Drawing in Class

Drawing in class definitely contributed to me finding myself on the “five year plan” in high school. Well, I showed ’em! I made drawing in class my job.

Whenever I share drawings and paintings that I did in classes I was teaching, I always feel like I should point out that I do a fair amount of teaching in class. I’ve heard plenty of stories about teachers underteaching, especially beginning drawing classes, and I am definitely NOT one of those. My students paid for instruction, and they get it.

However, there are always times when a class knows what they need to do, and I need to hang back and let them work it out. When that happens, I draw or paint along with them. I either do the same exercise that I’m asking them to do, or work on what they will be doing next to troubleshoot my own lesson.

OR, if it is a more advanced class that is painting a figure model, sometimes I try to be sneaky and draw and paint them.

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This is small (11×14″), and on paper. I started out with a messy sumi brush/ink wash, did some drawing with a pencil, and then went at it with some acrylic paint. That might surprise anyone that knows me, since I hate acrylic paint. Golden Paints sent me some, so I decided to give them another shot. They are OK, as long as I’m willing to recognize that they are not oil paints, and don’t try to use them as if they are. Anyway, after the acrylics, I worked some parts of the study with oil paints. It’s only a 2 1/2 hour class, so I’m sure I could have gotten some other materials in there if I’d had a little more time.

Here are some other things I’ve done in class using various combinations of materials. The third and fourth image, the man seated on the stool slightly turned to his right, are the same drawing. The first one is what it looked like after a couple of minutes, an ink wash with sumi brush.

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Missing In Action

Important Work

There’s a short-sighted attitude that I, and probably most artists encounter all too often; this idea that we, and art in general, are whimsical fluff, and that the world is doing us a favor by letting art happen. And I’m here to tell you that this is bullshit.

In a world where clever-sounding catch phrases, rather than discussions of policy get politicians elected, it’s not surprising to see people falling for overly reductive thinking. We’ve developed a hardened economist attitude that if we cannot draw a straight line between an activity and the almighty dollar, then that activity is of little to no value. Everyone likes an opportunity to say that they “supports the arts”, but it sometimes feels like it is being said almost out of pity, with an unspoken understanding that art, and artists, are not really necessary.

What’s worse, is that even artists buy it sometimes. On more than one occasion recently, I’ve found myself having to convince artists of their own value.

So, for anyone out there who feels compelled to follow creative pursuits, but finds themselves holding back and thinking “what value is this?”, here’s your pep talk:

Art comes from our deep curiosity about ourselves and the universe around us, the same place that science comes from . While science tends to study the more tangible things, art can offer a way to study those things that are just as palpable, but harder to nail down. The more subjective things. Art takes on subjects from beauty to anger to boredom to humor, and even questions about our own curiosity. (“Just why IS ____ so damned interesting, anyway?)

There are other animals, such as birds or monkeys, that make and use tools. But I cannot think of a single one that builds models of the world order to study them, pass them around and have a conversation about them, and the parts of the world that they represent. That’s what scientists do, that’s what artists do, and that is a huge part of what makes us human. We make art.

You’ve probably heard the line that art “is a cultural imperative”. It’s true. All peoples, even the most poverty-stricken and downtrodden, have art. The nature of art might change with wealth, but it is not a privilege of wealth. Again, It’s part of being human.

So, there you are, considering making some art, doing something creative, when that poisonous thought, “yeah, but what’s the point? What’s this really WORTH?” pops into your head. Well, I’m here to tell you that making art is important work. It must happen, and it does happen because it is vital to being human. Furthermore, the art that you are about to make does not need to be a masterpiece to be valid.

Take a moment and look around you. Nearly everything you see was designed on some level. Before it happened, on some level, it had to be imagined. The shape of your coffee cup, the color of the walls, what you are wearing, and often even the landscape around you was imagined first, and then created by people. Even though your drawing, song, dance, poem or sculpture might not have another function, it is part of that bigger, ongoing practice of imagining and creating. It is part of a bigger conversation, and it is from that conversation that the man-made, and man-understood world arises from. Art helps us decide what is important. A huge part of our world exists because someone created it. The more contributions to the practice of imagining and creating, the better the world around us will be. Art, and creativity is not whimsical fluff, it is important work.

 

And since this is my art blog and all, here is some recent work. I promise not to make this the Summer of Selfies, and I do have some other paintings in the works, but for now here is more of the “What Else Can I Do With My Face?” project.

The one with the strawberry made me realized something; that I’ve become a performance artist for an audience of one, myself. My primary goal when painting that was to watch myself do a painting with a strawberry in my mouth. It was pretty difficult to do without chomping down on it.

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Not So Pretty

And here’s yet another study of my own self, this time done with two mirrors and my fingers in my mouth.Image

Pretty

This is a painting of a student of mine working on her painting. I often draw and paint along with students; it comes in handy for the times when I need to keep my mouth shut while they are working things out, and also lets me have a set of similar problems in front of me that I can use as an example.

I showed this painting to a friend the other day, commenting that I hadn’t shared it with anyone “because it was too pretty.”

“What’s wrong with pretty?” She said.

Good question. It’s one of my prejudices. To me, “pretty” safe. In musical terms, it’s Easy Listening. Pretty is what people already know they like, it doesn’t invite us to see something new, or to think.

Monet’s Water Lilies = Kenny G on sax.

All that being said, sometimes pretty just happens.

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On Drawing, and Drawing as an Element in Painting.

I might know what’s wrong with your drawing.

Not a particular drawing, but your drawing in general. What you are doing. When something is wrong with my drawing, this is what it is. I’ve been drawing my entire life, and teaching drawing for over ten years, and when there’s a problem, it is nearly always this.

Let me back up a little bit, first. After all, if I just tell you now, you’ll stop reading.

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This first picture is a girl in one of my classes (please excuse my bad phone photo. It’s the only picture I have, and I gave her the drawing). She’s got great hair, and that’s why I drew her while she was working on her project yesterday. She didn’t know that I was drawing her, which was perfect. Instead of posing, she was actually drawing, and telling me about a drawing she had done a long time ago.

She told me how, when she was in second grade, she drew a picture that was great. She told me that it was a drawing of McDonalds, and I can’t even fault her for her choice of subject matter, because what she said about drawing it was so perfect. She told me how, when she was doing it, that she just KNEW it, that the drawing had everything in it, and that she just knew exactly how it went when she was doing it, and it came out just right.

You hit the nail on the head, girl with awesome hair.

The whole reason that I insist on teaching drawing without any formulas or the use of photographs is that those things make can for lazy imaginations. I’m not talking about imagining things that don’t exist, like the Tooth Fairy or Trickle Down Economics, but our ability to imagine the things that we can actually see.

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The problem with your drawing (if you are having one), is probably that: a problem with imagining it. And while a formula might help you some, it’s no substitute. After all, what good is knowing that a figure is seven heads tall if you are trying to paint the woman that is balled up on the floor, weeping, in a fetal position? A photograph might work as a substitute, but I see artists that have learned how to copy a photograph without ever having to understand what it is that they are seeing. These people typically turn their reference photo upside down, like they learned to do in Drawing On The Right Side Of the Drain, and never once consider WHY the woman is naked, balled up on the floor and weeping. Worse yet, they never even consider why they might want to do a drawing or painting of her like that. The work is simply an exercise in doing by hand what Kinkos does better, for about 25 cents.

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At this point, someone might be asking what the difference between copying a photo and working directly from life is. Good question. Those that have done both may have noticed that the photo is easier, because you can ignore the weeping woman, what you did to make her act like that, and…something else. Something that is not quite as easy to put one’s finger on.

The thing that makes it difficult is also the thing that makes it better, once we learn to do it. It’s the way you imagine it.

We have to understand more than is in the painting, even if we know that it is not all going to be depicted. Knowing where her other knee is, even though we cannot see it. We have to know it the same way we understand that she is crying, even though all we see of that is her shoulders shaking ever so slightly. In life, we see more than is in the drawing, and if we can learn to work with that, it could be the difference between a drawing that is ok and making art.

While we were drawing, did we KNOW how it went, like my young student knew McDonalds? If the woman suddenly regained composure, and stood naked, all seven heads of her, in front of us and asked for a tissue, would we still know how she looked a moment earlier? If we really saw it to begin with, if we knew exactly why and how the scene had unfolded, and had truly SEEN her curl up at our feet, then we would know exactly how the drawing or painting went. We would just KNOW it. We would move our pencil not like what we think a picture looks like, but as if it was moving over her body. Not just left and right, up and down, but in depth, in three dimensional space that exists in our understanding of the woman, but not on a piece of paper. As we drew the line between her body and the floor, we aren’t just copying a shape; if we are really imagining what we draw, it will feel like our pencil has actually fallen into the topography of her body and our hand is just pulling along that shadowy groove, as if we could separate her from the cold floor. Maybe she will show us her face and we can ask her what’s wrong. As if we didn’t know…

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Now that our model has pulled herself together, and we have talked, everything is better. Even the weather. It’s spring, and time to go outside and paint landscapes. So, instead of taking your camera, take your sketchbook. Take an extra hour and walk through the area you plan to paint. Look at everything so well that you could draw a map of it. Break into the abandoned building and see where you will stand in the field to paint it from the inside of the building. Talk to someone that used to work there. And send your model flowers or something. Shame on you for treating her that way.

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Eyeball Inspection

Editing.

Every now and then, someone in one of my drawing or painting classes, usually during one of their first lessons, trying something that they have never done before for the first time, will say “I can’t do this!”.

Please.

 

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Here, to make a point about practicing stuff, are two little self portrait studies, along with the part that almost nobody else ever gets to see: all of the OTHER self portrait studies that I did along the way that are destined for the “pile of doom”; the hundreds of paintings that I’ve done that will never see the light of day.

 

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Great Exposure

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I have never really stopped to count, but I would say that on average, I get asked between three and five times a year to donate art to be auctioned off for various causes. I do believe very strongly in helping people who are less fortunate than I am. As an artist, it can be nice to be able to donate my work directly, because I usually don’t have any considerable sum of liquid cash to give to anyone. Personally, I think that donating at least 10% to charity is a good standard.

I have been casually forming my own set of standards for donating, or not donating work, and so here, in the true spirit of the internet, I will share them with whoever cares.

This is a politically touchy subject. In fact, it’s no mistake that I’m writing this in the “off season” (most requests for donations come during the holiday season); I don’t want to offend anyone personally. It’s not uncommon for the person making the request to be another artist who is helping to put an event together. Furthermore, there’s an unspoken pressure: when all of one’s friends and colleagues are donating to something, nobody wants to be the person that said no.

I try my best to not do anything that devalues my work. I owe this not only to myself, but to the people that have supported me by paying the going rate for it. If the work I am being asked for is going to be auctioned off, then the minimum bid is the gallery price. Period. Frequently, organizations will ask artists to lower prices to increase sales, and I do not do this. I’m donating to help a cause, not give some other donor a sweet deal on my work. Furthermore, lowering the price not only devalues my work, but devalues my contribution to whatever cause I’m donating it to. Imagine giving $500 to a charity and then were told the next day that they threw $200 of it away. I would prefer that my work is sold in an art-specific context, because that is the market in which it is most valuable. I’ve seen my work ignored on a table, neatly framed by a Holly Hobby cross-stitch and a $50 pet store gift certificate (the hot item of the night, with bidding starting at just $10!). So much for “great exposure”.

The other frequent request is that artists create something specifically for an event or theme. I’ve been asked to paint on weird objects that I assume some company got a tax write off for donating, make art around an event’s catch phrase, been given crazy deadlines, or asked to create something that fits within a price range that is lower than my work sells for. Once I was asked to create a 4×8′ painting on a heavy piece of cheap plywood in just ten days. Just for reference, most of my larger (4×5′ or so) paintings represent about month’s work, and I am VERY fussy about the surfaces that I paint on. Of course, there was a suggestion that I could just “crank out something simple. It doesn’t have to be perfect!” Bullshit. If it’s going to have my name on it, in any case, then it is going to at least be the best that I can do. “Good enough” has no place in art.

I have never once written off the cost of donated work, and as far as I know, it isn’t possible to do so. I’m definitely not the one to go to for tax advice, but my understanding is that to write something off, you must be able to show that you paid the amount of the write off for whatever it is. In other words, the people who BUY my art at auction get a tax deduction, but I can only write off the cost of materials. There may be some sort of accounting jiggery-pokery around this, but I’m not aware of it.

So when WILL I donate? First of all, I want to know that my donation is doing some good. I want your organization to have a mission that I like, and I want to know that the money is going to be spent well. Also, as a friend who who has experience in development for non-profits pointed out to me, artists should be treated as major donors. I might not be writing a check for $50,000, but considering that I can produce about 25 pieces a year that I think are worth putting on a wall, asking me to give you one of them is a major donation my end. I don’t expect to be taken out to fancy dinners or have a conference room named after me, just that the integrity of my work and it’s value be respected.

In keeping with the theme of exposure, the painting pictured above is of my back yard under a full moon after a recent snow.

Winter Landscape

Winter Landscape

I’m a little tired of idealized snow in paintings. Snow, like Christmas, is great fun for kids, but the novelty wears thin after a few hours for me. I want to paint snow that turns into a muddy mess, that makes us late for work, and snow that makes simple things like walking into a chore that must be properly prepared for.