Framing the figure

BoyonTrainThis drawing I completed after visiting the Vermeer Milkmaid exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What luck to be in the city while the Met had a special exhibit about Vermeer. I was able to study the paintings in real time, and try to understand what made them work.

I wish I could live in that museum (I loved From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler when I was a kid), but, alas, they will not let me. So whenever I visit New York, I spend as much time in the museum as possible, sketchbook in hand, trying to infuse my brain with master works. I don’t always understand what I’m learning while I’m at the museum, but somehow it ferments in my brain and bubbles to my conscious mind later.

One of the things that I noticed in Vermeer’s work was how he often framed the figure with geometric shapes. In A Woman Asleep, he frames the face of the young woman with a gray square. He often uses a wall hanging of a map as a geometric element that frames the subject—look at Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, Woman with a Lute, and Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. (Incidentally, if you’re interested in Vermeer, The Essential Vermeer is a terrific online resource.) But it really didn’t make a big dent in the attention I was paying to Vermeer’s color and brush technique.

But I must have filed this bit of framing arcana on top of one of the piles of information cluttering my mind, because it surfaced later that evening. After a three hour stretch at the museum, I tiredly took the train back to New Jersey where we were staying. I sat across the aisle from this young man who was trying to sleep, and took out my sketchbook to capture his lanky pose.

Suddenly I realized that it wasn’t his face (I could scarcely see it), or his figure that attracted my attention, but rather, the way he was framed by the dark of the window and the back of the seat. Light bulbs went off in my mind. This was what Vermeer was talking about when he use a shape to frame his focal point!

It’s a simple sketch, but it pleases me because it reminds me that I’ve discovered a new way of seeing.

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