On Sunday, I took the first drawing class I’ve had since I was eleven. It was at the Open Center, a sort of granola-y place in Soho which offers many new Age classes on creativity, meditation, and other sorts of grooviness.
My particular class was called “Drawing as a way of being” but I’d not been lured so much by the title as by the teacher’s teacher, Dr. Frederick Franck. I learned a lot about drawing from Franck’s books, The Zen of Seeing; The Awakened Eye; A Passion for Seeing, etc and, now that he is ninety six, blind, and deaf, he has passed his workshop duties onto Joanne Finkel, a fiftyish woman with bright eyes, pigtails and well-furred calves.
Most of the other students identified themelves as undrawers, anxious about their inability, and armed with Venti Starbucks and Pearl Paint bagfuls of art supplies. My supplies were new too; I decided to abide by the class materials list and had a mechanical pencil loaded with .5 HB lead and a kneadable eraser. Under my arm, I clutched a huge virginal drawing pad.
We did a pleasant meditation exercise and then the teacher handed out leaves. I clicked my pencil a few times and got going on the blind contour exercise. It ws a little dicey at first as I just never draw with a pencil, but by the second pass, I was in the groove.
When we were given permission to look at the leaf as we drew, I got heavily into the details, mainlining the veins that branched off the stem, sinking deeper and deeper into the plant’s very cells. The teacher came by to say, “Wow, you’re really into those veins, huh?” As that was what the leaf seemed to be to all about, I was a tad puzzled. On her next pass, she suggested that I squint and only draw the major landmarks of the leaf. This seemed regressive but in the spirit of being a good student, I complied and felt like a half-walked dog. On the next circuit, she suggested I vary the intensity of my grip on the lead, making lines that exressed where the leaf seemed very clear and where it was ‘less crispy’. It all looked pretty clear to me but dutifullyI rode my pencil up and down with fluctuating line weights, something I rarely do with my ink pen. Before long I recognized Frederick Franck’s style expressed on my page. My drawings looked just like his, not much like mine.
It’s interesting that what our teacher saw as a pure response to the subject, I perceived as an exercise in style. I was seeing the way she and Franck saw, but not really as I do. I tend to bore deep into things, and to treat every line and detail with similar emphasis. There is something more sensual but tentative (dare I say ‘feminine”) about the varying lines of this new style.
As we broke at lunch for an hour, the teacher dangled the opportunity to draw fruis and vegetables after we returned. I decided to forgo the salad and played hooky. Instead, I went out and bought myself a 1980 Honda motorcycle. In Dr Franck’s honor, I spent the rest of the afternoon drawing the road with my tires, shifting from first to second to third gear, depending on how crispy the potholes looked.
What goes on when three grizzled illustrated superjournalistas go on an innocent drawing trip? A Clash of the Titans that transforms the art world (kinda). Enjoy the dramatic first installment of “The Drawminator”. Click on thumbnails for successive page.
In The Art Spirit, my pal Bob Henri talks about the importance of that original intention which sparks one to make a drawing or a painting. What caught my interest? And, all critically, how do I hold on to that intention so my art is infused with that interest? It’s not enough to decide to draw a tree, one must feel something about that tree and have that feeling right in front of one’s eyes and one observes. His advice is to work fast and furiously, blocking in the big masses while the flame is still burning.
My usual technique is to move slowly, with a blank mind. I enter a meditative state and let my eyes cruise around the contours, laying down every line with equal weight until I have explored the whole object. I rarely try to feel anything as I do this but I must be. I choose certain subjects over others because I like them or am curious about them. So I decided to be more aware and to explore some other ways of looking at a tree a few blocks from my hotel.
I spent a good long time working in ink first. I was very into the carbuncles and folds of the tree’s skin. As I drew, I became increasingly aware of the tree’s colors: it was quite yellow but cloaked in purple, two complimentary colors. I kept thinking about how these colors inter-played and then I painted over my line with watercolors. I was using my new paper, this Yupo pad I picked up on the weekend. The ink went down very smoothly on it but had a tendency to smear. As I painted I was pretty aware of how unnaturally the paint went down, pooling on the paper instead of soaking in. The colors remained pretty vivid, undimmed by the fibers, but it all felt temporary somehow. I couldn’t really let go, worrying that the whole thing would wipe of the page when I was done. I also felt like I had a long lens on — I was only looking at each square inch of the tree but had little sense of the whole as I drew.
While the pad lay drying in the afternoon sun, I decided to have another go and grabbed my trusty Japanese journal with its 100+lb paper ( intended for drawing but it’ll take watercolor pretty well) and my Faber-Castell PITT bold brown brush marker. In three minutes, I knocked out a sketch, thinking all the while about the flow and energy of the tree. I did a caricature of the yellow and violet and capped my pen.
Next I took a black PITT pen and thought about the tree’s architecture, how it anchored into the ground and how the limbs were bolted onto the spine of the creature. I bore down harder on my pen, drawing firmer lines and painting in more defined shapes of color.
Finally I took my cheap Sheaffer italic pen, loaded with dark brown non-waterproof ink and this time I thought about the movement of the trees, how the carbunckly growth flowed like water or vomit from the trees crotch, how the limbs pulled in different directions and how that tension held the tree together and propelled it into the sky. Now the tree seemed almost serpentine to me, writhing out of the soil, phallic, twisting, alive. The watercolors dulled the lines but it felt okay, as if the fusing the whole thing together.
I look at these four drawings and I’m not sure yet what conclusion to draw about them. I like the earthy energy of my last drawing (as if it was made by a goat or a mole) but there’s still something lovely and light about the first bird-like one. Each has something to say in its way, like the varied members of a string quartet, the ingredients of a cassoulet.
One conclusion is clear: Drawing never fails to amaze me; how it can rip open the doors into your head, how it can transform the world and your place in it. Nobody but me can see this process, this unfolding, as it happens to me. All that’s left for others to see are the pages in my journal, the ass wipings on paper — but never the feast.
Jack takes a lunch box to school but when he goes to summer day camp, his carrot sticks, cookie and sandwiches (unvaryingly: one salami, one PB&J), travel along in a brown paper bag. At one point, maybe it was last summer or the summer before, Patti asked me to write his name on the bag. Soon this became a ritual and each morning after breakfast I would do more and more elaborate calligraphy to identify his bag.
Then I started making up panels from super hero comics and printing them on the bag with my ink jet. This year I alternate between dip pen hieroglyphics and watercolors and gouache (which look great on the biscuit brown paper).
When I first came to America at thirteen, I got my first lunch box. I think I picked it out myself, a Scooby Doo model. It wasn’t long before my classmates started to snicker and then openly deride me for my cluelessness.
Before long, I’d gotten the message and began to brown bag it. No name or watercolors.