architecture

The Ghosts of Industry

After six weeks of figure drawing in a very crowded studio, my University of Washington Drama grads were finally able to spread out a bit. We were lucky enough to score a field trip to the Millworks building in Seattle’s SODO Industrial district, and had the entire two-story vacant former sawmill to ourselves.

The building is mostly empty, its gorgeous beams and planks exposed, but the few items that remain are intriguing. They lent themselves to oblique narratives once model Amanda got hold of them: several potbellied stoves, wall-mounted phones, a traffic light, a piano. The last one particularly piqued our curiosity about the former occupants: Did the mill provide live music for its employees while they toiled? Or perhaps they just had really good Christmas parties, a la Mr. Fezziwig? There is certainly enough room in there to dance a reel or two.

stairspianoNatural light pours in from huge windows on either end of the long second floor, and from a giant skylight overhead. The whole building is one solid block of wood, the fir planks aged into different shades that create random stripes along the walls.

facingwestI encouraged the students to look for oblique points of view and dramatic scale shifts when they chose their compositions. It’s not very often one gets to draw so much empty space, with no distracting trees or furniture.

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The model’s point of view from the top of the stairs.

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…and the sketches from the bottom of the stairs

The highlight for many of these theatrical types was the creepy basement, where “low clearance” signs in a passageway were a bit of an understatement. We stayed for just one drawing down there in the mustiness, in an Escheresque forest of lumber racks.

basementpianodrawingsphoneBig thanks to Urban Visions for making this possible!

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Painting scenery

My University of Washington Drama students and I went on a little drawing excursion this month to a train station that isn’t really a train station, with stone walls that aren’t really stone. No passengers have embarked upon their adventures from Seattle’s Union Station since 1971 when the last train stopped here. This 1911 beauty had stood vacant and unloved for thirty years until a local developer restored it to its former glory. But you still can’t get on a train; you have to walk across the street to King Street Station to do that. I brought along a suitcase anyway, for our model to use as a prop.

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On previous drawing visits, I had struggled a bit with the color of the stone walls in the Great Hall. They were kind of creamy, kind of yellowy, not quite sandstone; and several different variations of this non-color in a random pattern of big blocks. As it turns out, I might have just consulted Sherwin-Williams for the color numbers.

On this day, a tall scissor lift was set up in the corner, with a couple of men doing some kind of work on the walls. I assumed they were masons making repairs to the stone.

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When I got closer, I saw that they were actually just painting.

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Well then. I touched the lower part of the wall and finally figured out that the large blocks stone were actually textured plaster. The “grout” lines between the blocks had been carefully taped off, rendered smooth, and painted yet another shade of off-white.

I’ve done some faux painting in my time and this looked like the job from hell: a boring palette, a labor-intensive-yet-subtle finish that barely registers to the casual observer, a confusing rotation of annoyingly similar colors, ceilings and arches guaranteed to permanently disable one’s neck, and, of course, the absurd sisyphean nature of the task.

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The irony that I had taken a bunch of scenic and costume designers to draw a giant room full of scenery was lost on no one.

measuringOur next drawing destination of the day was a little-known historical site neither ironic nor fake. Yes, I’m talking about the Birthplace of United Parcel Service. The 1967 plaque on the sidewalk outside is delightfully cold-warry and totally unironic:

In August 1907, in a 6 by 17 foot office under the original sidewalk here, a few messenger boys began the business which their many thousand successors extended throughout the vast regions of our country covered by United Parcel Service today. Exemplifying the opportunities open to private citizens under the Constitution of the United States of America, this plaque was placed in January 1967, with the cooperation and appreciation of the Seattle Historical Society.

Take that, Commies, with your inferior state-run parcel services. As if you could order any stuff in the first place.

Inside the imposing gate is a lovely and very loud courtyard enclosure, a private park open to the workers during workdays, filled with blooming plants, waterfalls, and, on this day, a horde of children who, like us, were out on a field trip.

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Model Travis swarmed by feral children at the birthplace of UPS.

Model Travis swarmed by feral children at the birthplace of UPS.

Shhhhhhhh!

My UW Drama grads and I made our annual pilgrimage to the spectacular Seattle Central Public Library in November, accompanied by the ubiquitous and always-stylish model Amanda, dressed to match the architecture in a pattern of multicolored trapezoids that referenced the steel grid covering the building.

We met up at nine and had an hour to kill before the library opened its doors, so we engaged in a bit of guerilla urban sketching in a large office building across the street. Usually this sort of thing goes well for me, attracting generally positive attention and curiosity. This time it got me in trouble with the building manager.  Talking fast yet amiably, I managed to successfully convince her that we were harmless, and by the end of the conversation she was dragging chairs out of the cafe for us to sit on. The epic Henry Moore sculpture in front of the building had apparently given me a falsely arty impression of the building; like many corporate glass and steel towers, it boasts an impressive, artfully furnished, and utterly underused lobby. Heck, we were doing them a favor, “activating the space” as they say in urban planning parlance.

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At the library, by contrast, we were warmly greeted by event services manager Cara Cronholm, who has been welcoming my classes there for the last several years. We began in the fourth-floor shiny red organically undulating hallway, where the utter strangeness of the space forced everyone to actually look at their surroundings rather than fill in from whatever is in their head. You can’t  make this stuff up.

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For the second pose in this area, Amanda stood down a narrow side hallway from us, backlit by the capricious Seattle winter light projecting through the harlequin grid of the library’s exterior. Everyone had to sort out and filter the cacophony of colored light, reflections, and reflections of reflections to interpret the scene for themselves, resulting in a great variety of compositional and material choices.

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We were joined by my pal Jeff Scott, a painter and scenic artist who will be teaching these same students theatrical set painting this winter. Claiming to be rusty at drawing, he nevertheless came up with this forced-perspective stunner:

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Onward to the tenth floor to visit the Reading Room , although I don’t know how anyone can get any reading done surrounded by that visual feast of geometric pattern, light, and encompassing views of the city all around you.

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While there’s plenty to be said for the time-honored practice of academic study of the human form in a controlled studio setting, humans exist in historical times and physical places. Judging from the work done by even the least-experienced drawers among us, inspiration for theatre, painting, and any other visual art can be had in abundance just by getting out in the world and drawing them there.

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Trouble in Florence City

Poor Paolo Uccello (1397-1495). He could have been a contender. According to Giorgio Vasari, Uccello would have been “the most delightful and inventive genius in the history of painting” had he not wasted all his time and talent away on the excessive pursuit of– was it fast women, drink, hard drugs, or gambling?  – no, the worthless undertaking upon which Uccello wasted his life was…Perspective. Perspective ruined poor Paolo’s career and on top of that, “did violence to his nature”, making him “solitary, eccentric, melancholy, and impoverished.”  He had trouble, with a capital T and that rhymes with P which in quattrocento Florence that apparently stood for Perspective.

Now I read this ominous passage in “Lives of the Artists” within the past year. Did I pay any attention to the obviously-well-thought-out advice of Giorgio Vasari, the father of Art History, that had been passed down to me over the ages? Did I heed this wisdom that had survived 500 years of wars, floods, famines, the rise and fall of empires, to appear to me in my native tongue in my own century in cheap, readily-accessible paperback format ?

Of course not. There came a day I found myself working on a painting that had some serious problems. They were the kinds of problems I described in a previous post, Lose the Christian Theme Park. The various parts just weren’t serving the whole.  I was much too attached to these utterly extraneous and unrelated – if individually interesting – parts. The painting was a mess and it needed a total makeover.

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After changing the colors and patterns of both floor and table, the type and size of the dessert, and the fireplace a dozen or so times EACH, I decided I needed to paint everything out in white except for the chair and the fabric bits, i.e., the lady and the curtains.

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Once I rid myself of the ceiling and windows, the space of the painting became a blank slate. Almost: the bits of striped curtain, remnants of past choices, were exerting undue influence on my possible choices for the painting’s future. Their angled tops and bottoms still hinted at the old perspective. So they, too, succumbed to the white paint.

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It became clear to me that since the woman is viewed from above, what she required was a vast and memorable floor that seemed to stretch on forever, like the suburbs in which she lived. I wanted the space of the painting to be believable but slightly dizzying. It needed tiles, the tiles needed to recede precipitously, and they needed vanishing points to approach. Normally I work these problems out in the drawing stage, but this was a remodel. Drawing lines with a ruler pointing toward vanishing points drawn on the wall, my usual method, felt cumbersome and not exact enough. I had a roll of twine lying around so I began laying out the tiles with it, taping the twine to the edges of the painting and pinning it down at the vanishing points.

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Sarah Vowell, in writing about Civil War re-enactors, observed that they all considered anyone less obsessed with authenticity than themselves a poser, and anyone more obsessed than themselves a wingnut. This observation can apply to any undertaking that is difficult, interesting, and/or obscure enough to allow for large quantities of time to be spent, some might say wasted, on it. Vasari placed Uccello firmly in the wingnut category. There was a time when I would have tried to wing the spacing of the tiles, but now I was headed in a dangerously Uccello-like direction. Winging it was for posers.

For you posers out there, the widths of the tiles as they recede in space diminish along lines that all converge on a vanishing point on the horizon line. Those lines are the strings. They meet at two pushpins on a line drawn on the wall slightly below the top edge of the painting, the horizon line, which also corresponds to the viewer’s eye level, which is somewhat above the lady’s eye level since we are looking down on her.

But the tiles are also going to appear shorter as well as narrower as they recede. Here’s where it gets fun. The way to determine how much shorter the tiles should get is to find the midpoint of a sample square. You do that by drawing two lines joining its opposite corners, making an “X” across the tile. The lines meet at the midpoint. If you were looking at a real tile and you actually drew the lines with a sharpie, the midpoint would be a point actually equidistant from the edges.

However, we want the midpoint of the imaginary tile in the imaginary world of the painting. That imaginary midpoint will be slightly closer to the edge of the tile that is supposed to be farther away from us.

The midpoint of two matching tiles is the same as the midpoint of one giant tile the length of two of them together. If you draw a line from one corner through this midpoint-of-them-both, you get to the far end of the second tile.

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Which means, in the imaginary world of the painting you can find the depth of the second tile by drawing a line from a near corner of the first tile through the midpoint of the far edge and it will lead you to the far corner of the second tile.

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Then you can draw a line from the near corner of the second tile, through the midpoint of its far edge, and find the end of the third tile, and so on, until you have spent your life making imaginary tile floors that recede into infinity. Vasari might regard you as a wingnut but Uccello would probably dismiss you as a poser.

Here is the finished painting, a world in which even the lines of the hors d’oeurves meet at a vanishing point on the horizon.

Only Suburban has so Many Wife-Saving Features, 2014

Only Suburban has so Many Wife-Saving Features, 2014

As for Vasari and his forecast of gloom, I’ve not yet become solitary, (more) eccentric, melancholy, or even impoverished. Those things could still happen, but I did sell the painting.

Never Finished

A couple weeks ago, I took my lovely UW theatre designers on a little field trip to Suyama Space to draw “Never Finished”, a room-sized installation of cascading fluorescent tubes by the artist team Lilienthal|Zamora.

Since this is after all a life drawing class, we were joined by our favorite field-trip model Amanda, who added human scale, narrative, and some additional pattern to the glowing,  seriously maximalist landscape.

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Some students occasionally took my advice and actually used the viewfinders they’d made to frame and edit the vastness of the space and visual activity. Also heeded sporadically was the instruction to make a few thumbnail sketches first, to figure out the composition and proportions. I also happen to think they look really interesting on the margins of the page as well as being useful. (Everyone but the artist themselves always gravitates toward that unguarded sketch, the record of the artist’s looking and thinking.)

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Here is an excellent example of zooming in on the particular. Even though she likely wanted to draw every last light bulb and stripe on the shirt, she controlled that urge and instead focused on the splendid river of cords weaving through the texture of the floor, the verticals, and a pair of feet, which add a provocative hint of potential movement.

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This student solved the problem by dividing the picture plane into three sections of distinct pattern, with the figure anchoring the whole composition, and almost reading as a marionette.

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Ballpoint pen proved a popular medium for this project. Even though the piece strikes you first with light when you experience it in person, it turned out to be its richness of line that was most compelling to draw. The tubes flow from order to chaos and (almost) back again as you go from one end of the room to the other, mirroring our process of drawing, in which we attempt to impose our own visual order on what we see.

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A blue ballpoint pen with a little water added to smear it, set off nicely in this photo by the space’s beautiful rough-hewn floorboards.

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Below is a panorama of the entire room, from the model’s point of view. Never Finished comes down December 19, so you’d better hurry if you want to see it . . . and bring your sketchbook!

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Kulture in Kirkland

Apparently the good dive bars still left in Seattle are in the suburbs. For our final session of “Life Drawing in the Real World”, we took a little excursion into the eponymous real world to draw the locals. I found the Central Club in downtown Kirkland, Washington through a quick search of Google maps: The interior camera shot told me it was the place, which was confirmed when I walked in and was immediately greeted warmly by the bartender and the three regulars sitting at the end of the bar. Everyone was so friendly, I thought for a moment I was back in Cleveland and not in the reputedly chilly Pacific Northwest (which reputation is greatly exaggerated, by the way).  Since the bar was nearly empty and my students would soon outnumber the other patrons, I figured it was best to tell these nice people what we were up to. People’s reactions over the course of the evening ranged from enthusiasm, to utter indifference (which is what you want), to the single hostile inebriated patron who soon forgot the point she was trying to make about the questionable legality of our activity.

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People lined up at a bar actually make a nice composition, and tend to stay put. Before the bar started filling up, they were our only choice of human subject, along with their busy liquor-bottle-and-lottery-poster-dotted backdrop. This gentleman’s hand moved so quickly across the gambling touch-screen that it was mostly drawn from a composite memory of hands in my head, but visual memory is generally what you rely on when you draw moving people.

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It was also some of the students’ first experience drawing in public. Some people, mostly women, absolutely hate it. They are either self-conscious about the drawings themselves, or fear that staring at people will draw unwanted attention back on themselves. Hallie Bateman, writing in the Awl, created an illustrated guide to drawing people in the subway that is both hilarious and useful, offering tips on making yourself invisible. Paul Hogarth suggests starting out by drawing through a window (presumably from the inside out or you’d look like a perv) or positioning yourself next to a mirror to sneakily draw people’s reflections. (Creative Ink Drawing, Watson-Guptill 1968)

We were all very open about our intentions, and we had the safety of numbers, but I did have to fend off a pool player or two (who, by the way, make for great gesture drawings) who were a little too enthusiastic about being drawn by a table of women, perhaps misinterpreting the nature of our interest.

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A lovely ink-wash and pen sketch by a student, an experienced drawer and new convert to locational drawing.

 

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Student drawing in pen.

Student drawing in pen.

One of the tipsy pool players, watching us scribble to catch up with their (self-consciously) showy arabesques did make the offhand remark that we “needed a camera.”  Which is, first of all, funny, because this was a drawing class, and secondly, indicative of a common misperception that a camera is somehow a better, faster version of the human eye and brain and hand. Besides the entire social and human implications of looking, thinking, talking, and drinking with people whom you are representing, BESIDES all that, a camera is actually incredibly inefficient in many visual situations, a darkly lit bar among them. Here is my first attempt at documenting the scene mechanically:

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The camera on my phone “thinks” that the neon guitar is the most important thing in the frame, does all kinds of wacky things with the lights, and you can barely make out the hand and sketchbook in the foreground which I was trying to capture.

I did manage to get one decent photo after I turned off the flash, but the sketches, even those of beginners, actually documented a lot more information than the camera, as well as being a darn sight more interesting.

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Let’s go to business school!

They do get all the good architecture. Last Friday my UW Drama drawing class went on a little field trip across the street to Paccar Hall, home of the Foster School of Business. There’s an abundance of glass and steel, and a sweeping overlook of the bustling cafeteria. Our model posed on the sleek staircase, and down below in the atrium while we drew her from above, peering over the edge through the glass wall.

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For some of the students, it was the first time drawing a model in such a busy, perspective-heavy environment. Here’s one successful sketch, done on gray paper in black and white pen by the lady in the purple sweater.

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An unsuspecting business student (or some other kind of student who just likes hanging out there) inadvertently  modeled for us as well, adding some context and a nice visual counterpoint.

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In the film “Drawing on Life“, one of the sketching architects they interviewed estimated that a stranger in a public place will “pose” for you for about three minutes before moving. This reading woman posed a little longer. In my experience, if the person is stuck waiting, in an airport, say, they will eventually go back to the same position so you can finish your drawing. This one is unfinished only because I had to go and help other people with their drawings.

In sepia ink wash and ballpoint pen:

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The angles and long depth of field posed challenges, but also provided some guides for placing the figure, and for measuring and proportion. Someone asked me where to start, the figure or the ground. The real answer is “both,” but that wouldn’t have been very helpful. As a practical solution, I told him to start with an obvious straight line that intersected the figure, horizontal or vertical first, then move on to the oblique lines that you have to visually measure.

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Shifting your focus back and forth between figure and ground does not come naturally. We’re hard-wired to focus on a single item in our overcrowded visual environments. Those of us who stopped to gaze at the intricate patterns made by the grasses of the savannah were eaten by lions before they could reproduce. Which means we are basically descended from philistines, which should surprise no one.

These students, focusing diligently on the shapes and shadows before them, are in very little danger of being eaten by wild animals,  but I suppose someone could steal that coffee that’s just sitting there.

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Life Drawing for the Real World

Traditionally, one usually learns to draw other humans by paying one of them to take off their clothes and stand very still for you while a teacher points out anatomical features and holds forth on proportion, measurement, and other essential skills. It’s basically effective, except that after years of these life classes I’ve noticed that people tend to get really good at drawing a very still naked person on a featureless platform in a featureless room.

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“Nude man seated” by Thomas Eakins – Scanned from “Thomas Eakins:Artist of Philadelphia” by Darrel Sewell. ISBN 0876330472. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

However, the real life applications of this skill don’t just materialize of their own accord. Real people in the real world move around, even (or especially) if they know you’re drawing them. They tend to wear clothes. And they usually move about in places other than model stands, like parks, train stations, shopping malls, and houses.

As well as greenhouses, where they sometimes play the guitar…

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Drawing THOSE people can be really interesting, as well as quite difficult: it’s a skill you can only get by drawing real people, clothes and activities and surroundings and all. In my life classes, I make students draw clothing early on in the process, and, even more sadistically, I make them draw the model from memory after he or she leaves the room. Field trips are the most fun. The more captivating the setting, the more likely one is to include it in the drawing, and the better one becomes at knowing and rendering how a figure is connected to the space around it.

These are some student drawings from a field trip, with model, to the Seattle Central Library…

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This one is mine from that session.

This one is mine from that session.

The real-real world part comes in when the “figure”is a stranger going about their business. When I draw on the bus, those hundreds of life classes are in the back of my brain, feeding the beast, but the only way to learn to draw the people on the bus is by actually drawing the people on the bus.

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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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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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