figure drawing

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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The world is our studio

This spring my University of Washington drama grads and I went on a whopping five field trips around town. Seattle abounds in outrageously draw-able scenery, even more so if you explore past the typical tourist sites and find those gems that are hidden in plain sight. Since this is a life drawing class, we are always accompanied by one of our fantastic models, who enjoy showing up in outfits apropos of the location. Drawing the model on location puts the life back into life drawing. Advanced students need the additional challenge of spatial relationships, scale, and changing lighting, but beginners respond well to the change of scene, too.

conventioncenterA day intended to be spent in Freeway Park was too chilly and rainy to hang around outside, so we moved indoors to the nearby Washington State Convention Center. It’s a public facility with lots of tables and chairs, very convenient for drawing, looking (to me at least) as if it were intended for that purpose. Suspended above the freeway on the third floor, surrounded by skyscrapers, the model seemed to be in an abstract environment that isn’t immediately discernible in the drawings. It’s a little disconcerting how outdoor space bumps up visually against indoor space, with unexpected vertiginous elevation changes. Kind of like an avant-garde stage set.

amanda3amanda2conventionamandaconcreteThe concrete forms (which abound in the park next door) have a sort of soviet-union feel to them, something the workers might spend their allotted leisure time picnicking on. Present-day capitalist workers enjoy a smoke beneath us.

watercolors&smokersThe weather was more cooperative a few weeks later for our trip to Seattle Center. Home of the iconic Space Needle, it also has lots of interesting courtyards tucked away on its mid-century futuristic grounds. The International Fountain is a favorite hangout of locals, but we got there in the morning before it was overrun by children (or even water).

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A much smaller fountain and wading pool is hidden around the corner, surrounded by Flintstonesque walls and dotted with big flat rocks. As with the other fountain, one should get there before the kids for ideal (and dry) drawing conditions.

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A few weeks later, we were back to shivering again, downtown at the Harbor Steps, another great public space and exercise in three-point perspective. When we got too cold, we ducked into the Seattle Art Museum for warmth, where we drew, and even painted, unmolested in the lobby.

peteartmuseumBut wait! What’s that bright yellow thing outside the window? The sun! Time to go back outside . . . to a top-secret location on the scenic and underused roof of a nearby office building, where it is also apparently acceptable to draw and paint.

rooftoppanoThe following week it was unambiguously sunny for our final class, which was spent at the Center for Wooden Boats in South Lake Union Park. The setting is almost like a mini-landscape lesson, with the horizon line conveniently delineated along the other side of Lake Union, nearby large ships looming red in the foreground, and distant trees receding into handy bluish atmospheric perspective. Flat lawns, water reflections, even a shady side of the building for when it gets too hot. Amanda looked so authoritative in her nautical garb, some tourists asked for information while she modeled.

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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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A truck stop for fishermen

The University of Washington Drama drawing class wrapped up with a field trip to Fishermen’s Terminal, a moorage for both working and pleasure boats, with restaurants and services for fishermen and -women. We we accompanied by our intrepid and always-dapper model Amanda. Context brings so much life to life drawing, but is inexplicably left out of most figure classes. There is, for one, the light to contend with, changing the color, bouncing around, casting shadows, and reflecting off of water in this particular situation.

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Here is everyone’s first go at tackling the complicated scenery, with its plethora of vertical masts and fenceposts.

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The scale of the boats in relation to the figure also presented interesting composition problems. Less expected was the element of text: Boats have names, and those names are writ large. Artists sometimes freeze up when confronted with text. They go into what used to be called left-brain mode and forget how to draw. Words have a way of obliterating the rest of the drawing. Something about “Ricky K “, however, was so juicy and tempting that most of the students (and I) wanted to tackle it. Those who included it really succeeded in keeping it in its place as a visual element. The drawings hold together, in spite of being so texty.

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My polka-dotted skirt appears twice in in this peripatetic panoramic photo of the last pose of the year.

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Make that second-last pose, since Amanda’s and my coordinated outfits also begged to be documented.

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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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Digesting the Visual World

Many years ago, when I first proposed a class on generating imagery, everyone kept asking me, “Can you actually teach that?”  I’ve taught “What to Paint: Digesting the Visual World” six or seven times now, it turned out quite popular and successful and I still don’t know the answer to that question. I’ve revamped it a bit and reconfigured it as a two-day workshop, “Imagery: Digesting the Visual World” (love that gastronomic metaphor) at the Kirkland Arts Center August 16th and 17th.

There are, for good or ill, numerous opportunities to take classes or read books on “unlocking your inner artist”, “unleashing your creative forces”, “getting in touch with your inner Van Gogh/Matisse/fingerpaint-wielding five-year old”, etc.– by now you’ve probably figured out where I stand on the good/ill thing– but I think there is a way to approach the problem intellectually, or at least like an adult. The problem, defined more or less as that of a painter who has acquired some measure of technique and not being sure what to do with it, is peculiar to our affluent urban society replete with opportunities for people to study art (which is one of the best uses of affluence I can think of). It’s further complicated by an artistic zeitgeist where the prevailing winds seem to whisper that everything’s already been said and that pesky problem of the image glut.

In spite of those potential sources of severe angst, it’s actually a lot of fun for me to meet and work with artists at that juncture in their development. Not being sure “what to paint” is not the same as not having anything to say. It’s more of a translation problem: how to take what’s already floating around in your brain and what you see around you and turn it into paintings or drawings that work on a purely visual, formal level. Easy, peasy!

Art history provides a guide, and a framing device for the class, although not necessarily chronological: Stealing from the masters is one jumping-off point, as is the Pop artists’ appropriation of mass media (which has gained an awful lot of mass since their time). There are the games the Surrealists used to tap into the collective unconsciousness and whatnot, and I also throw in some more formal problems, like composing within a given format: Rules, scorned by the woo-woo crowd, can be used to take one’s mind off the imagery itself so the good stuff can seep in around the edges. Some past student work follows.

Brad Pugh did a series that came out of old baseball cards.

Brad Pugh did a series that came out of old baseball cards.

Degas dancers re-composed with a new color scheme and a heavy underlying texture. (Terry Mayberg)

Degas dancers re-composed with a new color scheme and a heavy underlying texture. (Terry Mayberg)

Pop imagery cut and pasted: in this painting, Ethne Vik used a collage as a starting-off point.

Pop imagery cut and pasted: in this painting, Ethne Vik used a collage as a starting-off point.

In my own development, I think I started with a strong notion of what I wanted to do and then I set about finding the technique to make it happen. (How I go about it these days is detailed on my website.) However, part of the reason I like to do quick drawings from life in addition to my “real” (studio) paintings is that it can be a more spontaneous, less fraught way of making images, and some of that spontaneity finds its way back into the studio. For instance, a photographer who moved out from a neighboring studio once left some fake grass behind. I put it on the stand in a life drawing session, the model picked up an old phone as a prop, and then I before I knew it I had a story of sorts:

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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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