Sunday, January 25, 2009


“If you intend to make a living at drawing, by all means learn it [the rules of perspective] now, and do not have them bothering you and your work for the rest of your life.” - Andrew Loomis

This is generally the hardest part of any given class for beginners (with the possible exception of figure drawing), but I personally like to kick-start the semester with it. Besides weeding out a couple slackers who quickly figure out that there’ll be a lot of work expected out of them, it can really gives folks who might not be all that confident in their initial skills some positive reinforcement right out of the gate.

I always like to share an important and humbling lesson learned from one young woman from a few years ago who just Could. Not. Get. It. Nomatter how long I spent one-on-one with her before, during, and after class, and despite every trick of the trade I had at my disposal; it was like she lived in a completely alien dimension. Usually I maintain all that an individual needs is the basic motor skills to hold a drawing utensil and enough cognitive ability for spatial depth perception. But there’s always a couple every year that it just seems to be fundamentally beyond them, and this woman was close to losing it over her inability to understand perspective. As it turned out, of all the students in that particular class, her work became the most interesting once she found her strength lay instead in non-linear forms, especially with value. It's important, but not critical - doesn't mean you can't draw or be an artist, as there are lots of techniques to compensate for shortcomings as in everything else with Life.
So in that way, it’s not too much different than a stupid Rubic’s cube; each week another side is explored, another medium is experimented with, and various topics rearranged in relation to each other; sometimes it seems as soon as one “rule” is established it goes out the window in the very next class. Or put another way, it’s like each student is being rock-skipped across the vast, deep body of art, and I just try to give enough velocity and momentum to reach their respective interests and abilities before sinking (usually around the end of the semester during finals week).

I also preface discussion on this topic by recalling pretty much everyone’s experience - usually around middle school - there’s always some schmuck in the class who gets tagged as “the artist”, usually because they’re the ones who can draw really cool looking spaceships or dinosaurs, or slavishly copy whatever’s the currently popular game or comic-book character. Somewhere along there we pick up on the default equivalence of a drawing having to “look real” in order for it to be judged as “good”. And a lot of folks at that point just give up, tell themselves that they suck at art and leave it to the ones who obviously possess some innate talent. So by the time they show up in this class many years later there’s an awful lot of accumulated personal baggage to unload about what they can or cannot do and all the consequent frustrations and fears.

By contrast it can be a pure joy to sit in with younger children while they’re drawing; they just go at it without any preconceived notions hanging over their heads about how good it is, just uninhibited expression. You tell them to draw X, and they just have at it with abandon, and at times, a concentration that I wish I could sustain. In my own work I am forever lapping waves against this gradually crumbling wall of artifice, and often am jealous of simpler, unguarded efforts of peers with their unrefined and at times more honest and immediate pieces. So I share in the trepidations of students who worry at the reception of their work, as it is a lingering tension for many artists, including myself. Part of what I hope this class gives them is a series of experiences that will in effect help them to become somewhat inured of such doubts while balancing the relative merits of objective criticism against their own feelings and motivations for doing art.

But back to the prevailing realism that constitutes most people’s definition of what makes a picture “good”. I think that having a student achieve satisfactory results on what previously seemed an impossible task and is for many the foundation of drawing is a positive reassurance that they’ll succeed. Here again I offer myself up as a prime example of all that one really needs to do to get the job done: within the panel borders of most cartoons is a picture plane wherein elements are arranged in such a way so as to convey that illusion of depth. By compositionally placing objects in the foreground, mid-ground and background, by overlapping them, and using foreshortening, plus understanding the basic ideas of linear perspective, a 2-dimensional drawing - a simple bunch of marks on a sheet of paper – becomes a portal, a believable window into another world, a fully realized 3-dimensional space. From hereon out we’ll populate it with the stuff of imagination, but for now, creating that convincing illusion of depth is crucial. Now, after they see me scribble out a pickup truck, an outhouse, or similar object on the board, they’ll quickly figure out that I ain’t exactly a stickler for the finer points. – if perfection is their goal then through the aid of powerful computers they can ultimately achieve their vision. Or, if the faithful copying of reality is paramount, I suggest just buying a cheap digital camera and saving oneself considerable time, expense and frustration. Again, I’ve found that the simple cartoon is a handy and unassuming way to present the underlying principles without being an overwhelmingly technical and theoretical deluge of information. I do lecture at length about the theory, because it’s rather fun in a geeky sort of way, but it’s more a matter of what sticks afterwards, and what shows up in their own works.

To that end, as with all sessions where a new topic is introduced, I will lecture and demonstrate on the board along with paper on easel in the front of the classroom, and then project a series of images that literally illustrate what I’ve just been babbling about for a half-hour or so - in effect reinforcing particular terms by repeating them again in conjunction with specific examples of previous student’s works. I err on the side of inspiring them with these examples, as most appreciate the chance to see concrete and successful solutions from other beginners – some instructors maintain this could have the reverse result and instead intimidate them, and/or essentially “give the answer away”, but to date I haven’t seen an instance of that happening. This also affords the opportunity for an informal dry run on critiquing, as we go over what works, what doesn’t, and why on each piece. Casual discussions like this provide insight on what they will be doing over their own works and that of other classmates within the upcoming weeks. I also urge them to take a second and maybe sketch out a few of the offered examples during the show & tell. Then its on to a battery of exercises…

“I remember Francis Bacon would say that he felt he was giving art what he thought it previously lacked. With me, it's what Yeats called the fascination with what's difficult. I'm only trying to do what I can't do.” - Lucian Freud

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