Archive for May, 2010

Artists’ drawing experiences: Marie McCann-Barab

Friday, May 21st, 2010

Lately I’ve been asking fellow artists about their approaches to drawing.  Having posted a tutorial about my own drawing method, I’ve become curious about what works for other artists.

Before the Fall, by Marie McCann-Barab

Before the Fall, by Marie McCann-Barab

Marie McCann-Barab is a Westchester, NY, artist.  She has a gorgeous and unique style that often places human beings in an eerie state of tension within the natural world.  Marie attended art school at Parsons School of Design in New York City, and has also taught art for many years.

Marie recently described to me three drawing techniques taught by  different professors she studied with at Parsons.  Her description of each technique was so distinct and interesting that I thought I’d present them all here, along with some of her drawings illustrating each.

Attachments, by Marie McCann-Barab

Attachments, by Marie McCann-Barab

Skeletal technique

Marie wrote to me:

“In one class I had to copy drawings of the skeletal-muscular system as homework for a semester. It gave me a good basic understanding of how the body works. The instructor would very specifically hire models of dramatically varied body types. More than once we had a model who could be described as “skin and bones.” We could so clearly see her skeletal structure that it was like the anatomy drawings had come to life. Having that knowledge is incredibly helpful when drawing from the model, but even more so when drawing from imagination.”

Marie's Drawing of a skeleton and application to life drawing in similar pose

Marie's drawing of a skeleton and early application to life drawing

The live model’s position is similar to, but not exactly the skeleton’s (e. g. the skeleton’s back arm is less visible than the model’s because its upper body is more turned away than the model’s).  What amazes me in these drawings is the complexity and detail of Marie’s work, in particular of the pelvic bones, the various joints, the crossing of the two forearm bones, and so on.  I know from my own work how convoluted and difficult the pelvis in particular is to visualize.

Costume contour technique

Marie wrote:

“Another teacher taught us to understand proportion and gesture by drawing the contour of a costumed model with brush and ink. No details, only the edge between the form and the space around it. If the model was wearing an 18th-Century costume, the overall shape had little to do with the actual figure. Hoop skirts and powdered wigs made it very challenging. This process really required right-brain thinking. However, understanding how the body counterbalances weight in any given pose helps an artist express the gesture when the architecture of the body isn’t seen. So the knowledge from the first class helped a lot here.”

The following are not simple contour drawings from this class; unfortunately Marie has lost them.  “I don’t have examples of the pure contour drawings in India Ink,” she wrote.  The costume drawings below are “the long poses at the end of class. We would start them in India ink and would also use gouache or watercolor. But you can see how the costume really obscured the figure.”

Three costume drawings by Marie McCann-Barab

Three costume drawings by Marie McCann-Barab

Perpendicular line technique

“A third instructor,” wrote Marie, taught a method which helped students understand the “architecture” of the human body.  Beginning with the point of the body closest to them, students had to

“draw the figure as if it were covered in a network of perpendicular lines… that described the expansion and contraction of limbs. The process demanded that we look very carefully at the forms. The resulting image became very architectural and really emphasized the perspective of the body in foreshortening. I didn’t enjoy drawing this way, but it was a great exercise in seeing.”


Perpendicular line grid drawings by Marie McCann-Barab

Marie wrote descriptions of this process:

“I start with the part of the form that is closest to me: a tip of a finger. Then I begin drawing backwards, defining those planes again: the top surface of the digit, the ridge of the knuckle, the side of the finger, the widening of the next portion. When the finger reaches the hand, I’m more aware of the depth and dimension of the hand than if had just approached this with a contour line.”

I find it extraordinary to imagine that this drawing, so accurate a portrayal especially of the finger positioning, was created by drawing “backward” from the tip of the finger closest to the artist.  Marie wrote that she did the same thing in drawing the head: first she drew the small almost-rectangle at the tip of the nose.  Then she worked “backward” in space from that point, just as she did with the hand.

Yin and/or Yang?

Marie added a little addendum about an exercise:

Another approach is to draw with the non-dominant hand. …This exercise is particularly beneficial to anyone who has developed facility and consequently has stopped REALLY looking at their subject. Our dominant hand seems to develop its calligraphy for expressing familiar forms. But when we use the non-dominant hand, we have to look more carefully, and communicate with that hand that holds the drawing instrument.

It’s not only artists who’ve been drawing a long time who have trouble allowing themselves to really see. Beginners who want to learn to draw also struggle with this.  Allowing the mind to cross over into right-brain mode is very difficult for most people learning to draw, and yet it’s basic to drawing well.  Betty Edwards Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain famously takes beginners through a series of exercises that help allow their right brains to take over while drawing.

Yin Yang symbol

Yin Yang symbol

We might think of this in terms of using yin (right-brain) techniques to draw yang (what is there in reality).

When I first read Marie’s description of her professor’s perpendicular lines technique, it seemed very analytic to me, meaning left-brained.  But when she described her step-by-step process of drawing for her head and hands (above), it sounded mesmerizing and dreamy.  Very yin, actually.  I could suddenly see how this technique might help the brain cross over into right-brain territory.

Balance, by Marie McCann-Barab

Balance, by Marie McCann-Barab

As for the skeleton technique Marie described, this still seems to me to be the antithesis of what would help the right brain step forward.  What I found really interesting, though, was the comment Marie made at the very end of her description:  that knowledge of the skeletal-muscular system “is incredibly helpful when drawing from the model, but even more so when drawing from imagination.”

The tension between drawing from what’s “out there” (yang) vs what’s inside the artist’s imagination (yin) interests me a great deal, so Marie’s statement really caught my attention.  It’s challenging enough to learn how to draw what’s in front of us in reality.  Even more challenging is learning how to paint a world that exists only inside the artist’s head, in a way that gives it a feeling of reality.

So – if this doesn’t sound too convoluted – it seemed to me that Marie was saying that her yang knowledge of the skeleton is crucial when she’s creating yin worlds of her imagination.

Well, if this yin-yang paradigm makes any sense at all, Marie’s painting entitled Balance is a wonderful illustration of it.  In Balance, we have Marie’s unique world of a human girl in uneasy tension in a natural setting.  But this is a natural setting of Marie’s imagination, in which the entire world rests on the tidal edge of a beach, the girl balanced on it.

How did Marie make the imaginary natural world of Balance feel real?  The girl’s position atop the globe is for the most part fairly uncomplicated.  What makes her precarious balance clear, though, is her left hand (on the right side as we face the painting).  It’s the hand of a person who has just been startled by being thrown slightly off-balance.  From what Marie wrote about using her knowledge of the skeletal system to draw from her imagination, I would guess she used it to draw that hand.

In short, it’s intriguing that yang knowledge is needed to portray the yin of the imagination, while the yin of the right brain is needed to draw reality (yang).  Food for thought for the future….

August, by Marie McCann-Barab

August, by Marie McCann-Barab

Four Jewish inhabitants of Ryazan: Beyond the Pale, Chapter 1

Monday, May 17th, 2010
My grandfather, Boris L. Bobroff

My grandfather, Boris L. Bobroff

The Introduction to this thread, Mysteries of my Grandfather, is here.

I hope to discover my grandfather’s world in Ryazan.  I wish to be able to envision the people my 22-year-old grandfather saw everyday, his conversations and pursuits, the passions he shared with others he knew.  Who did he pass in the street each day on his way to work?  Who did he say good morning to?  Who did he eat and relax with at night?

Ryazan around 1912

Ryazan around 1912

Unearthing stories of early 20th century life among Ryazan’s Jewish population is extremely difficult.  But I’ve discovered a four small threads – four Jewish families – with which to begin weaving my tapestry of life in Ryazan.

Ryazan was outside the Pale of Jewish Settlement to which most Russian Jews were confined by law beginning under Catherine the Great.  To live in Ryazan, Jews had to obtain government permits.  While Ryazan has been described as free of the kinds of theft and pogroms against Jews experienced elsewhere, restrictions and prejudice existed.  Jewish livelihoods could be precarious here.

Ryazan, east of Moscow, was outside the Jewish Pale of Settlement

Ryazan, east of Moscow, was outside the Jewish Pale of Settlement

With the help of the small group of participants who have Ryazan ancestors, I’ve found out a bit about four Jewish families who lived within the non-Jewish world of that city.  These four will be my cast of characters for future posts.  They include:

The Polyakov family, wealthy bankers, pharmacists, and entrepreneurs who likely had government permission to live in Ryazan because of their talents, skills, and business success.

Yakov Kull, son of Shmuel Kull

Yakov Kull, son of Shmuel Kull

The Kull family, whose father,  Shmuel, had served in the Russian army, garrisoned in Ryazan.  His son Yakov later opened a florishing dress shop in the city.

Avrom Abbe Mesigal, a shingle maker who lived under the protection of a weathy non-Jewish dairy owner in the village of Pesochnoe just east of Ryazan.  Mesigal prospered in his business, marrying and raising a family.  But when his dairy-owner protector left town, the Mesigal family were forced to leave as well.

My own grandfather, Boris L. Bobroff.  I don’t yet know how he came to be living in Ryazan.  Bobroff worked at the Ryazan Agricultural Machinery and Railway Equipment Factory.  Thanks to tremendous help by contact Leon Kull, I’ve learned that this grew into a very large factory which still exists today, now called Ryazselmash.  It was founded in 1904 by well-known entrepreneur Yekhiel Levontin.

What was the landscape in which these four Jewish inhabitants lived?  What kind of city was Ryazan?

The province of Ryazan was still overwhelmingly rural in the early 20th century.  The city of Ryazan was the largest in the province, with about 46,000 inhabitants (men outnumbered women).

But change was afoot.  Ryazan lies along the Oka River, the trade route between Moscow and Nizhny-Novgorod.  By the end of the 19th century, steamboats on the Oka River were replacing rowboats and barges pulled by men.

Ryazan railroad station.  Carriages were always waiting outside to transport passengers into downtown Ryazan

Ryazan railroad station. Carriages were always waiting outside to transport passengers into downtown Ryazan

The Moscow-Ryazan railroad began construction in 1863, the same era railroads were being built across the US.  Within a few years, a railway line was completed to Tambov province, linking Moscow, via Ryazan, with the highly-fertile black-soil regions of southern Russia.  In the 1890s, Ryazan became an important transport center as railways were built to other major cities in the empire.

These changes in Ryazan must have affected the lives of our band of four Jewish residents.  True, the area remained overwhelmingly agricultural.  But might the development of new kinds of economic activity have provided more opportunities for shingle-makers like Avrom Mesigal?  Would new wealth have created more business for Kull’s dress shop?

It seems likely, because we know that growing transportation connections to the outside world stimulated the economic and cultural life of Ryazan.  In the words of “Ryazanets” (“Ryazan resident”), who has written many articles about Ryazan on the province’s extraordinary website, History, Culture, and Traditions of Ryazan (any errors in translation are my own):

"Ryazanets," author

"Ryazanets," author

Transport of goods and transfer of information accelerated as travel became easier and more affordable. Use of the telegraph grew significantly.  Now urgent news could be transmitted over great distances.  A suburb, Troitskaya, grew up near the railroad station.  A cobbled road led from the station to the Moscow Road [the main street of Ryazan]….

Around the station were built houses for the railway workers.  [A second station was built for the railway to Kazan.]  Near the railroad stations, trade establishments appeared….  In fact, Troitskaya was the fastest growing part of the city.  By 1897, it held 7,000 inhabitants.

All of this economic change led to the development of mechanized factories in Ryazan, including the factory where my grandfather would find work.  It also led to a flowering of banking activity in Ryazan.  Surely this impacted the lives of the Polyakov family.  I will pick up the story of the new banks in my next Mysteries of my Grandfather post.  And I’ll continue to explore the lives of all four of our Jewish cast of characters on the stage of 19th and early 20th century Ryazan.

The Introduction to this thread, Mysteries of my Grandfather, is here.

For more about the four Jewish residents of Ryazan introduced here, see the entire series of posts here.

Ryazan: Prince Oleg's 14th century palace and cathedral on a tributary to the Oka River

Ryazan: Prince Oleg's 14th century palace and cathedral on a tributary to the Oka River

Mysteries of my grandfather: Introduction

Monday, May 10th, 2010
My grandfather invented the automobile turn signal.  These are a couple of the types he manufactured during the 1930s.

My grandfather B. L. Bobroff invented the automobile turn signal. These are a couple of the types he manufactured during the 1930s.

My grandfather rarely talked about his life in Russia, and he died before I was born.  These two facts of course made me obsessively curious about him.  That curiosity fuels my work, now art, to this day.

There were a few things I knew about my grandfather: he was born Boris L. Bobroff – or Bobrov, depending on how you transliterate the Cyrillic letters into English.  He came to the US around 1905 at the age of 22. Like many Russian men at that time he probably left the country to avoid being drafted into the Russian army to fight in the Russo-Japanese War.

Motor bike rear turn signal made by Bobroff in the 1930s-1940s

Motor bike rear turn signal made by Bobroff in the 1930s-1940s

When Boris came to the US, he changed his first name to Bornett.  Bornett was an odd choice, in my opinion, not in a good way.  So I’ll use Boris as much as I can.

Boris/Bornett moved to Milwaukee and later Racine, Wisconsin.  He invented and patented various electrical signaling devices, including the voting machine used in state legislatures and a version of hospital nursing call lights.  Most ubiquitous was his invention of the turn signal for cars and other motor vehicles.  He held patents on the original invention of the auto turn signal, and on many design improvements over the decades following.  He manufactured his turn signals in a small factory called Teleoptic, in Racine.


B.L. Bobroff demonstrating his voting invention to Wisconsin legislators

Because of my grandfather’s inventions, the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison holds some of his papers.  Years ago, my mother and I traveled there to look at them.

The most intriguing of the papers was a letter of recommendation written about my grandfather’s work at an agricultural equipment factory in Ryazan, Russia.  There was an English translation of the letter, stamped with a fancy seal that apparently made it an official translation.  The recommendation said that my grandfather had been hired as a “worker,” but performed the function of an engineer.

Now engineers in Russia at that time were hot stuff, like the techies of today, only there were far fewer of them.  So being called an engineer in Russia then was a big deal.  I believe at that time young Boris had no engineering education, so he was probably winging it.  But he must have been naturally talented, especially because, as I’ve since found out, the man who signed his recommendation, Levontin, was the famous founder of what’s become the huge Ryazan Combine Plant, in existence to this day.

The fact that my grandfather was working and living in Ryazan raised in my mind the first of several mysteries I’ve been pursuing ever since.  Jews in Russia were allowed to live only in the Jewish Pale of Settlement.  And Ryazan was outside the Pale.


Jewish Pale of Settlement in Russia, after 1825

There were ways Jews could win permission to live outside the Pale.  One of them was to have a degree in a field like engineering.  But my grandfather, as far as I know, didn’t have a degree.  So how had he gotten to Ryazan?  Had he been born there, the child of parents who did have some kind of engineering education?  Had he come alone?  If so, how?

Another vague family story about my grandfather involved a mysterious trip he had taken to Bolshevik Russia in 1920, involving manufacturing shoes for the Russians.  Traveling to Russia at that time was illegal for a US citizen.  So that was a second mystery.

After a couple years of searching the internet for more information, I suddenly hit on a wildly surprising discovery.  On Bobroff’s return from Russia aboard a steamship, he was picked up by the Bureau of Investigation (BOI, later the FBI) as he docked in New York.  I’d never heard about that before!

1920 Soviet poster: "Without a saw, axe, or nails you can't build a home. Tools are made by workers, who have to eat."

1920 Soviet poster: “Without a saw, axe, or nails you can’t build a home. Tools are made by workers, who have to eat.”

It turned out my grandfather had formed the Bobroff Foreign Trading and Engineering Company in Milwaukee and had gotten more than $6,000,000 in contracts from Russia for American-made machinery and boots.

The BOI agents confiscated several things from my grandfather: materials relating to his engineering work and a long letter addressed to the Soviet Bureau in Philadephia.  The BOI agents believed my grandfather had written this letter, signed “Bill.”  Later, Boris/Bornett testified he had only been delivering the letter, from a mysterious man he ran into in Copenhagen while waiting for his ship back to the US.

So another mystery emerged: did my grandfather write that letter, or was he truly an unwitting courier?

Most recently, thanks to googlebooks’ scanning of obscure out-of-print books, I found 25 pages of testimony by my grandfather to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 1921.  Another big surprise!  The committee was investigating “Conditions in Russia” three years after the Bolsheviks came to power.  And Bobroff had just returned from that far off country.

From my book, Working Women in Russia Under the Hunger Tsars

From my book, Working Women in Russia Under the Hunger Tsars

This was the height of the Red Scare in the US, and during the hearing the Congressmen were often belligerent toward my grandfather.  For his part, Bobroff argued back that the US government should reverse its policy against Russian gold being imported into the country.  This gold had been accumulated by the Romanov tsars over the centuries.  The Bolsheviks – by then in power for over 3 years – wanted to use this tsarist gold to pay for trade goods of the kind my grandfather was trying to sell them.

Was my grandfather a businessman just trying to make money in all this?  Or was he politically involved in trying to aid the Soviets?  It’s known there was an effort at that time, both in Europe and the US, to win US recognition of the new Russian government by establishing trade.  It was thought that diplomatic recognition would follow any robust development of trade.

I now have more mysteries than I started with about my grandfather.  So the sleuthing continues….

Me against Da Vinci? What’s the best way to draw?

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

If you’ve ever taken art classes, you may wonder why I didn’t include information about the structure of the human body in my two life drawing lessons.  Aren’t figure-drawing teachers supposed to start by describing the internal skeleton, segments and joints of the body, standard proportions of head, legs, eyes, arms, mouth?

For example, Rebecca Alzofon began her online figure drawing lessons with wonderful animations of a skeleton, followed by the three ovals of “Head, Ribcage, Pelvis,” the “Pivot points” inside joints, “Long bones,” and so on.

Drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci

Drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci

The early, great champion of the anatomical approach to life drawing was of course Leonardo Da Vinci.  Da Vinci,  one of the greatest artists who ever lived, did minutely detailed dissections of human corpses along with eyewitness drawings of human anatomy.

But the Angle-Abstraction Game I described in my life drawing lessons, on the other hand, is all about angles and shapes.  Isn’t that geometry, not human bone and flesh?  Where is the brilliant Da Vinci in that?

There are different ways to approach drawing.  I’ve linked to Alzofon here because I admire the care and thoroughness she devoted to her tutorial’s very detailed illustrations and text.  If you want to try out the life-drawing method she represents, I recommend working through her multi-paged lessons.  Her presentation is, I think, more helpful than some of the other briefer ones you can find online.  Above all, I love her use of animation.

Da Vinci: Placement of features in the head

Da Vinci: Placement of features in the head

My own earliest drawing classes included anatomical information, standard proportions and focus on the body itself when drawing.  I learned, for example, that the crotch is the halfway point in the length of the human body – which, by the way, is 6-7 heads.  The nose ends halfway between the eyes and the bottom of the chin, and the mouth is one third down that same distance (you can see exactly this noted by Da Vinci in his drawing of the human head).  The pelvis tilts and turns independently of the chest, as do the shoulders, and so on.

But for me personally, it wasn’t until I put all that aside and looked simply at shapes and angles carved into space that I suddenly began to draw fluidly and with assurance.

In current parlance, I began to draw from my right brain instead of my left.  For me, that made all the difference.

But how could that be?  Where did I get off disagreeing with Da Vinci?

Betty Edwards is the pre-eminent teacher of the “right-brained” approach to drawing, made famous through her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.  I had actually begun using my angle-abstraction game more than a decade before her book came out.  But the book explained to me why forgetting – or at least not focusing on – all that detailed information about the human body worked so well for me.  Edwards made me feel it was OK to diverge from Da Vinci.

In a nutshell, Edwards explains that we often can’t draw because we’re blocked from seeing what’s right in front of us.  What blocks us is our preconceived notions about what a human hand or leg or eye should look like.  We struggle, trying to draw what we assume we’ll see – instead of seeing what’s actually there: how the specific hand in front of us looks, for example, when its fingers point straight at us.

With this in mind, it now seems to me that all the detailed information about the human body’s standard proportions might get smack in the way of our drawing well, rather than helping us draw better.  “Standard proportions” provide more expectations of what we should see, rather than removing expectations so that we can see.  This is especially true when the model isn’t standing upright, but is bent or folded in more complex poses, where “standard” proportions get lost in the twists and turns of the person’s limbs.  And after all, it’s non-standard poses that express the body language of individual people whose personalities we want to capture along with their outward appearance.

Edwards’ great contribution to artists everywhere is that she teaches how to disengage our left brains while we draw, in order to enable us to see what’s actually there.  One very important way of doing this is to focus on “negative space” – the space around the figure, rather than on the figure itself.  Counter-intuitive though this may seem, focusing on the space around your subject is often the best way to capture your subject accurately.  This is because looking at the unexpected negative “turns off” the left brain and allows the right brain to do what it’s good at – drawing.

Da Vinci: Muscles of the neck and arm

Da Vinci: Muscles of the neck and arm

So all the focus on the body itself, and all the analysis of what’s going on inside it, for me at least, engages my analytic left brain and gets in the way of drawing.  Conversely, the more I forget I’m even drawing muscles, hair, and bones, the better I get at drawing muscles, hair, and bones.

I will never know what it would be like to draw without first having my early foundation of information about the body.  It’s very possible that this knowledge informs my drawing even though I never think about it consciously.  I also think I happen to be the kind of visually-oriented person who is always sponging in information about everything I see, like how babies’ knuckles look like dimples and how my own knuckles look as I sit here typing.  I think I may more quickly recognize and draw certain shapes because my mind is always noticing them in my everyday life.  So I’m undoubtedly not a pure test case of drawing from abstractions rather than awareness of the body.

I encourage experimentation with all kinds of approaches to drawing.  What works for me may not work for you.  But I’d also encourage you to strongly consider the possibility that emptying your conscious mind of analytic focus on the body may be the best way to draw the body beautifully.