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.

painting class

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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