Wednesday, November 25, 2009


“The best portraits are those in which there is a slight mixture of caricature.” - Thomas B. Macaulay
Well, we only had one class this week, since the Thanksgiving holidays intrude upon art during the fall semester. So I tried packing in twice as much into one session and barely pulled it off, excepting not having enough time to get around to the Vignette critique (more on upcoming post).

As I've done now for a few years I start to introduce the final figure drawing phase of this beginning class by using caricature as a sneaky back-door approach. Drawing people (especially it seems self-portraits) can be an intimidating undertaking, and I've found that this method works really well for getting students to loosen up and not take it so seriously, maybe even have a laugh in the meantime. They've already had the sublime experience of creating a subtractive charcoal self-portrait using xeroxes of their beautiful faces smushed up against the photocopier, which proved to be amusing, if not instructive. If it's one thing my students eventually pick up in this class, it's to get over themselves and lose some hangups about looking silly, and I've never had any problem leading the charge. The same set of basic implements are used - pencil & charcoal + wad of smudging tissue & eraser.

After doing a demonstration on a "volunteer" we paired up the drawing tables and basically did an artistic version of speed-dating; switching off fresh victims until everybody accumulated a half-dozen different takes from other people. The reasoning behind this is that so often another perspective will reveal aspects of yourself that can be insightful or that we ourselves will overlook. The pacing was pretty brisk: for the first minute they did a small thumbnailed rough in graphite using 18x24"newsprint of a "serious" portrait, i.e. what the other person "really" looks like. This is the visual equivalent of essentially taking notes; observing what features are the most prominent, compiling a mental list of attributes that will be jumping-off-points-of-departure later. Each poser presented a 3/4 profile, and while making the rounds, each time I made eye contact we'd inevitably get rewarded with a great big smile, which does a lot for imparting an expressive drawing. Also they were instructed to possibly incorporate an article of clothing, manner of dress, hairstyle or other accouterments which may be used a symbolic visual metaphor.

When the minute's up (again - the short timespan focuses attention, bypassing the inner critic by being more instinctual and reactive) they quickly sketched out a full-sized version in graphite, this time exaggerating, warping, pushing and distorting the simple underlying shapes to ridiculous extremes. After another minute passed, it was time to pick up the charcoal, which also to some degree forces one to even more simplified forms as they refine the caricature for another two minutes.
At the end of the series everyone gathered up the portraits of themselves that had been done by the other students, spread them out around their table so as to easily refer to them for inspiration, and set about for a half hour to do one finished piece on good drawing paper. This meant folks were free to take on aspects of themselves that other people might have shied away from, as it can be problematic when tackling weird growths, incredible ears, outstanding honkers and other protuberances which make us all unique individuals. In the end, nobody knows you better than yourself, and we certainly can be our own worst enemies. That together with an artist's sense of self-criticism and intrinsic ability to objectively look in the mirror made for some very interesting caricatures.

“Caricature is rough truth.” - George Meredith

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