Thesis plans

I’m finished with my third year at the Atelier in Oakland. Next year will be my fourth, and after learning anatomy (year 1), technique (year 2), and color temperature (year 3), I am faced with the “thesis” project.

We don’t get official grades at this school, because it’s 1. not accredited and 2. largely populated by students who have day jobs and so are self-propelled in their artwork. But that doesn’t mean we don’t grade ourselves, and indulge in a tiny bit of good natured rivalry with fellow students. But Rob doesn’t run his Saturday classes as an academic grinding mill, and that’s what I like about it. We learn from other students’ work, and find joy when they make a huge leap forward (and there are students—yours truly being one of them—who poke along for months, then suddenly break through whatever mental block they have and leap up to the next level of competence and sensitivity).

So, the thesis project is a big deal to me. If—no, when—I complete it, I’ll have a portfolio of pieces that are a “body of work.” Expect to hear more of this.

Quick color temperature

Pastel and chalk on toned paper
Pastel and chalk on toned paper

This year at the atelier I learned modeling using color temperature—we used a limited palette of 4 earth-toned pastel pencils, charcoal and white chalk, and toned paper to create form and shadow.

This method is about intellectualizing your drawing. It’s about making a conscious plan rather than just grabbing a color and hoping it will work. We drew value scales in color to denote the color temperature of highlight, strong light, midtones and shadows, paying close attention to warm and cool color temperature and where it was placed in the scale. This is agony for me. I don’t do it well. Scales suck.

Since I am also a musician, I know the value of scales. I think of them as athletic training, like the drills that prepare the football player for that winning 100-yard dash. Playing scales prepare the musician for a blindingly brilliant set. Playing the actual notes become muscle memory, the body goes on automatic pilot and the musician’s  intuitive brain is free to choose the music she hears in her head.

I figure it must be the same for the style of painting I’m yearning to do. Once I’ve internalized color temperature theory, I’ll be more able to make intuitive choices that are based on logic.  That’s when I think true creativity can emerge.

Value chart for warm light
Value chart for warm light

So I drew value scales religiously for each of my drawings this year. They helped. It’s surprising how far astray you can go from your original values over the course of a long pose. I leaned heavily on those value scales to re-orient myself and to overcome frustration. I know I frequently muttered things like, “strong light is cool. Cool, dammit!”

But on the last day of class this year I decided to whip out a drawing using the color temperature principles without agonizing over a value scale. The drawings at the top of the post were of ten minute poses each on toned paper. I did have to write the color temperatures down so I could remember which shadow was cool, which highlight was warm, but I didn’t need to draw a value scale. I was pleased that the concept is beginning to integrate into the way I choose color.

Vermeer with a limited color palette

Vermeer copy Charcoal and pastel chalk on toned paper

This is the results of the first 5 hours into my homework (copy a part of an old master, once as if under warm light and once as if under cool light)  for the Atelier. Vermeer’s guitar player  looks spooky with no eyes, but they’ll go in last, to keep me from focusing on them and nothing else. Her nose is not long enough and her mouth is too high; I’ll fix that later as well.

ValueChartWarmMaestro Rob has allowed us to use a limited color palette—charcoal, white chalk, gray chalk, and 5 earth-toned chalks. We’re working with color temperature and value to build form. At left you can see my value chart. This drawing is imagined to be under warm light, which, according to the way David and Rob teach color temperature theory, makes cool highlights and shadow, alternating cool and warm in all the steps in between.

This drawing will have to go on the back burner for now, as I still have to attempt the other part of the assignment in two evenings, that of the same drawing as if under cool light. That will mean warm highlights, warm shadows.

It’s a lot of work, to be sure, learning to draw and see effectively, but it’s been worth it. 3 years ago I couldn’t even imagine doing this kind of work. I still have trouble imagining that I can do it, and still am never satisfied.

Vermeer cropped original

Drawing in three colors

Neck study  Charcoal, chalk, sanguine on toned paper
Neck study
Charcoal, chalk, sanguine on toned paper

At the Atelier  School of Classical Realism, we’ve graduated from using only charcoal and white chalk. We’ve added a third chalk: red-hued sanguine. Boy, what a difference! With charcoal, white chalk, sanguine, and the toned paper, we’re actually working with four colors, and it’s amazing how many variations in value and hue we can mix.

At the bottom left of the drawing above, you can see my value chart. Working out your values before you start adding tone is absolutely the way to go. It doesn’t pay to be lazy in this regard; you’ll end up either working harder in the end, or just giving up on the drawing.

This drawing was done in about 3.5 hours, and with this limited amount of time (we do lo-o-o-ng poses in this class. I’ve worked on drawings up to 15-20 hours, so 3.5 hours was brief for me) I chose to do a study of a neck because Rob had just given us a terrific lecture on how to stick the head on the torso (always an important thing!) and I wanted to try out his ideas.

The key to getting the head on right is placing the neck properly. And the key to placing the neck is to think of it as a column emerging from top of the torso.

Sounds simple, but it’s not.

Gesture drawing

5 minute gesture drawing
5 minute gesture drawing

I like this gesture drawing because it’s a departure from my normal crabbed and tortured line work. I’ve been searching for a new vocabulary in drawing, something more free and graceful, something that could capture the whole pose in a few seconds. I began this drawing with a charcoal encrusted chamois. I held it loosely so that I could not possibly draw a thin line. I was looking for big, loose shapes. I think it helped.

I’ve been studying at the Atelier School of Classical Realism in Oakland, California for 2.5 years. When I first began, I loved to draw—I drew all the time—but I’d never had any kind of formal training, so my work always had something wrong with it, errors I couldn’t correct. Drawing a person took me so long and was such a disaster that I had difficulty finishing a drawing or a painting.

After the last few years studying with Rob Anderson (with guest appearances by David Hardy, owner of the Atelier), both exceptional artists, and wonderful teachers, I feel like I’m beginning to learn to speak the language of art. I’m by no means fluent, but I can peice together small sentences and make myself understood.