Drawing on Location

Skyscrapers, boats, and a freeway overpass

For today’s final Drawing on Location class, we’ll be heading to the Olympic Sculpture Park and hoping for the best, weather-wise. Here is a little recap of this intrepid group’s adventures so far.

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For our first class we met at South Lake Union Park, next to MOHAI and the fabulous Center for Wooden Boats. (The latter deserves an excursion all its own.) Besides the obvious really cool historic ships to draw, there are also across-the-lake views of Gasworks Park, surrounding tall buildings and construction sites, a landscapy lawn with crisscrossing paths and a gaggle of our feathered Canadian friends.

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We spent most of the time making small thumbnail sketches of the ships, working fast & loose to get a handle on the incredibly busy confusion of ropes, gangways, masts, and signage. This is Breanna’s take on the signage, after a discussion of how hard it is to “draw” words in a picture. The temptation is always to write them habitually and insouciantly, rather than taking the time to look at their shapes and how they might fit into a composition. Somehow you have to disregard their meaning, after a lifetime of looking at them only for their meaning.

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The next excursion was to a corner of the Eastlake neighborhood, also hugging Lake Union. It involved fence hopping, a scramble through blackberry brambles, a rope swing, and some of us setting up shop on a unreliably secured tiny floating dock. The focus this time was more on rendering the water itself, and handling subjects at short middle, and long distances in the same sketch. The temptation (and there always is one) is to treat them all with the same amount of detail, a temptation successfully overcome in the drawing above, with some nagging on my part.

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This successful rendering of water’s motion was possibly aided by the fact that we were experiencing it as we drew. Every time a medium-sized boat went by in the harbor, it rocked our dubious little platform.

The name in the lower left corner is not a signature — it’s a note to look up Paul Hogarth, a twentieth-century British illustrator who traveled widely and published thousands of memorable on-location sketches. He was an expert at leaving things out, and I mean that with the utmost reverence. It’s probably the hardest part of drawing on location; the trick is to leave out what doesn’t serve the drawing, not the stuff you’re just too lazy to draw. Hogarth composed with the white space, where you know there is water or cobblestones or some other busy substance, but he doesn’t need to fill up a square with stuff for its own sake.

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Continuing to avoid tourist traps, we moved down the street to this tiny, noisy park under the I-5 bridge. Industrial subjects have always attracted me, possibly a byproduct of my Rustbelt upbringing. When you actually go to draw them, though, it’s always kind of daunting just how complicated yet repetitive they are. You kind of have to push past the monotony, embrace it even, and get to a place where it’s not boring anymore. It also helps to focus on a single aspect: the angles, the negative shapes, the colors or reflections. It also helps not to start the project at 4:00 after you’ve been drawing for two hours in the sun. This student managed to pull it off by dealing with the larger shapes and working small:

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Our third location was a public, free, hidden-in-plain-sight rooftop deck with a sweeping views of downtown and  piers below us, close-ups of surrounding taller buildings, and peeks at other faraway landmarks through the slots between the skyscrapers.

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I managed to pull off a couple of quick studies here, with the promise to myself to return later this summer without a class.

I was taken with the reflections in the old Washington Mutual tower. Actually, I’m usually taken with reflections. They’re a really swell abstract subject, and also useful to me in the paintings I’m working on right now.

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And the aforementioned transcendence of monotony that is drawing gazillions of windows:

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Location, Location, Location

I first offered “Drawing on Location” through Pratt Fine Arts Center three summers ago. A couple of things inspired me to create this class: One was the frustration I had experienced, as a seasoned figurative drawer and painter, upon confronting a beautiful or interesting scene “in the wild” and being utterly unable to make a decent drawing from it. I accumulated expensive watercolor sketchbooks with one half-done abandoned drawing in each, sketchbooks that had seen the world but not much in the way of drawing implements.

Then I happened upon an article in Harpers in 2005, an interview with David Hockney. It was shortly after his “controversial” book about the Old Bastards’ use of the camera obscura, and he was frustrated that his analysis was being sensationalized as an expose of the great artists’ cheatin’ ways. His point was about how we see and draw, and the difference. Even before the camera was invented, its version of reality has influenced the way we see, and how we frame and interpret what we see. Like the limited worldview of a photograph, the system of perspective developed by Alberti & Brunelleschi is analogous to the experience of vision only if you happen to be an immobilized cyclops wearing one of those collars you put on your pet after an operation so they don’t lick themselves. What you see when you climb up to the top of Chaco Canyon or the Smith Tower or just sit people-watching at a sidewalk cafe is completely different, and more complicated and confusing. Which is why many attempts to capture that experience in a photograph, let alone a drawing, are so disappointing. A big gap, and a lot of hard work, lie between lapping up the visual gorgeosity 0f the world and drawing even a reasonably interesting picture of it.

Once I figured out that, duh, I’m frustrated trying to draw on vacation because it’s hard (and I’m drinking a beer in the sun), something clicked. I realized there was an entire skill set involved in perceiving space that I didn’t tap into when figure drawing or working from flat source material. I’m looking at something as a moveable creature with binocular vision and interpreting that experience in a tiny flat two-dimensional rectangle. All that perspective I’d learned in school was still useful, but applying it to something observed in three dimensions is different from making up entire spatial realities out of whole cloth and photographs, which is what I do in my paintings.

I’ve sifted out these musings into some concrete, teachable skills that I impart in a compact four-week class where we lap up the visual feast that is our own backyard, and make a bunch of drawings out of it. It starts this Thursday.

So now I pack that adorable expensive watercolor sketchbook without the attendant guilt, knowing I’m actually going to use it in Baja. Even while the pressing activities of lolling around the beach and sipping the local tequila compete for my attention.

Painted near San Juanico in Baja California, just as the wind was kicking up, this sketch has the added autheniticity of actual sand added to it.

Painted near San Juanico in Baja California, just as the wind was kicking up, this sketch has the added autheniticity of actual sand added to it.

Some thumbnail sketches of Isla Danzante

Some thumbnail sketches of Isla Danzante

Mangroves near Bahia Magdalena, in watercolor and pencil

Mangroves near Bahia Magdalena, in watercolor and pencil

Occasionally one lucks out and a sea lion agrees to pose.

Occasionally one lucks out and a sea lion agrees to pose.

The boulder fields of Cataviña look like the backlot where the Road Runner cartoons were shot. This is one feeble attempt at them. They deserve their own painting excursion. Someday.

The boulder fields of Cataviña look like the backlot where the Road Runner cartoons were shot. This is one feeble attempt at them. They deserve their own painting excursion. Someday.

 

To prove my utter dedication to the art of drawing in uncontrolled circumstances, I drew this one in a moving car on a windy two-lane road. (I was NOT driving)

To prove my utter dedication to the art of drawing in uncontrolled circumstances, I drew this one in a moving car on a windy two-lane road. (I was NOT driving)

The Tourists Have Won

Drawing outside hones so many essential skills: composition, thinking on your feet, learning how to select what’s interesting from an oversaturated visual universe, and messing with the public. My grad students and I got to work on all four skills last Friday when our inimitable model Amanda, a master of the fourth skill, arrived at our field trip clad in full tourist regalia.

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She was immediately offered unsolicited directions by an official civic “ambassador” in a yellow vest, and later actual tourists posed for selfies in front of her.

Our location, the Harbor Steps in downtown Seattle, are one of those rare successes in planning public space that both tourists and locals frequent with enthusiasm. Even if you just sit in one spot, the views up and down the stairs, and looking either direction down Post Alley, never fail to inspire.

Maya's drawing looking up Post Alley.

Maya’s drawing looking up Post Alley.

My sketch of Amanda in character amongst the shrubberies.

My sketch of Amanda in character amongst the shrubberies.

Another side effect of drawing in public is that you inevitably attract other people who draw. The frequency with which that happens gives me hope that reports of the demise of our collective attention span has been greatly exaggerated. A young woman eating her lunch nearby “borrowed” some model time from us and drew this on her burrito wrapper.

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Drawing on Location is a four-week class I teach privately, open to the public, and all skill levels. The next session starts June 5. I mix it up with the locations: buildings, boats, trees (yikes!), overhead vistas, people-watching, parks no one’s heard of. More info to be had on UPCOMING CLASSES.

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