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.
John Virtue is a British artist known for his massive black and white paintings that he executes from a unique medium of ink mixed with shellac. His initial research involves making hundreds of on-site drawings. From this material he builds his evocative paintings in the studio. Virtue’s most celebrated series, 13 large-scale paintings of the London skyline, was carried out over two years from a studio in the National Gallery in London.
“The thing about London is that everybody knows, or thinks they know, these buildings. But the more you look at them, the more mysterious they become, so the more fascinating they become.
I would draw there, and then I would draw there. That would be one morning, and then I would do one part another morning… and so on, and I’d build them up sequentially; and then I’d mix them all up and I’d bring them all in here, and they inform the way you work and it helps you to be very free. It was phenomenally exciting, and stimulating, and refreshing, every day to get up and go and draw what you say are very, very famous and iconic buildings, and bring all that material in here and go to work.
I’ve never felt any need to put in cranes, and buses, and cars, and airplanes – the noise, if you like, of London. I like using it for my own ends which is to make abstract compositions, but from the way I perceive the world. The monochromatic way of working tallies exactly with the way I look at… the world. It’s a way of seeing that resonates, rather than a way of seeing that is comfortable or is referential to other things.
The basic materials, and they have been for the last twenty-six years, is a black ink mixed with shellac. I use titanium acrylic and I like working onto the raw canvas because I can bleed the image in; I like the idea of the image impressing itself into the canvas, and then I use rags, and my hands, all kinds of brushes, quite indiscriminately, quite promiscuously, in what I’ll use to try and get an effect.”
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.
The 10 rules were actually the work of Sister Corita Kent in the 1960s and later popularized by composer/artist John Cage. His life-long partner, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, kept these posted in his studio as inspiration to his students.
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.”
“Seems to me the true artist must perforce go from time to time to the elemental big forms-Sky, Sea, Mountain, Plain,-and these things pertaining thereto, to sort of re-true himself up, to recharge the battery. For these big forms have everything. But to express these, you have to love these, to be part of these in sympathy. One doesn’t get very far without this love…” -John Marin
A beautiful collection of drawings in a recent show of John David Wissler at the Lancaster Galleries in Lancaster, PA, brings to my mind the work and words of John Marin. Wissler apparently shares John Marin’s love for the “elemental big forms” of nature. Working mainly with water-based media and brush Wissler’s drawings are more than just landscapes. They are urgent translations of emotion experienced in the act of seeing, and being, in nature. His brush moves with the excitement and energy of an electrical storm, acutely aware that in another instant the whole scene will shift and disappear. An ancient Chinese text on landscape painting recommends that the artist meditate for hours before picking up the brush so that he or she becomes an instrument of nature’s forces. Wissler seems to achieve such a state in these works, channeling the force of nature directly onto the page. The artist has this to say about his drawings:
“My passion has always been the landscape. I feel a sense of history when painting… the painters I admire and study, Corot, Constable, Turner, Inness, Bonard, Resika…the history of the land itself and my own familiar connection to it. Painting comes through the study of nature…transformed, not merely copied. Seeing the immediacy of the place…what strikes me first. The way trees react to fields, colour to colour, shape to shape…pushing and pulling the plastic nature of the picture plane, creating believable space.
I find the challenge of using what I have observed, taking it to my studio, and creating a new painting invigorating. Drawing upon the memory of place and experience…using the language I have learned from nature, trying to keep the painting fresh…space, clarity, surprise…that’s painting!” (Courtesy of Lancaster Galleries)
As a graduate student I heard wonderful stories about Karl Knaths from my teacher Ben Summerford who had studied with Knaths at the studio school of the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. According to Summerford, Knaths would critique with a box of pastels in hand from which he would pull out various colored sticks and draw on students’ artwork to demonstrate the power of color, mass & line to co-ordinate the different parts of the picture. (How many students today would tolerate such graphic intervention?) He was a passionate artist and a passionate teacher. Among his papers Knaths left behind this curious little diagram which is now in the Archives of American Art. In a few lines he encapsulates the artistic process, or what he called “lyrical expression.” Perceptions of nature (outer sight) are worked over by the mind (inner vision), informed by both the optical image and by mental conceptions. The “heart,” or emotions, and the mind become linked in a kind of figure-eight flow prompting the hand to act. Most compelling is the parallel that Knaths draws between the mouth and the hand in the act of “lyrical expression” in which he seems to be telling us that art is a language, not just a set of techniques.
*KARL KNATHS (1891–1971)
Karl Knaths, an early modernist who worked in a cubist idiom, was born Otto G. Knaths in Wisconsin in 1891. In 1912 Knaths enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, graduating in 1916. As a guard at the Chicago presentation of the Armory Show (1913), he was first exposed to modernism and began to incorporate into his art aspects of the progressive styles, particularly that of Cézanne. After a brief stay in New York in 1919, he became a lifelong resident of Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he exhibited landscapes and still-life paintings regularly with the Provincetown Art Association. Influenced by the works and writings of Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), Knaths became interested in music and believed that there were correspondences between musical intervals and spatial proportions, a theory that suited his cubist pictorial structure. Knaths visited New York frequently, participating in the 1921 Society of Independent Artists exhibition and Katherine Dreier’s 1926 Société Anonyme exhibition in Brooklyn. His first one-person exhibition was held at The Phillips Collection (then the Phillips Memorial Gallery) in 1929, followed by a show at Daniel Gallery, New York, in 1930.
As an artist for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) from 1934–1935, he painted murals, and from 1938 to 1950 taught an annual six-week course at The Phillips’s Art School. An outstanding teacher, Knaths instructed students at Bennington College, Vermont, and he lectured at Black Mountain College, North Carolina in 1944 and at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine in 1948. In 1951, the Art Institute of Chicago presented him with an Honorary Degree, Doctor of Fine Arts, just one of many awards that he received between 1928 and 1971. The Phillips Collection holds the largest collection of Knaths’ work, which represents his entire oeuvre; it is comprised of thirty-five oils, four watercolors, four woodcuts, three collages, and one lithograph.
* The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.