seattle

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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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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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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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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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)