realize. So I found the atelier and have been working hard ever since.

Rïce Freeman-Zachary, at Notes from the Voodoo Café has an interesting but maddening post (although with Rïce it could more correctly be called a rant) on being the thing you want to be. Among other things, she says:

“If you want to be it, you do it. And if you want to do it—if you really love it, and it’s what you want to do with your one single life—then you do it the best you can. You study, and you practice.

And, I want to add, practice with a purpose. Because here’s the thing. After four years of obsessively measuring angles, proportions, and anatomy, these days, when I do let myself go and draw as I feel, the feelings have some way to be expressed. I’ve got a vocabulary now, and my drawings can shout or whisper, laugh or cry. The errant drawing arm is beginning to behave like a well-trained appendage. My brain is happy.

A better wren, a better rider

I worked on the image from my St. Stephen’s day post, and made another, more solid watercolor sketch. I don’t have a real wren to draw, so I had to cobble together an imaginary wren from an identification book and several online photographs.

When I lived in Mexico, a little wren lived in the trees next to my house. Every day at about 2:30 she would come in through the always-open kitchen door, make a circuit of the living room (she loved the indoor garden), and after about 30 minutes she would exit through the living room door. She was quite unafraid of me and the dog, and after I caught her killing a scorpion by beating it to death on the metal window bar, I always graciously bade her welcome into my house.

Unfortunately I didn’t draw so much then, so I lost my chance to sketch that little bird. I shall have to figure out how to invite a wren to my home in California.

Debbi Kaspari, at Drawing the Motmot, has several blogs on drawing birds. Two of my favorite pages: 5 Steps to Better Bird Drawing and How to Sneak Up on Your Subject. Now if I can just get a little wren to move into my backyard…

Into Pergamon with Rob Anderson

Drawing by Rob Anderson

Last Saturday we went to see the show Into Pergamon by Rob Anderson (my teacher at the atelier). The show centers around a collection of drawings he did of the Great Frieze of the Pergamon altar that’s now in Berlin.

This is great stuff! His work is subtle, seemingly delicate at first, the charcoal like feather marks on the paper. But the longer you look at it, the more you see the strength and internal integrity of it. It comes into focus suddenly and forcefully, and simple charcoal and chalk drawings on brown handmade paper come alive with the clash of giants and gods at battle.

In his bio, it says, “He [Rob] did not in a moment of inspiration walk into his studio to spill out these skillful drawings in a fit of artistic passion. It didn’t take him a day to complete these works, nor did it take several days, or even weeks, but months of tedious and arduous work.”

It struck me that the time he took to make these drawings is almost as powerful as the drawings themselves. In our instant-society, where we expect everything to get done in less time than it takes to cook Uncle Ben’s minute rice, this kind of focus and dedication is rare.

And it makes me wonder if the new direction fine art will take will be back towards craftsmanship, back towards thought, and planning, and effort.

There is a movement, to be sure, of artists who want to study realism, but the big guns, the critics and columnists, the editors and galleries, don’t seem to value this, calling it a “populist movement.”

“Sheer draftsmanship,” they sneer.

But draftsmanship coupled with artistic vision…doesn’t that put a drawing or painting squarely back in to the realm of fine art? It becomes something that is valued not just for the thing itself, but the thought, dreams, and desires, and the time that went into the making.

Into Pergamon is at Ohlone College in Fremont until February 6, 2010. Give yourself plenty of time to see it.

Fear of sketching

Sketch from Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass festival. While I was sketching, the woman sitting next to me struck up a conversation, and told me how much she enjoyed watching me draw!
Sketch from Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass festival. While I was sketching, the woman sitting next to me struck up a conversation, and told me how much she enjoyed watching me draw!

WordPress somehow keeps track of search terms folks used to get to my blog. One of the most frequently searched terms is fear of sketching in public.

I’ve written about being afraid to sketch in public before. I am constantly trying to overcome this fear, and apparently, I’m not the only person shy about public sketching.

I’ve been working on solving this problem, because one of the things I really want to be able to do before I die is sketch freely in public, with no shame. If that’s your goal too, here are some suggestions that have helped me.

  • Take some classes to improve your skills. This is top of the list. I’ve studied figure drawing with Rob Anderson at the Atelier School of Classical Realism for 3 years. It’s improved my skill level to the point where I can sketch people and have them look like people. That has allayed my fears incredibly.
  • Plan your sketch trip as if it were an expedition to an exotic country. Expeditions are hard. They are arduous. They can be dangerous. They are adventure that takes a lot of effort, so think ahead. Select your materials with care. Decide where you’re going (make a map if it helps you). Know how you’ll provide for your basic needs (what you’ll eat, where you’ll be able to go to the bathroom.) Once you’re on your expedition, be curious, look around you, document the expedition with sketches to describe the customs of the natives.
  • Choose places where you can sketch in obscurity. At first, it helped me to sketch in large public places like parks, where I could sit on a hillside with my back against some bushes (so no one could creep behind me and look over my shoulder at my drawing). I drew people who were far away, so they didn’t get self conscious that I was drawing them. I could have been drawing them, the view, anything. And I did draw them, the view, anything.
  • Pretend you’ve got no choice. When I went to the Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass festival, I pretended that I was on assignment for a brutal editor and had to come away with ten sketches. I just didn’t have any choice. I had to do it. The sketches didn’t have to be particularly good, but there had to be 10. That worked for me, as I’m used to deadlines and assignments.
  • BassplayerKeep it simple. Don’t try to create a masterpiece. That’s way too much pressure. Draw stick figures if you must. Anyone can draw a stick figure. Try just to get the action or composition down using stick men as shorthand. Stick figures are amusing, and a low commitment for the artist. Later you can hang skin and clothes on the little figures in a place where no one can look over your shoulder and criticize. Same with a landscape. Just try to get the bones of the landscape. Don’t worry about drawing every bush, tree, or leaf.
  • Remember that people don’t see your work the way you do. We artists tend to be our worst critics. We see flaws; others see beauty, or effort, or the coolness factor that you’re an artist.  They may even be thinking, “gee, I wish I had the courage to do that.”

The fox and the chicken


This is from my car sketchbook. I love the flexibility the Niji waterbrsh gives me. Once the black and white drawing is finished, I can add watercolor pencil and then hit spots with water where I want to, all the while waiting for stoplights to turn green, or in the parking lot at work.I don’t have to fuss with my watercolor kit. It’s very convenient for having to squeeze art into a busy day.

I drew the fox first, then thought the drawing should cross over the fold of my sketchook, so I added the chicken. To me it looks like the animals are about to have a whingdinger of a battle.

The long pose in a fast world

Pastel pencils, charcoal, chalk on toned paper

This pose, drawn at the Atelier School of Classical Realism in Oakland, took about 10 hours. I still have a few hours left (without the model) to “finish” the picture.

It’s very difficult to find a long-pose life drawing session that I’m able to attend the Bay Area. Most evening life drawing session poses max out at 20 minutes; a pose that lasts many hours, like the pose I drew here, seems to interest few evening artists. In our hyper-cyberspaced out world, even artists rush around like roadrunners on amphetamines.

And this style of drawing is unpopular these days. In my head I hear an art teacher I know saying, “your drawing is too fussy, too lifeless.” And on some levels I would have to agree with him. But during the course of this long pose I learned so much about color, form, proportion. It gives me a foundation for the next long pose, and hopefully that one will look  more free and less precious, because of the long pose, and not despite it.

Waterbrush pen and the smoking man


I recently bought a Niji waterbrush pen. It’s just a small synthetic brush attached to a tube that holds water. Squeeze it and water comes out. It is evidently a Japanese invention—you can read more about them at Russell Stutler’s sketchblog. He’s an American artist living in Japan, and his sketches of places in Japan are beautiful.

The waterbrush pen has added a new dimension to sketching in the car. I can whip out a quick sketch with a cheap felt tip pen and then spend several more stoplights working out the details, adding form, value, and tone.

One day last week while waiting at a particularly long light, I was pleased to look to my right and find  a man wearing a fedora pulled up beside me. And he was smoking! How often do you see that in the Bay Area? The universe couldn’t have presented any better momentary travel companion. I dashed off the initial drawing with a plain old cheap felt tip pen during the 30-second  red light, then I built up the drawing using the pen and waterbrush while I waited at subsequent stoplights. I finished the sketch in the parking lot and felt happy and satisfied as I started my day job.