Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ready, Aim ... Draw!

Assigned the next critique, and as usual, showed samples from past student works and examples from some favorite contemporary artists to illustrate the idea:
CRITIQUE #2: Landscape - Exterior/view out of a window *not from a photograph
18x24” drawing paper w/border, graphite or charcoal, fix & sign

Indicate perspective/depth with overlapping areas, using foreshortening,
contrasting lights & darks, fore/mid/background layers

Four roughs in sketchbook are due for review Tuesday, Feb. 24th
Critique is Tuesday, March 3rd

To those ends, today in class an exercise in A) using easels (which we really don’t switch over to until towards the end of the semester with models & figure drawing), B) a primer on a gestural approach of drawing - from the shoulder as opposed to from the wrist – and C) ramping up the speed even more. Prewarned them on Tuesday about the “dead fly syndrome” where they’ll draw so much their hands’ll curl up like a dried bug on a window ledge, but I really am stressing the direct approach to instinctual reacting to subject matter while simultaneously processing the forms on an almost visceral level, not getting distracted by detail, over- analysis and hamstrung by self-consciousness.

I projected a sequence of landscape shots for them to quickly sketch using charcoal + rag + eraser, five minutes per image: by the one minute point of that they ought to have the bare essential shapes indicated, then knocking back/pulling out a range of values, refining it over the remaining time. Same drill as the last class, same process and approach, same terminology and materials – just different subject matter, and much, much faster execution. For a couple images at the end of the session I have them switch to trying drawing on good sketch paper, just to feel and see the difference.

Gave some more pointers on atmospheric perspective, and resurrect the familiar themes of foreshortening, overlapping, contrasting areas of value and gradations, bla bla bla etc. Another aspect I’m drilling into them is that regardless of the subject matter or medium used, the same underlying principles to varying degrees all still apply and can be utilized for their drawings. I point up the tendency for many landscape artists to use these concepts, for example foreshortening in creating a painting, that is like a window into the scene; detailed elements up front, close to the viewer which helps to ground and invite us, almost like a portal.

All that stuff aside, one of the best teachers I ever had maintained if you’re gonna draw from a photo, make your drawing BETTER than the photo. Otherwise, what’s the point, aside from reference. I dislike drawing from photos as a general rule, more so having students do it, since the photographer essentially has already done all the hard work in selecting a composition. But seeing as how it’s Alaska, it’s winter, and I’d face mutiny, if not lawsuits, should I herd the class outdoors, so we’re regretfully forced to adopt a temporary substitute (during my summer session course the ratio flips around for field trips and we spent over 2/3rds of the class somewhere out-of-doors).

A brief lesson from the Bob Ross school of Happy Trees makes an appearance during the landscape demo – I used to love the idea of laboring over a canvas for almost half an hour and then right at the last minute drop in an element that obliterates work you’ve just done. Plus it’s worth mentioning that this from-the-hip style of banging out gestural landscape sketches is an invaluable skill with which to impress visiting family members or dates while on one of those long ass drives across this beautiful state of ours. Pulling over to the side of the road at one of the many scenic viewpoints to whip out a drawing in five minutes makes for some powerful mojo. Bonus if tourists begin to coagulate to see what’s going on and you can panhandle the pieces as souvenirs, gas money at least.

Seriously though, about fifteen minutes before the end of class we grab all the works and run down to the Great Hall and scatter the drawings all over the floor. The sheer physical mass of output creates an impression almost as graphic as their charcoal impregnated fingers (and in some cases, faces and clothes). It’s a threshold of undeniable import; just looking at it all and thinking that if I’d have told them a few weeks ago they’d be doing FIFTEEN drawings in an hour and a half … this is also a good time to bring up the analogy of someone into professional sports: they always spend time limbering up, stretching those muscles – artists need a period of warm-ups too. And I expect this same approach when doing their rough studies at home over the weekend; hopefully they can now make a connection and see firsthand how important and useful this exercise is, and directly apply it to sketching out preliminary studies before tackling finished drawings - a little initial investment goes a long way.
The carpet of art is similar to the accumulation of their work generated over the course of the entire semester, when they have to cull together a selection for the final portfolio, or even within their own sketchbooks. Now sure, the pieces in question here might not be at the same level of quality as the source images, but they do all stand on their own as marks on a piece of paper that represent an impression, and unto themselves have unique and distinctive characteristics. In fact, usually I prefer many of these far more than the original, somewhat sterile (in comparison) photographs; these have a rough-hewn immediacy that would translate just as well would they be drawn on-site somewhere else. And that’s at the core of what this class is about; that connection with where and what you’re at, looking at stuff and drawing it down. Ideally without an artistic drill sergeant with his annoying timer barking at you.

I mention that putting out such a volume of work increases the odds of success; putting all of one’s time and energy into one piece over the span of months means you’d better be good and have the results correspondingly show, or maybe by just upping the output you’ll have some hits along with the misses. Taking an advanced class where one goes through hundreds and hundreds of sheets of paper doing endless 30-second gestures, then 1-minute gestures and so on, for hours every day, week after week, well, it piles up pretty quick. Anyone who can’t grasp the concept of their steady output of art accumulating over time needs to spend some in an outhouse: after knocking down two stalagmites in a 10’ deep hole so far this season, even I have to admit I’m full of it… I mean, look how many words I’ve already written in this blog.

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