My Summer Romance

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.

15 thoughts on “My Summer Romance”

  1. This is great. When I took an art class this year, we had to draw in pencil and I felt the same way. It’s odd to see how habituated I am to the pen. I also attended a life drawing class, knowing it would be ‘good for me’ to draw people this way. It was tough. After about 2.5 hours, I saw the model’s shoes on the floor nearby. My heart lit up. I began drawing those, and it was a telling moment for me about what I like to draw: not people so much.

    Thanks for sharing your art adventures with us, Danny. Glad you’re still loyal to the pen while being open to other options.


    1. Love the drawing of the shoes comment. I too took life drawing and was always given, by the “regulars”, the worst seat in the room. Glare me down and tell me to move if I got to class early, on purpose, and sat in one of “their” chairs. I learned to draw the best damn ankle and back of a calf and rear vision of people. Lemons make lemonade.


  2. Danny, although I mostly prefer to draw with ink and watercolors, sometimes I like it, to draw with pencils. Like you, pencil-drawings for me, are more “soft and fragile”, mostly they are “studies” and I use the erasers. 🙂

    “Any pencil drawing I do in my sketchbook is bound to blur and fade with time.”
    I have a trick:
    Sometimes my fragile pencil-drawings are so beautiful, that I want to protect (save?) it,
    so I use a cheap hair spray to “fix” this fragile pencil-drawing…
    it helps and prevents for smudging…-)

    Have A Nice Day

    Sometimes I love it to draw with pencils and I like it to feel “like a wimp” 🙂
    and therefore I also like it, to draw with “pastel”, because you are able to correct the
    lines very often… it’s relaxing… I enjoy it:-)


  3. I like the way you think, write and draw. You continue to be an inspiration! Thanks for being brave and trying new things and ways to draw! And for sharing them with us.


  4. I too love the finiteness and bravery of drawing in pen. But you have inspired me to pick up my big, fat Lamy graphite holder!


  5. My mum was taught at art school by Henry Bird and when I was a child she went to a club of people he ‘collated’ every week on a Monday to draw naked people. Our house was/is covered in pastel pictures of naked bodies. Mum said that Henry got very cross with anyone who brought an eraser with them, and I think he even threw one out of the window once. So I have often thought , when you’ve written about your pen and ink and the inability of removing it, of Henry and his dislike of erasers. So now reading that you have used one is making me think about Henry turning in his grave. 😉


  6. Love your journey. You’re writing for all of us who are midlife and wondering how and what to do with the rest of our lives! Thanks for the thoughts.


  7. yeah I have the same issues with pencil, feels equivocal….BUT DERWENT DRAWING makes a black crayon pencil that seems to skirt it well, pitt artist crayons and litho crayons do too…all are BLACK and not really erasable-but you can do some lighter marks for construction with all of them. Once you love ink ..pale gray is hard to warm up to!


  8. I love it when I run across something that articulates a feeling I’ve had, but never put into words. Pencils have always made me feel uncomfortable…and now I have the finished sentence. Thanks, Danny.


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