In the interest of trying something new, I’ve recently taken to spending my mornings in a basement with a naked person and a pencil. The oddest part (if you’ll forgive an old copywriter the observation) is not the graphic nudity but the graphite.
As you may know, I have been a loyal pen man ever since I took up drawing last century. When I draw with a pen, I have always said, I am committed to my mark and so I draw more slowly and am fairly sure of my stroke. My line is decisive and, if it’s wrong, I must live with it and work my way out of the problem I have created.
But now, I have this pencil. Actually it’s usually a stick of graphite in a wooden handle with a little set of gripper teeth to hold it in place. And I must say, it feels sort of right for now. First off, I like the feeling of it in my hand, the chunkiness of it. And I like the organic variations, the way the mark gets soft and grey or bold and dark and everything in between. I like the range of hardnesses, the Hs and Bs with all their numbers and degrees of yield. I am least fond of the ends of the spectrum, the super hard H pencils that rip into the paper like cat’s claws or the utter spinelessness of the super soft high number Bs, malleable as turds in my paw. But in between there are a nice number of notes to play, combinations, of soft and smooth, hard and precise.
A long pose is a process and it starts by ogling. I stare at the model and paint him or her with my eyeballs. Then I take a few measurements, the overall height, midpoints, widths as a function of head heights, that sort of thing. Then I do a blind contour, my eyes slowly coursing over the edges of the body while my hand, unattended, records the line. I may look down at the page once or twice or not at all. Surprisingly, this first automatic line is usually pretty damned accurate, capturing the mood and balance of the pose, and it remains the basis for the several hours of drawing to follow. Maybe the knowledge that this is just a pencil line lets me feel comfortable and willing to take this blind risk. In any case, I can also go back in and correct here and there. I like being able to erase. It’s a relief after all those ink spattered years, like letting out my gut after I pass my reflection in a shop window.
Then I start remeasuring and seeing if my proportions will hold. I may have to erase an entire shin or redo the foreshortening on an arm — the first hour is all about tweaking and nudging until I can drop down on any point on the body and see that the angles and relationships are right.
The next hour or so is all about light and volume, trying to get a sense of the dimensions and weight of the body. I go back and forth, using the pencil sometimes as a tool that can blur and blend, and then one that makes hatches and crosshatches, creating tone out of marks. I still have one foot in the world of pen and ink, working in line as much as tone.
Finally, I’ll bring out my bag of colored pencils. I quite like all the colors and the fact that every color has so many permutations and degrees of intensity. though they don’t have the agility or smoothness of my sable brush and watercolors.
If you have had any sort of art training, you might be appalled by my technique but it works for me, these stages and homemade techniques, and I am reasonably happy with the process and my progress.
So I quite like the pencil, but it’s a summer romance, not marriage material.
The fact is, pencils make me feel like a wimp.
Maybe that goes with how i’m feeling these days, a little wimpy, a little less confident about my view of the world because I am evolving and changing. So maybe I want to record my life in pencil right now, and not to commit for the rest of time. I will not be getting a tattoo this month either.
Ink is forever. Pencil lines are more like thoughts, fleeting, evanescent, unreal. Any pencil drawing I do in my sketchbook is bound to blur and fade with time. Generally, I want to be confident and see and record the world as it truly is, but in times like these, when my life is turning a corner, and the view out of the window seems to blur, then maybe it’s more appropriate to render them in this fragile and temporary way.
This period of being soft and fragile and hopefully isn’t a permanent one. I’m in transit shuttling between one life, one coast, and another. Transit is a time of indefiniteness when you aren’t sure which suitcase you put your sandals in and if you left your toothbrush behind. But that’s okay, because when you get to your destination you can put everything in its right drawers and hang the pictures and reshelve the books. In the meantime, it’s okay to live with a little blur, to have erasers standing by just in case. Mistakes made in pencil are still lessons, but gentler, less consequential ones. Nonetheless each one helps me improve, perfect my line, tighten my observation, be in the moment, which is what this whole thing is about, this thing called drawing, and this thing called life.