“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things,
but their inward significance.” - Aristotle
Today’s class is another one of my patented sneaky and underhanded approaches to drawing, this time specifically with respect to figure drawing. Since perhaps no other topic of study in beginning drawing will immediately intimidate students like this one, I’ve had great success by first doing caricature assignments as a benign, informal and fun introduction to sketching people. The human form is often viewed as the most complicated and sensitive subject matter, and there has been some debate over the appropriateness of teaching it at this level, which I’ll address in more detail next week. Caricature is definitely a great stepping-stone that is a comfortable way to build confidence and bridges observation and interpretation. Also recall the earlier "Xerox face" exercise in subtractive technique, and the contour line drawings done on the doors, so they've already confronted themselves and their fellow classmates to some degree this semester.
Again, speed is of the essence here, not only to bypass the bullshit in one’s brain (no time for over-analysis/silence the self-critic) but to literally get to the essence of what someone looks like. Honing this reflexive and reactive drawing style is linked with the drills we’ve had doing reference sketching on field trips, an instinctual technique that will be even more important when we start working with models and gesture drawings.
First I do a demo of a hapless volunteer; detailing every step of the process that they themselves will be doing the rest of the class time, and lecture a little on the history and value of caricature. At this time I urge everyone to bear this with a sense of humor; basically just get over yourself, we’re all funny looking – and also important to issue a caveat to play nice, don't be mean and have some sensitivity (not necessarily respect); we’re not doing this to hurt anybody’s feelings (as opposed to politicians) so some delicacy might be in order. This also the prudent reason why I had the class fill out the evaluation forms before this exercise. I also offer myself up as a willing sacrifice, especially seeing as how I’m pretty weird looking and make an excellent specimen. And they can take cheap shots at me in all my haggard glory – gotten some pretty hilarious ones over the years.
Students are paired up seated opposite each other, and take turns posing for each other over the following set of exercises:
1 - First I have them write out a short list of prominent features, taking note of physical attributes. (30 seconds)After jotting down the subject’s name, and giving them the drawing, one of the two students gets up and sits down opposite a new partner, and the process repeats itself until everyone in the room has at least five different drawings of themselves from five different people to use as reference, inspiration and points-of-departure. Often, as an added bonus one might pick up on some new, un-thought-of things, different angles, an objective assessment that might reveal some surprising aspects of yourself. And yeah, I throw myself into the mix if there’s an odd-number of students, or group one set into three so I can wander around and knock out one caricature for as many students as I can get to (good practice).
2 - Lightly sketch with pencil on newsprint a “realistic” portrait, to the best of their present ability (3 min.)
3 – W/charcoal over the pencil, simplify, delete all extraneous visual information (1 min.)
4 - Second pencil sketch on new sheet; identify the underlying geometric shapes (1 min.)
5 - Exaggerate, distort, push to ridiculous extremes; finish w/charcoal (5 min.)
Total time is approx. 10 minutes per student/10 min. per pair = 1 hour, 40 min total + 15 min. demo at start of class. Now trying to micro-manage an art class is equivalent to herding cats, but I do the drill sergeant of art thing; marching around with the annoying timer in hand while barking out commands. Actually, it really helps to constantly keep circulating and pushing folks to exaggerate and distort, as too often they stay too timid and tight so the drawings start to come across more as formal portraits than caricatures. Also I point out metaphoric accoutrements and props to capitalize on, and even personality traits that could help describe the person and give extra dimensions to the portrayal.
Perhaps the single-best article I've ever come across is this on-line tutorial by MAD magazine artist Tom Richmond. And it is also well worth the time for any artist regardless of their experience and medium to watch the classic documentary about legendary caricaturist Al Hirschfeld titled "The Line King." An absolutely mesmerizing and exhaustive overview of the life and work of a true master at drawing - every single time I've ever shown it to a class I wind up watching it again for myself.
Then the last half-hour is spent completing a finished caricature of themselves using Sharpie marker on good paper. This unleashes the innate capacity for self-mockery, to go where others have feared to tread, as nobody is harsher on you than yourself, and thus you can be absolutely merciless with a self-portrait. These are hung up and reviewed at the end of class, we have a good laugh at ourselves, and then I assign the last critique of the semester:
Needless to say, there is a lot riding on this final piece, as it represents the cumulative lessons throughout the semester, and all skills should be brought to bear. It will be their best work yet, and the most personal.
FINAL/CRITIQUE #5: Self –Portrait
DUE THURSDAY May 7th *including final portfolio*
Min. 4 different thumbs due in sketchbook for review Tuesday April 21st
• A rendering of yourself in a composition of your choosing.
Body part that is a metaphor for you, a portrait, or caricature.
• Open medium – use whatever you want.
Piece must be signed & fixed with a clean presentation.
• This piece will showcase everything you have learned in this class:
Demonstrate use of medium, line, value, perspective & composition.
“Everytime I paint a portrait I lose a friend.” - John Singer Sargent