Drawing is the heart and soul of art. It is, however, often underestimated and sometimes even feared, because otherwise diligent artists are dissuaded by the commitment of time required. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, neo-Expressionism, and the vogue for assemblage and installation art, drawing all but disappeared from the curriculum of most art schools. Drawing seemed unnecessary, almost antiquated. Even before that, as early as 1924, learning to draw was considered secondary to learning how to paint, as is evident in this observation by Harold Speed: “Drawing, although the first (in importance), is also the last thing a painter usually studies. There is more in it (drawing) that can be taught and that repays constant application of effort” (from The Practice and Science of Drawing, reprinted by Dover in 1980).
Color is immediately entrancing, yes, but form delights the mind as well as the eye. Why is drawing, no matter what the subject, so important? Think of a portrait where the eyes are misaligned or of a landscape where the perspective is askew. Whatever emotional impact the painting otherwise would have had is obliterated by a technical flaw. Speed believed that drawing could be learned, and I, as a teacher of artists, attest to that truth. Anyone can learn to draw but, like playing the piano, it won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen without practice. Some artists start with a facility, because they’ve been drawing since they were children. At my atelier, I see that kind of student, and I see the other kind, the ones who lack skills but are determined to try. The second group makes huge gains, while those in the first group seldom take the risks necessary to succeed. The ones who have the discipline to persevere become trained draftsmen, capable of mastering the techniques of any medium.
The academic tradition
I currently teach my own atelier class at the Seattle Academy of Fine Arts. The curriculum that I’ve devised is rigorous, in keeping with the academic tradition that had its start in the workshops of Renaissance artists and flourished during the 18th and 19th centuries, most notably in the École des Beaux Arts and the Académie Julian. Earlier centuries understood that the artist needed to be trained thoroughly as a draftsman before moving on to painting; often a decade of studying drawing wasn’t considered excessive. It was also accepted that an artist’s skills had to be sharply honed before he or she attempted to tackle the grand subject of the human form. Only after the artist had demonstrated craft in painting casts of figures and still life arrangements could he or she begin to express the vitality and nobility of the figure. Painting the human form requires the artist not only to achieve a likeness but also to suggest—with depth, sensitivity and integrity—what lies beyond the appearance: the soul.
Skill enhances self-expression
Beginning artists today have been told that skill itself inhibits self-expression. On the contrary, I believe that learning the artist’s craft enables you to express your own vision. Traditional skills are the foundation that you, the artist, work from. It’s craftsmanship, not the lack of it, that is the basis of self-expression. Conversely, being creative without knowledge of craft is like trying to decorate a structurally unsound building. It doesn’t make sense.
I consider my teaching to be passing on an artistic heritage that otherwise would be lost. When I teach I try to transmit the information an artist needs in a way that’s comprehensible. The complex tasks of drawing and painting become more manageable when they’re broken down into parts.
Drawing is a process of simplifying
There’s nothing more important than drawing. The process of simplifying, the act of designing, falls within the domain of drawing. Everything, every aspect of art––that is, proportion, value, and form—but color falls under the domain of drawing. If the artist is trained first as a draftsman, she’s free to concentrate on color rather than worry about getting or not getting the proportions right.
One of the paradoxes of learning how to draw is that the beginning phase demands that you sacrifice detail in favor of design and gesture, while the end phase requires that each area of the body be rendered or else the work will look generic and flat. Learning to draw takes time; it requires that you draw from life every day. At my atelier, students start by focusing on drawing; more advanced students move on to monochromatic and then fully chromatic painting. Students draw plaster casts, the nude model and still life setups; they also copy masterworks. The projects become increasingly complex as their skills, along with confidence in those skills, grow.
How to move from drawing to painting
There are as many ways to start a painting as there are temperaments. I find it helpful to divide the painting process into its varying components: composition, drawing, value, and color––generally worked on in that order. The foundation is strong design; a strong design will have impact from across the room. The next most important component is drawing. My aim is that the drawing be both accurate and well conceived. Next, I work on unifying the values so that the dark areas provide a context for the lights. Last, I focus on color—on both the local color and on the way the light affects that local color.
Working in stages: an artist’s craft
Usually, I spend several days working on the composition. Then I draw directly on the canvas. I refine the drawing with watered-down permanent India ink (so the next layer of paint won’t wash the line away), applied with a fine brush. Then I do a monochromatic underpainting that establishes the values. For this I often use raw umber mixed with turpentine; this mixture may completely cover the surface of the canvas, but the ink lines will still be visible underneath it. I pull out the lights with a cotton rag.
I always work from general to specific. I start with the broadest relationships in line, value, and color before focusing on the smaller relationships within each object or within each part. Using a large brush, I block in the overall color relationships. Most edges are lost; I’m concerned with linking objects.
At this point, I look again at the drawing. Does it read well from a distance? Is there a subordinate part of the painting that’s getting too much attention? Does an edge need to recede or move forward? Often I make a list and consult the list as I make changes.
Focusing finally on color
Now I’ll focus on one part of the painting at a time and bring each area to a finished state. I try to keep the shadow shapes unified and simple; I do this by not allowing too much of a variance of value within the shadows. Then I concentrate my efforts on the halftones between the core of the shadow and the lights. If I sense a color, I put it in—it isn’t so much a matter of seeing the color as it is catching a glimmer of it out of the corner of my eye. I trust that it will look right in the context. Rather than use any one color for a whole area, I look for relationships of colors. Color in nature is tremendously varied, highly complex and astonishingly beautiful. As long as the drawing and the value range are strong, color can be a matter of opinion. The viewer will withhold judgment on what seems plausible in favor of what the artist creates.
Light within darkness
I knew from the start that I wanted to be an artist. I grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, a fairly small town. My parents had emigrated from Cape Town, South Africa, where I was born. My father was a physician and my mother, when I was young, stayed at home. We had many books, most notably a collection of 50 or 60 monographs on master painters. My family did a fair amount of traveling, too, so I saw a lot of art and actually copied many works. I was a great fan of Rembrandt’s.
When I was a teenager, I would set my alarm for 2 a.m. so I could be alone and walk in the darkness. I’d read a lot of philosophy, and I thought that it was important to commune with nature, especially at the time when all the world seemed asleep. It’s amazing how much I could see; I did a lot of sketching then. When you’re that age, life is so new and you’re so alive. It’s as if you’re seeing things for the first time, as if everything is on fire.
I think that artists make continual use of that youthful intensity. As I’ve matured as an artist, my work seems to be more and more about revelation. I see painting as an act of illumination, of working through the darkness to the light. Light is a great revealer of things. I had a teacher, Myron Barnstone, who once said to me: “The grave is for darkness. Cobwebs are for the grave. When you’re alive, you should be celebrating light.” That statement has resonated with me. I find it fascinating that there are in life these moments when you realize that something important is happening; that an experience will never be reproduced; that it will fade and be forgotten, never to be reclaimed—unless you paint it. To have the ability and have attained the skill to paint that kind of moment, to record that kind of revelation, is insanely wonderful.