outdoors

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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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.

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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A Poodle Grayscale, a Fake Historical Site and Other Treasures of the High Desert

In Southern California for my show this winter, we took a little detour to the gorgeous Joshua Tree National Park, known for its fabulous boulders and breathtaking scenery, but also for the oddball collection of artists who have made the area around it home. Looking up into the hills, you might spy a little compound  – an old Airstream, say, a few broken-down trucks and toilets scattered about, a collection of dwellings made of corrugated metal or tires – and you think to yourself, who’s living up there? Artists or rednecks? It’s really hard to tell, and just as likely to be the one as the other. Welcome to Joshua Tree!

Up in the rocks here you can see a little glowing obelisk from the highway.

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It’s a untitled piece by Sarah Vanderlip, made from welded truck bumpers. It’s glowing because the sky and the light of the desert are reflected in its smooth surface.  The whole ten-acre parcel is called Behind the Bail Bonds (which was helpful in locating it) and features some rotating projects as well.

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Onward to Krblin Jihn Cabin, the promised fake historical site, complete with official-looking plaque and backstory involving a made-up religion (isn’t that redundant?) and made-up religious civil war. It’s an old miner’s cabin, of which the area boasts many, retrofitted for an imagined past. The actual history of the American West is so full of cults, revelations, weirdos, and skirmishes over promised lands that this fake version, with its taboos against certain vowels and nine-pointed compass, really doesn’t seem that far-fetched.

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This cabin is the work of artist Eames Demetrios. For his whole constellation of fake history sites scattered around the globe, you can check out kymerica.com.

For some actual history, we proceeded to Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Art Museum, the artist’s home and studio that have been preserved pretty much as he left it at his death in 2004. Mr. Purifoy was instrumental in recognizing and preserving the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, and himself later created sculpture from the burned remains of the Watts riots in the 1960’s. He decamped to the desert in the late 1980’s and spent the next fifteen years creating the large-scale found object constructions that fill the ten acre parcel. His neatly sorted bins of scavenged objects are preserved there, too, awaiting the next project.

Cafeteria trays from the nearby military base become the spine of an imaginary animal

Cafeteria trays from the nearby military base become the spine of an imaginary animal

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An homage to Frank Gehry

An homage to Frank Gehry

Some of the art you could walk right into. . .

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. . . and find more cafeteria tray sculptures there.

. . . and find more cafeteria tray sculptures there.

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Toilets, presumably also military surplus, figure into many of the pieces. Simultaneously creepy and banal, there is something really disconcerting about encountering something so private in such an exposed space.

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Another site, Andy’s Gamma Gulch Parcel, rotates site-specific art projects. We hiked out to, and climbed into, Gradually/We Became Aware/Of a Hum in the Room, a triangular structure with circular holes cut into the walls, framing the desert. The interior is painted with colors that reverse the colors of the sunset, according to the artist’s statement. I can’t assess whether or not they were successful in that intention, as I was there in the middle of the day…

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..but the effect of the winter light projected through the circular cutouts onto the painted walls was striking it its own right.doghole

In the town of Joshua Tree itself, we visited Art Queen, the studio and gallery of the lovely and welcoming artist Shari Elf. Shari curates the World-Famous Crochet Museum, a Fotomat-like pod painted lime green and stuffed full of some spectacularly ill-advised craft projects, all crocheted, as the name implies.

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I think we know who is dinner in this Thanksgiving scenario, and it ain’t the turkey. Unless the pink pony or Mother Goose gets to those tasty pilgrims first.

I think we know who is dinner in this Thanksgiving scenario, and it ain't the turkey. Unless the pink pony gets them first.

Here is the rest of the poodle grayscale:

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And I am wondering how I managed to get through this much of life without having previously encountered a crocheted taco. Genius.

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Speaking of tacos, perhaps the most memorable art emporium of all wasn’t in the Joshua Tree area at all but in the middle of Riverside, on the way back to Los Angeles. Tio’s Tacos is both a tasty lunch stop and a city-block-sized art project, the work of artist and restauranteur Martin Sanchez, who immigrated from Mexico in 1984 and proceeded to build this visionary dream house.

Take a stroll on found-pottery-mosaic colored paths and into small chapel-sized buildings made of stacked and cemented bottles.

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Entire palm trees have been made into benign giants who stand guard over all this abundance. These lovely ladies are made of rusty #10 cans: whole ones encased in chicken wire form their torsos, and overlapping flattened ones wrapped into cylinders are their legs. Their hair is made from fishing nets.

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Even the lights are anthropomorphic (more can-people) and the palm-tree creature on the left is partly constructed of plastic bottles. I am partial to the cowboy-boot-shod lineman. And of course, Santa-on-a-bike.

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The whole desert art tour embodied for me something quintessentially American: Visionaries light out for the wide-open spaces, where they build unexpected paradises of weirdness out of quite ordinary detritus of our throwaway culture, redeeming it, and maybe us a bit, in the process.

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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Six views of Richard Serra’s Wake

We wrapped up Drawing on Location yesterday at the Olympic Sculpture Park. Drawing a piece of art, whether it’s an old Dutch master in a stuffy museum or a giant abstract rusted metal situation in a sunny waterfront park, sometimes feels like the only way to experience it fully. In the latter case, you also have to deal with its entire environment, including those pesky trees. In looking at four different artists’ sketches of the same work, you can get a glimpse of their widely different interpretations of it.

Staci’s Wake manages to be both perky and ominous:

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Lorri’s evokes some pastel futuristic utopia where people picnic on the grass in front of their wavy soviet apartment blocks:

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Skye’s feel a little anthropomorphic sidling up to the trees in their urban canyon:

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Kathy’s are possibly my favorite, marching in a line, their scale & relationship to the environment completely ambiguous:

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And mine, I’ll leave to the viewer to decide…

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Here is the whole class huddling against the wind amongst a smattering of local icons:

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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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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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Get outside while you can!

My fabulous UW Drama class got off to an excellent start, with my usual cohort of grad designers joined by three relative neophytes to life drawing, including acting professor Jeffrey Frace (that is, he is a professor of acting, not pretending to be a professor or filling in for some other more authentic professor). Jeffrey is there as part of his research for a play about an artist, which he is both writing and performing in.

The human figure’s relationship to their surroundings is a key component of designing for the theatre, and also of the narrative paintings that I make. Traditionally, life drawing is taught in a hermetically sealed non-place, figures floating in space or on a nondescript stand. This reinforces our emotional predisposition to see only what we came there to draw, which inhibits our ability to actually see that very well. I have to force people to draw the chair to keep the model from appearing to be levitating. One way to get used to drawing surroundings is to take the class to interesting ones. If it’s a nice day, we usually decamp to some nearby architectural feature and draw the model there(clothed, of course, this is a public university not some hippie college). Even total beginners can take the first few drawing tricks I taught them and apply them to busy, complicated subject matter.

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