Saturday, June 27, 2009

Figure Drawing

Last few days of the summer session class is devoted to drawing from a model, which this year we were fortunate enough to get not only for regular class times but also a couple bonus open drawing sessions on Friday afternoons. These posted samples are an example of the paces I put everyone through: starting with a series of 1-minute gestures while standing at an easel. This is a different approach to the physical act: pretty much all along we've been drawing while seated and the action has been from the wrist, which, for example, in the case of pen & ink is crucial for control in mark-making. But particularly with respect to subject matter like the human figure (and also landscapes) it makes for much more loose and expressive pieces to draw instead from the arm, shoulder and even involving the total body. Sometimes the term "gesture" applies equally to the actions and movement of both the model and the artist. Also the holding of the drawing implement is different, a subtle but important distinction: instead of gripping the pencil in the fingertips like usual, it is held cradled in the palm and held between the thumb and index finger (like waving a magic wand) - this forces it to become more of an extension of the arm, which is in theory an unconscious extension of vision. I always recall the constant drilling from my long-time instructor Larry Vienneau, who was a big bow-hunter, and clued me in to the concept of Zen and the Art of Archery as applied to the philosophy of drawing. Over the years of practise it becomes an instinctual, reflexive action in response to the model - when a professional archer steps up, draws and lets the arrow fly, their eye is on the target. I strive to impart a similarly automatic reaction here, which the closest explanation I've come across is in training the "brain/muscle memory." There are advanced studio courses that focus exclusively on drawing from models, and that is a good opportunity to really concentrate on developing that hand/eye coordination to the degree where art truly becomes a verb as opposed to a noun. Sketching becomes a ceaseless flow, and quite often I find it helps whatever project I'm going to work on, regardless of media, to spend a little time warming up, both mentally and physically.

Here is also the connection with cartooning for me; coalescing all the requisite skills in observation and execution, and distilling the forms to their underlying essential shapes, to where every single mark, each line represents and imparts the barest minimum of visual information to symbolize the subject. After merciless, incessant drilling with a model doing 30-second gestures, Doubling that up to a minute then seems to infinitely stretch the time available, after which we jump to a series of 5-minute gestures, then a couple 10-minutes, and then it's time for a break.
Now we set up for works on better paper instead of the warm-up newsprint, and also assemble more options to draw with: charcoal (+ smear wads, erasers for subtractive technique), markers, ink, wash, pastels, colored pencils; whatever's within reach - hence the range of styles displayed here during one of my usual, convoluted exploratory sessions.This series of lessons with the figure is not only a culmination of skills applied in totality within one drawing of the pinnacle of subject matters, it's also the grappling over the Rubik's cube of options and seeing what pattern emerges, if any, with whatever materials and tools work best and one is most comfortable using.Even though the poses become longer, from 20 minutes to a half-hour, usually seated and reclining, I still remind them to try and capture, within the first sixty seconds, the gesture which is the foundation of a good figure drawing. Regardless of how much time and medium you throw at it, if that base isn't there to build upon it will doom the drawing in the end, somewhat similar to the potential pitfalls inherent to linear perspective. And as throughout the whole class I emphasize light, loose preliminary sketching to map out the compositions until they are confident of what goes where, rechecking angles and measuring relative relationships by using sighting devices, making successively darker marks until arriving at "the line." Sometimes, especially in the case of my drawings, this'll result in an incoherent mess on the paper, other times unplanned, spontaneous quality of the marks makes for a much more interesting and expressive piece. I personally have an aesthetic appreciation for such indications of process, even if most of my finished works are at the other, opposite end of the spectrum; essentially devoid of anything but contour line (see below).

There's also time now to begin incorporating additional elements to the piece: framing and cropping the image, adding value and textures, background information etc. all the while experimenting and exploring the basic form. I remind folks to never underestimate the power of giving up; moving on when a piece loses its momentum or interest, or crashes and burns right before your eyes - get over it, next. That said, don't give up before the miracle, as it never fails that in this class there'll be mounting frustration before perseverance rewards someone with one of the best pieces they ever did. Getting over those inhibitions and not being afraid to constantly screw up and have other people see what might not be considered good art in their eyes are significant psychological speed-bumps in creating art, which is one of my ulterior motives in teaching and hopefully a lesson that lingers.

One observation regarding this diptych posted above: it resulted from basically botching up a ten minute sketch done with a dip-pen, and afterwards seeing how the proportions were off enough to make the drawing worthless, I impulsively lopped it in half with the studio's paper-cutter, pulled the pieces apart to double-check my instinct, and since that was the problem, stuck it in with the rest of the pieces to scan them later on at home. The title, "Goldin's Box" is meant as an ironic tongue-in-cheek reference to the objectification and compartmentalization of women as portrayed in art: despite the potential for interpreting the work as misogynistic, fact is it was nothing more than an accidental process - nothing like a little irony with your art. And again, worth it to wade through all the above experiments if I at least wind up with one good drawing.

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