Line Drawings

Line drawing, like writing, can be declamatory or expository; a way of persuading viewers or a means to simply engage with the world beyond the self. The searching, tentative quality of a sketch is more like a soliloquy than a sermon, the artist’s interior dialogue groping toward a mystery. John Berger wrote that for Vincent Van Gogh drawing was  “a way of discovering and demonstrating why he loved so intensely what he was looking at…”

At the beginning of a drawing class we focus on line and all of the various ways it can be played. Working with line is like the visual counterpart of MTV’s “Unplugged” series where musicians leave all their technological wizardry at the door and just play the music. In the absence of recording-studio colors and effects, the integrity of the basic idea is revealed. The ensemble stands or falls in that clarifying light.

A linear drawing builds its riffs from a similarly austere palette, drawing its unique power from elimination, reduction, and distillation of the rich sensory experiences of the eye. Unaided by the seductive romances of tone, color and texture, the play of line in a drawing can inform us about what we are and are not seeing, allowing us to address problems before they’re embedded in complicated visual embroideries.  The relative spatial positioning, directional movements, and scaling of one part to another can be tested and worked out. Like a house under construction, a line drawing is more about the foundation than about the furnishings. The understanding of relational structure, built over time through constant practice, is the foundation of our powers of expression as artists.

On its march toward resolution and clarification of intent a linear drawing leaves in its wake a clamoring of linear hypotheses that can produce a remarkable beauty, as can be seen in many of the drawings below. The ghostly images of abandoned positions, proportions and directions function almost like the sonic qualities of reverberation in music. Tonal drawings have an epic feeling and grandeur about them. Linear drawings, by embracing certain constraints on their means, can achieve a very different kind of poetry, not unlike the sparse syllables, internal rhymes and rhythms of haiku.

Tone speaks directly to the emotions. Line speaks to the mind. Or, rather, it speaks to the emotions through the mind by distilling the idea of the thing. Lacking the mimetic immediacy of tone, which is a closer approximation of the actual way that we perceive the world,  the abstractness of a line drawing can never look like its subject in any literal sense. It can only look like itself, however much it may remind us of things seen. But, what we give up to line’s austerity, we gain back from its unique power of transformation. When we begin to draw, the motif is, as Henry James said of nature, a “blooming buzzing confusion.”  As our lines negotiate and articulate that empty space everything changes – our perceptions, our emotions, even the motif itself. The provisional becomes the inevitable.

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Leonardo’s Drawing Materials

leonardo

A short video from the Royal Collection Trust on Leonardo da Vinci’s preparation of drawing materials.

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The Sketchbooks of Richard Diebenkorn

Richard Diebenkorn, Cover of Sketchbook #8 (1943–93), printing ink on laminated board (gift of Phyllis Diebenkorn, © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)

Richard Diebenkorn, Cover of Sketchbook #8 (1943–93), printing ink on laminated board (gift of Phyllis Diebenkorn, © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)

Click on the image to read Allison Meier’s article for Hyperallergic

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The Winter of Discontent

Self-Portrait by Katsushika Hokusai, 1760-1849

Self-Portrait by Katsushika Hokusai, 1760-1849

Six weeks into a semester a student expressed to me her observation that she “wasn’t getting any better.” Students often believe that their frustration is unique to them; that their struggle is evidence of a lack of “talent.” In the journey we make as artists there are many well-known landmarks. Frustration with our seeming lack of progress after an optimistic beginning is a big one. Let’s just borrow from William Shakespeare and call that one “the winter of my discontent.”

We enter this barren landscape typically at those times when we are taking on new concepts, new images, and new practices. These strangers in the room challenge our comfortable, familiar habits; they upset what we thought we were doing. Lurking behind the curtains of consciousness, ready to spring forth in judgement of the child that lies at the heart of every artist there is often a soured, old, adult intelligence, even in very young people. Our rational intelligence is no help; in fact it’s the problem. A great pianist doesn’t “think” about every note in the moment of playing it. The dancer at the barre is not the dance. The pianist playing scales is not the concert. Larger patterns and instincts guide the artist and only practice can develop these instincts. Practice is not sexy, but it’s crucial because only by ritual application to the problem of taking materials in hand and attempting another drawing does the process become familiar enough for it to seep down into the subconscious.  I’ve noticed that progress in making art does not happen gradually. It happens in quantum leaps, not unlike the way seeds grow, invisible to the eye, under a hard crust of earth until a soaking rain softens the ground and seemingly overnight, the field is green with new growth.

“I have drawn things since I was six. All that I made before the age of sixty-five is not worth counting. At seventy-three I began to understand the true construction of animals, plants, trees, birds, fishes, and insects. At ninety I will enter into the secret of things. At a hundred and ten, everything–every dot, every dash–will live”
― Hokusai Katsushika   (from Anne Harris, fb)

“It’s as simple and complicated as this: if we want to make our best work, we must believe that what we have to say matters. We must believe wholeheartedly in our own vision of the world. We must be willing to be imperfect, vulnerable, playful, uncertain, and authentic. Doing is the creative habit that separates those who go places from those who spin their wheels.” Sol LeWitt, in a letter to Eva Hesse (from Alan Rushing, FB)

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The Nude, Pinterest® and Censorship

I’m a relative newcomer to the social networking site, Pinterest. My first impression of the service was that it was mainly used by people as a kind of visual “wish list” of things they’d seen on the internet. It was not until I began to observe what artists were doing with Pinterest that I realized it’s great potential for handily building image databases for art. Jumping in,  I quickly built catalogs of art, enjoying the ease with which I could “pin” exemplary paintings and drawings off the internet and sort them into various albums by technique, theme, or medium for the benefit of my students. One of the drawings I posted was this favorite nude graphite study by the contemporary Spanish artist Antonio Lopez Garcia.

Antonio Lopez Garcia

Imagine my shock when I shortly received this notice from Pinterest:

Pinterest® notice of image removal

Despite the wording which seems to distinguish between art that might be “educational,” or “like you might see in a museum or classroom,” apparently no one from “The Pinterest Team” bothered to look into the matter. In fact, the drawing in question has widely circulated in art museums all over the world, and it is a regular visitor in thousands of art classrooms internationally, mine included, because it is, quite simply, a great masterpiece of figure drawing. There is nothing “sexually explicit” about it. Compared to the frankly erotic drawings of Egon Schiele or Auguste Rodin on Pinterest, the frank objectivity of Antonio Lopez’ drawing is tame indeed. My feeling is that some prudish and ignorant viewer thought it was a photograph and complained. Pinterest, afraid of offending its viewers, has only revealed its ignorance by removing it without the slightest research.

This blatant censorship reminded me of the struggles of American artists in the late 19th century to work from and show nude studies in a society in which nudity was considered immoral. Aside from a few Popes demanding fig leaves to cover the genitalia of sculpted nudes, Europe has rarely been as conflicted about the nude human body as have Americans. In the 17th century, Europe disgorged the Puritans who found the New World an appropriate blank canvas for imposing their curious notions of morality on a society. To the present day they continue to dog the American consciousness with their peculiar equation of nudity with sinfulness.

A particular incident in the history of American art makes a poignant example of how deeply this perverse view has insinuated itself into a particular faction of American culture which seems uniquely incapable of recognizing the difference between fine art and the exploitations of pornography. In our art schools of the late 19th century, female models were commonly required to wear a veil to protect their “modesty.” Were the model’s identity to be revealed, she would ostensibly be ostracized for the moral outrage of exposing her body to strangers. Thomas Eakins, a celebrated teacher of anatomy and figure drawing at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in Philadelphia, finding the veil a hindrance to his students’ understanding of the anatomical connection of the head and neck to the shoulders, scandalously defied the requirement and removed it from the model. For this simple act he was fired by the directors and trustees of the Academy.

Eakins_-_Nude_woman,_seated,_wearing_a_mask

Ironically, to our modern eyes, Eakins beautiful drawing of the veiled model would actually seem to have more in common with certain kinds of contemporary pornography than she would without the veil. I’ve written to Pinterest, as has another artist from whose site the drawing was removed. I hope to re-post this image to my Pinterest albums at some point. Until then, hat’s off to Pinterest’s rivals in the social networking sphere, Facebook and Tumblr, for not removing this beautiful work of art. “The Pinterest Team” needs to carefully weigh the damage that their ignorant censorship of great art will do to their reputation among artists who increasingly use Pinterest as a teaching vehicle. A simple solution would be for Pinterest to adopt the practice of Tumblr, which allows posters to restrict albums that certain viewers might find troublesome. Or, even simpler, how about just doing a simple Google Image Search when someone complains, Pinterest Team!?

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Finding the Middle Ground

“It’s so fine and yet so terrible to stand in front of a blank canvas.”  -Paul Cezanne

When we think of paper we usually think of a clean white page, but working on white paper is a relatively recent convention in drawing. Throughout the centuries drawings have mostly been executed on toned papers of various sorts. A toned paper has one advantage over white in that its darker tone immediately addresses nature’s preponderance of middle values, allowing the artist to move off in both directions from the middle-ground, toward the upper reaches of the value scale by adding white, or toward the darker end by using a dark medium.

In the hands of the masters of any time period two compelling qualities stand out in works on toned grounds. The first is unity. The pervasiveness of the toned ground in all parts of the drawing generates a virtual atmosphere in which all parts “live, move, and have their being.” The color of the page is like family blood, so to speak, tying the whole together in ways that are much more challenging to do when working on a white drawing page. On white, the entire value scale must be added and calibrated without the reference of the middle ground. The dominant lightness of a white drawing page can deceive the eye in the initial stages of the drawing, making even relatively light marks appear much darker at first.

The second quality is economy. Economy of means is almost always a quality of great drawings, of any sort, but drawing on toned paper makes it easier to do more with less. In toned-ground drawings whole parts of the drawing are effectively untouched, yet they participate fully in the expression of form and space. The added darks and lights activate the recessive nature of the ground, shaping it, giving it form and inviting it to participate in the whole.  Like the silent intervals between musical notes, the ground becomes an active player in the structure of the drawing by the action of the dark and light notes.

And finally, with a nod to Cezanne, a toned paper is somehow just not as blank at the beginning as a white one!

A selection of drawings, past and present, that demonstrate the unique potentialities of drawing from the middle ground.

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New Tumblr for Drawing OWU

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 12.52.20 PMCheck out the new Tumblr companion to Drawing OWU. You can find the link in the right column under Blogs.  The Tumblr Archive feature allows you to easily see pages of thumbnails of every image ever posted on this blog, while the Home page  and search option allows grouping of images that are related by one or more characteristics. You can look at drawings organized chronologically, stylistically, thematically, or by technique or  nationality. Enjoy!

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