Category Archives: Practice

Covering the Masters

The surest path to developing your own original voice in art is to study the masters. Every great rock band you can think of started out by covering the songs of earlier artists. Great artists throughout history also “covered” earlier precedents on the way to figuring out what they were up to. Why did the Beatles study Chuck Berry and Big Bill Broonzy? Because those older artists were cool; they had the stuff, the sound, the vibe. Why did Michelangelo copy Ghirlandaio? Same reason.

When you look through the catalog of what came before you you will find your own patterns of fascination. Pay attention to these patterns. They reveal who you are as an artist and who you will be. You don’t have to know why you find a particular drawing or painting captivating. The fact that it captures your attention is what matters. It’s a mirror you’re looking at, not somebody else’s drawing. You don’t look in a mirror and ask why. You look to find information.

On the practice of drawing from the masters, Mercedes Matter, teacher and founder of the New York Studio School, said, ” Any young artist without insight into these forms of expression, without a key to understanding the art of other times and places, who is tuned in only to current ideas, is indeed poverty-stricken. However bright, sophisticated, ingenious and successful he may be, he remains, as an artist, naïve.”

In his twenties Edgar Degas spent several years in Italy living with relatives, painting their portraits and assiduously copying older art in the churches and museums. Why did he copy older art? Was he just being the dutiful student, eating his vegetables and taking his vitamins? No. He copied because that art was alive to him. It spoke to his own unique questions, intentions, and needs. History regards Degas as one of the most daring, original, and groundbreaking artists of all time and yet he himself made this confession:

I assure you no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament I know nothing.”

Preoccupation with finding an original style is a common curse of young artists. It’s natural to want your work to be your own and not just another iteration of some recognizable genre or established style. But shutting yourself off from art and influence doesn’t make you more original; it just makes your work more predictable and typical. It locks you out of the great ongoing conversation that all great artists, alive or dead, have had with the history of art. It cuts you off from great streams of influence that can help you in your journey to figure out what you’re doing and what you’re trying to say with your art. In the gallery below you will find some wonderful “covers”  of masterworks of drawing and painting made by artists who in turn became great masters themselves. It will pay you to seriously ponder this question: did they become masters in spite of copying, or because of it?

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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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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 our 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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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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Graphite Drawings

Ubiquitous in every art school and artist’s tool box, the humble graphite drawing pencil has an interesting history. In the 16th century graphite came into use as a marking medium in England where large deposits were discovered and first put to use by farmers to mark sheep. The slippery properties of the mysterious dark substance also made it an ideal lubricant for releasing cannonballs from their molds. Hardware stores today still sell powdered graphite as a dry lubricant for locks and other machinery. Because of its crumbly, friable texture, the first graphite “pencils” were made by encasing the soft material in sheep skin. Germany developed the graphite stick in the 1600s. Originally graphite was thought to be some form of lead, which it is not, but the reference to pencil “lead” lives on. The modern wooden pencil dates to the 19th century when graphite began to be mixed with clay as a binder, a discovery that some attribute to Henry David Thoreau whose father was a pencil manufacturer. The hardness or softness of the composite graphite-clay mixture could be moderated by baking which led to the development of the familiar grading system we use today for drawing pencils. The tonal range of graphite makes it a uniquely beautiful drawing medium, distinguishable from chalks and charcoals by its characteristically silvery color. The variety of its effects can be seen in this selection of drawings from different artists and periods.

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Brush Drawings

From the sinopia drawings that served as preparatory designs for Italian fresco paintings, to the stream of consciousness drawings of modern abstraction, drawing with brush and ink or other liquid media has a long tradition and appears universally in both eastern and western cultures. Drawing with wet media can be challenging for students who are used to the traction and forgiving nature of a pencil or charcoal. Unlike drawing with dry media where you can endlessly probe, plan, measure and erase, wet media seem to have a will of their own. Once the mark is made there’s no going back. You’re committed. In eastern traditions brush drawing is an extension of long meditation on the subject, which includes not just the objects one is drawing but also a keen sense of the instrument’s nature. This is an idea that still bears up for anyone trying his or her hand at working with ink and brush. Like putting a bridle on a wild horse, it works better if you understand and work with the horse’s nature than if you try to impose your own will for absolute control. Let the brush have its way, guide it where you can, and be open to what can happen. The ride is often more exciting than the destination.

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Hank Buffington

Hank Buffington is a Lancaster, Pennsylvania artist who works as a digital illustrator and graphic designer. A few years ago he began drawing and painting outdoors, executing quick, one-shot studies from observation. About himself he says:

“I was born in Pennsylvania but did most of my growing up in a somewhat rural part of New Jersey close to the Delaware River. I didn’t appreciate the bucolic charm of the area when I was a kid and a lot of my drawings were fantasies to take me away from it to a more exciting life. Those drawings eventually took me to the Rhode Island School of Design and after graduating with a BFA I returned home to begin a career as a graphic designer and digital illustrator. For the past several years I’ve taken time off from being a commercial artist to be a full-time dad to our five kids. The forced break from the computer gave me the opportunity to resume painting after years of pushing a mouse. In the summer of 2009 I began painting plein air landscapes to retrain myself in the craft of painting and try to break some old habits… not to mention get me out of the house for some much needed quiet time!”*

“With drawing I’m trying to be more spontaneous and courageous. These are relatively quick drawings that focus more on what I think is important in my subject; eliminating extraneous information and superfluous details.” 

For more work and discussions of his process check out Hank Buffington’s blog  and *website .

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