Archive for July, 2010

Why is learning to draw “so hard?”

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

Why do our brains withhold from our conscious grasp a way of seeing that’s so useful?  Why aren’t we able to easily dip into that mode of seeing when we want it to draw?

Centrale Electrique de Zouk (Electric Station of Zouk), by Vanessa Gemeyal

Centrale Electrique de Zouk (Electric Station of Zouk), by Vanessa Gemeyal

When I posted a two-part online drawing lesson a couple of months ago, I received a response that got me wondering.

The response was from a wonderful young Lebanese artist, Vanessa Gemayel.   Vanessa paints luminously about today’s destruction of the beautiful  traditional architecture that gave Beirut its unique atmosphere, replaced by generic modern architecture that is sadly making Beirut look like every other city in the world.

Vanessa, after trying out my figure-drawing lessons, wrote to me that she found them “very cool and helpful.”  But, she added, “you make it seem a lot easier than it actually is.”  And of course Vanessa is saying outright what many people feel about drawing instruction.

That got me wondering what in the human brain makes drawing from life so not-easy to learn.

All jobs involve a learning curve, often long and hard to get through.  Drawing from life is in that sense no different from any other expertise.  Many skills, for example, require years of study before mastering them.  Others need endless practice.

I believe that the most important element of learning to draw, though, is an “aha moment” – or maybe a small series of such moments.  In those few moments, you suddenly start being able to see in a different way which enables you to draw realistically.  This alternate way of seeing is for me, and for many who draw, the single most basic and important tool we use.

True, endless practice must follow the aha.  But the practice isn’t what blocks most people who really want to learn to draw.

In learning to draw, I think what is elusive to many people is the “aha moment” when they begin to see in that all-important alternate way.

With that aha, you will be able to learn to draw easily.

What is the aha moment in learning to draw?

In my drawing-lesson posts, “Learning to Draw by Playing the Angle Abstraction Game,” I called the technique of seeing differently “angle abstraction.”  The artist is able to see what they’re drawing as a series of angles and shapes that are much easier to draw than when their subject is seen “normally.”

Other artists have given other names to their alternate way of seeing.  Betty Edwards has written two groundbreaking books in which she calls it “right-brain mode,” or “R-mode” (as distinct from left-brain mode, or L-mode).

L-mode is how we consciously think in our everyday lives.  It’s language-based.

R-mode – the one that enables us to draw – is non-verbal and does its work mostly outside our conscious awareness.

The “aha moment” happens when you are suddenly able to consciously access and use R-mode to see differently and draw.

One frame from my free online drawing lesson, "Learning to Draw by Playing the Angle Abstraction Game"

One frame from my free online drawing lesson, "Learning to Draw by Playing the Angle Abstraction Game"

But why would our brains withhold from our conscious grasp a way of seeing that can be so useful?  Why shouldn’t we all be able to easily dip into that mode of thinking when we want it to draw?

Why do our brains block our aha moments?

Portrait of the Steinbergs, by Anne Bobroff-Hajal.  Notice how different each of the hands looks.

Portrait of the Steinbergs, by Anne Bobroff-Hajal. Notice how different each of the hands looks.

I was pondering this question when I recently ran into a wonderful answer in one of Betty Edwards’ books, Drawing on the Artist Within (p. 208).

One way of conveying  Edwards’ explanation here  is through a group portrait I painted (right) of Bob and Gail Steinberg with their grandchildren, Riley and Alex.  This portrait illustrates one of the classic problems of drawing: how to draw parts of the human body when they are foreshortened – that is when they are coming straight at us, so they look very different from what we usually think of as an arm, a leg, a hand.

The most obvious foreshortened body part in this portrait is the hand of the Steinbergs’ grandson Alex, who is pointing directly at the viewer.  Everyone who sees this painting knows exactly what that hand is doing.  But in fact, it bears little resemblance to our standard concept of what a hand looks like.  Our conscious, rational L-mode brain typically thinks of a hand as something more like the father’s hand in another portrait (below).

Detail of Edwin Ermita and Two of His Children, by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

Detail of Edwin Ermita and Two of His Children, by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

That little pointing finger

Alex’s pointing finger appears on the canvas as a small circle, not the long tube shape we associate with fingers.  That’s strange enough.  But beyond that, the thumb seems bigger than the other fingers.  And it stretches out at an angle that we rarely think of thumbs taking on.  That thumb seemed so odd to me while I was painting it that I rechecked it multiple times to be sure I had it right.

In fact, it’s exactly because I allowed each finger to take on its actual shape – rather than what I might have consciously thought it should look like – that makes it possible for everyone who looks at the painting to know exactly what that strange conglomeration of flesh-colored blobs is.

Now for the other hands….

In addition to the little pointing finger, we can look at the other hands in the Steinberg portrait.  When we really study them, none of them is shaped like our standard concept of a hand.

Detail of Steinbergs' hands along with tracing

Detail of Steinberg portrait hands, along with black ink outline of each

Bob Steinberg’s hand appears almost triangular, with only parts of four fingers visible.

Little Alex’s right hand is visible as only a thumb and two fingers.  And the index finger looks like it’s separated from the thumb by an interloping finger which in reality is farther away from the thumb.

Gail Steinberg’s fingers conform fairly well to our standard image of a hand.  But what about the back of the palm area?  It looks much smaller and less rectangular than it “should.”

It’s fine for us to view these shapes as being all different when we’re drawing.  But it’s also crucial for our daily functioning that we recognize all of them as the same – as hands.  It’s the job of our efficient, everyday L-mode, says Edwards, to quickly classify all these odd shapes under the general verbal rubric of “hand.”  And that verbal rubric is envisioned as in Edwin Ermita’s hand above, stretched flat, with five fingers roughly the same length as the palm.

If our brains had to go through a conscious, verbal process of debating whether each of a group of very dissimilar objects is or is not a hand from a different angle, we’d never get through our day.  We’d be mired in endless debating: “I see three of what look like fingers, two from the side and the third, a thumb, from more of a straight-on view.  But if they are fingers, why aren’t there five of them, and why aren’t they attached to a hand?  Is the hand out of my sight, or ….”

Our unconscious interpreter

It’s R-mode, says Edwards, that takes in all the differences in shape and size, and, with lightning speed, calculates from them where things are in space, what they are, and so on.  R-mode sees, for example, that the back of Gail Steinberg’s hand appears to be getting smaller not because it is smaller, but because it’s receding back from her fingers, curving around Alex’s body.  “It’s a hand, all right,” says R-mode, “it’s just shaped differently from a “standard” one because its wrist is farther away from us than its fingers.”

Edwards wrote (p. 178),

“R-mode apparently computes instantaneously and nonverbally….  This computation – and the size-change information that hits the retina – is somehow kept ‘secret’ from conscious awareness, perhaps in order not to interfere with or complicate the language system.”

I suspect this instantaneous computation is also “kept secret from conscious awareness” because language – the currency of L-mode – would slow down its lightning speed.  The rapidity with which our R-mode calculates that a flesh-colored circle is a finger pointing at us happens far faster than we could ever describe in words.

An analogy that might make this clearer is of an athlete hitting a ball.  The athlete’s R-mode brain is making calculations at phenomenal speed about how far away the ball is, how fast its moving, where its moving, and about how the athlete him/herself must move and react to all that information in order to successfully connect with the ball.  If the athlete had to bring all of this to consciousness and calculate it verbally – “the ball is now curving right and I can see it will bounce in this particular way, so I calculate that I should move this way – no, I now see that it had spin on it, so I need to redo my computations…”  – the athlete would never be able to hit the ball before it went whizzing past.

Bringing the aha to more readers

When artists draw, I believe they are making judgments and decisions at that same lightning speed as the athlete hitting a ball.  Their thought process has to be non-verbal because of the countless calculations made in a split-second’s time.

I think this is why it’s so difficult to convey drawing instruction in words.  The artist’s observations, judgments, and decisions happen in a split second of often-exciting non-verbal discovery.  But to convey to a reader that same thought process takes long paragraphs of verbiage.  That’s why I’m hoping to be able to get more video drawing demos up on this blog in future – along with text that tries to convey a small fraction of the artist’s split-second decision-making as he or she works.

We need language to communicate the artist’s process to other people.  But language is slower and more reductionist than some other processes in our brains.  Hopefully a combination of images, video, and language will bring the aha moment to more readers of this blog in the future.

Bobrova and Kull: Daily work at the Ryazan Singer Sewing Machine shop

Monday, July 19th, 2010
Singer ads portrayed women of many countries sewing at their machines.  This is a woman in traditional Russian costume, including a headdress in reality far too heavy to allow bending over her work.

Singer ads portrayed women of many countries sewing at their machines. This is a woman in traditional Russian costume, including a headdress in reality far too heavy to allow bending over her work.

This is Chapter 6 of the thread “The World of Jews in Ryazan: Beyond the Pale.” The previous chapter can be found here.

As described in a previous post, Yakov Kull and Rokhilya Bobrova both worked at the Singer Sewing Machine Company in Ryazan, Russia.

What was work like for them on a day-to-day basis?  What tasks were they responsible for at Singer?  What were their relationships with people they worked with?  With their superiors?

Rokhilya almost certainly taught sewing lessons and/or demonstrated sewing techniques on the different Singer machine models.  We can be fairly sure of this because these were the jobs the company typically hired women to do in Russia.

More details of what work at Singer was like for such women as Bobrova are hard to come by.  One thing we do know is that everyone who worked above her in the shop was likely a foreigner who did not speak her language well.  Singer had a very hierarchical structure of managers and auditors.  Non-Russians were sent from abroad to fill all supervisory roles.  They may have learned some Russian during their time there, but were likely not very comfortable in it.

We can wonder what it must have been like for Rokhilya Bobrova to interview for a job with, say, Germans or Americans, and to come to work every day in a place where all her superiors were foreigners.

Russian ad for Singer Sewing Machines

Russian ad for Singer Sewing Machines

Rokhilya – a widowed mother of five – was, of course, herself something of a foreigner in Ryazan, having left her birthplace in Minsk province (now Belarus) in the Jewish Pale of Settlement, at about the age of twenty.  Her first language may not have been Russian, either.  But she had lived in Ryazan since 1887, for nearly 20 years before the Singer company arrived there, so her Russian was likely fluent.

At any rate, Bobrova would have had a number of co-workers who were longtime Ryazan inhabitants, including Yakov Kull.  Local residents were hired for all sales positions at Singer’s because the company realized that to sell lots of machines required salespeople who knew the language and the cultural and social mores of their potential customers.  (Domosh)

I like to  imagine Bobrova interacting in a friendly way with her fellow employees as she worked each day.  One of these fellow employees was Yakov Kull.

Manual for the Singer Model 15, a foot-powered treadle sewing machine.

Manual for the Singer Model 15, a foot-powered treadle sewing machine.

Kull, according to the 1910 Russian Census, was a “sales agent” at Singer’s. These agents – often called “canvassers” in English – were the foundation for Singer’s astronomical success in Russia (and the US).  Many worked in Singer’s roughly 4,000 shops in cities throughout the Empire.  Tens of thousands more “canvassed” the countryside looking for new customers all across the vast territory of the Russian Empire.  Mona Domosh wrote,

“At the most local level, the Singer ‘man’ on horseback was a common, everyday sight….  In rural areas, this person took daily horseback rides through the countryside, visiting farms and small villages.  He (they were all men) carried with him samples of Singer’s various machines and the materials necessary to demonstrate their use, such as thread and fabric.  He also carried with him his notebook, where he marked the weekly payments that he did or did not collect.  He interacted with customers mainly in their own homes, a visitor of sorts, perhaps known by the family beforehand or at least familiar to them by name and relations.”

Yakov Kull

Yakov Kull

The canvassers were “thought to be the key to sales success; they were meant to be energetic, bright, knowledgable about the machines, and honest.”  This description definitely seems to fit the enterprising young Yakov Kull, who had moved on to Singer’s from his job as shop assistant in a clothing store.

We don’t know whether Yakov Kull canvassed the countryside around Ryazan or whether he worked primarily in the shop in town.  We do know that he had grown up in a neighboring town, Zaraysk, so he would still have had contacts – perhaps potential customers – outside of Ryazan itself.  We might wonder whether his former hometown became part of the sales territory he worked.

A Singer Sewing Machine shop in Beloomut, Ryazan province, Russia

A Singer Sewing Machine shop in Beloomut, Russia, 27 miles southeast of Ryazan.

On the other hand, it’s possible that there was yet another Singer shop in Zaraysk which employed residents of that town.  The photo to the left (sent to me by Yakov Kull’s descendent, Leon Kull), shows a Singer shop in another small town not far from Ryazan.  The building’s traditional Russian architecture is beautifully decorated with typical peasant carved-wood trim.  Note the large Singer sign across the top of the building, which reads “Sewing Machines / Singer Company.”  Unfortunately this photo is too blurry to make out the images on the other signs, but they undoubtedly bore pictures of Singer sewing machines.  They adorned the facade’s first and second floors, and the corners as well, so as not to miss potential customers coming down the street from either direction.

Hand-operated Singer sewing machine.  "Singer" on the wooden case is printed in the Cyrillic alphabet, while the machine itself is not.

Hand-operated Singer sewing machine. "Singer" is printed on the wooden case in the Cyrillic alphabet, but not on the machine itself.

Most customers bought their Singers on installment because the cost of a sewing machine was more than the average Russian’s yearly income.  In the United States, Singer installment plans were paid off in two years.  But because most Russians were too poor to pay that quickly, payments there were typically spread out over four years.

Typical Singer treadle sewing machine in table with iron stand.

Typical Singer treadle sewing machine in table with iron stand.

Russian sales agents such as Yakov Kull were responsible for collecting the installment payments from each of the customers to whom they sold sewing machines.  It’s possible that Kull’s wealthier Ryazan customers bought their machines outright.  According to fashion designer Elena Kroshkina, sewing machines became part of the fashionable young woman’s dowry at that time, purchased by the parents of the bride.

But it seems likely that many of Kull’s customers must have paid in installments.  According to Fred Carstensen’s terrific study of Singer in Russia, the company’s

“army of sales agents collected much of Singer’s income in the homes and workshops of customers.  Controlling these monies, which passed through many unsupervised hands, was critical to the financial health of the company.  Singer controlled the agents’ sales and collections through ‘hire books,’ coupons, and numbered stamps.  Each customer received a book when he purchased a machine.  Whenever an agent received a payment, he stuck the appropriate number of coupons in the hire book, then canceled them with a numbered stamp and his own signature.  These coupons served both as receipts for customers and as a check on the agent, who had to account for all his coupons when submitting collections and his weekly report.”

Singer Sewing Machine sales bill.  Note what looks like a coupon glued into the left lower margin.  (This is a prerevolutionary sales slip, though this one happens to have been filled out in 1924.)

Singer Sewing Machine sales bill. Note what looks like a coupon glued into the left lower margin. (This is a pre-revolutionary sales slip, though this one happens to have been filled out in 1924.)

Once a customer made a down payment on a machine, it was not delivered until a credit investigation had been done that indicated Singer would receive all the expected payments.  As Domosh explains, this was another reason the company hired local people familiar with the economic conditions of their neighbors.

“Local knowledge of, for example, a bad harvest year or labor dispute at the main factory in town was needed to assess potential credit risks.  Therefore, retail employees were familiar with the general economic statuses of their potential customers….  What exactly was involved in this ‘investigation’ is not clear; presumably, a Singer staff member drawn from the local population, and therefore with access to local knowledge, made visits and phone calls to financial institutions and other local institutions.  After the appropriate information had been obtained, the machine was delivered and regular weekly payments were either collected or brought to the store or office.”

Singer newspaper advertisement for installment plans of one ruble payments.

Singer newspaper advertisement for installment plans of one ruble payments.

So Yakov Kull may also have been responsible for credit checks on customers, along with his other duties.  For his work, Kull would have been paid a fixed salary, plus commissions on sales and collections.

Carstensen tells us that, because sales agents were collecting large sums of money outside its retail shops, Singer constantly worried about theft.  To protect the company, Singer required all sales agents, before being hired, to “deposit a security in the sum of 300 rubles,” which reverted to the company in case of theft.

This 300 ruble security deposit, though, was a massive sum which most potential Russian sales agents could not pay.  As Singer rapidly expanded in Russia, its corporate leaders began to realize they would not be able to find enough sales staff if they hired only people who could afford it.  Singer also eventually realized it was to their advantage to employ people who were dependent on hard work for the company to earn their living.  Sales agents who could afford a 300 ruble security deposit did not have the same level of financial pressure motivating them to work diligently.

So Singer abolished the security deposit in 1908.  Yakov Kull began working at Singer at roughly this time. We might wonder whether this change made it possible for Kull to leave the dress shop and move to Singer, where he likely earned a higher income.

At any rate, both Kull and Bobrova worked each day with a massive, hierarchical structure above them that required them to constantly account for work done and monies collected.  Everyone employed by Singer had to make weekly reports which were sent up the chain of command along with receipts, finally reaching corporate headquarters in New York.

Singer hierarchy: canvassers (sales agents) were tracked and supervised by layers of managers above them.  From Carstensen, American Enterprise in Foreign Markets

Singer hierarchy: canvassers (sales agents) were tracked and supervised by layers of managers above them. From Carstensen, American Enterprise in Foreign Markets.

As I’ve described in an earlier post, because of the low level of entrepreneurial experience and training among the general Russian population, Singer turned to members of minority groups living in Russia, especially Jews, who did have the necessary background.

*       *       *

As a Singer sales agent, Yakov Kull would have been responsible for selling other sewing items to his customers as well, such as thread and needles, and providing minor servicing on machines.

Small tube with Singer name, containing a pencil which may not be original.

Small tube with Singer name, containing a pencil which may not be original.

Another item sold was tailor’s chalk, contained in small metal tubes bearing the Singer name in Russian.  Leon Kull, great-grandson of Yakov, discovered this fact via yet another extraordinary coincidence which occurred around the time I posted Extraordinary coincidence in Ryazan: Kull and Bobrova co-workers at Singer Sewing Machine.

Leon, who now lives in Israel, happened to be strolling through a flea market the day after he discovered the census records showing that his great-grandfather and my relative, Rokhilya Bobrova, both worked at Singer and lived in the same building in Ryazan, Russia.  As Leon emailed me:

“The next day after I found the records about Rakhil Bobrova and my
great-grandfather, I went to the flea market on the Dizengoff Square in
Tel Aviv.  Occasionally, as usual at the flea market, I saw an item that
attracted my attention.”

Brass container that held tailor's chalk, with "Singer Company" embossed in Russian

Brass container that held tailor's chalk, with "Singer Company" embossed in Russian (pre-revolutionary lettering)

Of course, Leon bought the little tube on the spot!  It had a pencil inside, stuck into the gold-colored cap.  However, when Leon later spoke to an expert on the topic, he learned that these tubes originally held tailor’s chalk, not pencils.

As I wrote in my earlier post about Kull and Bobrova, “I suppose the reason anyone searches for information about their ancestors is that they’re yearning to find connections with others beyond themselves in time and place.”

And here once again, Kull and Bobrova’s ghosts were dancing together, this time through the medium of a little brass tailor’s chalk holder!

Video drawing demo by artist Jonathan Linton

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010
Stuart, by Jonathan Linton

Stuart, by Jonathan Linton

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts featuring video demonstrations of artists drawing, together with their commentary about specific choices they make as they work.  My goal in these posts is to provide insight into the moment-by-moment decisions made by artists during the flow of creating their art.

Drawing at its best is profoundly right-brained – which is to say non-verbal. So trying to translate the drawing process into words often ends up being deadly to read.  What is experienced by the artist as highly pleasurable and out-of-time appears in print as tedious and endless.

So I’m beginning to explore how to convey the artist’s process in a way that’s both fun and helpful to readers wanting to learn more about what’s going on in artists’ minds as they work.

Jonathan Linton is a wonderful portrait artist who I’ve written about before.  Two of my favorites among his portraits are Chad and Stuart (above).  The boy’s facial expression in each of these portraits conveys his very soul.  There’s no vacuous staring into the middle distance here.  Each of the two boys is fully engaged with the viewer in a way that communicates multi-faceted expectations vis-à-vis the world he is growing into.  And each painting is exquisitely rendered from a purely technical point of view.

Jonathan has put some painting and drawing demos on YouTube.  For my present post, he’s now written commentary, keyed to specific moments in his drawing video of Meg.  He’s going to take us through how he moved from reference photo of Meg (below left) to his lovely, complex finished drawing (below right).

Reference photo and final drawing by Jonathan Linton

Reference photo and final drawing of Meg, by Jonathan Linton

Drawing materials used by Jonathan Linton in his drawing demo of "Meg"

Drawing materials used by Jonathan Linton in his drawing demo of "Meg"

Jonathan used a number of materials to create this drawing: vine charcoal, charcoal pencil, paint brush, three different types of erasers, a paint brush, and paper towels (for his complete list, see bottom of this post).  You can trace Jonathan’s use of each during the video by referring to the photo (left) of materials he sent me.  In the video, it’s especially easy to spot the red charcoal pencil and the silver eraser-pencil.  The fat, rectangular Factis eraser is also distinctive.

I’ve embedded Jonathan’s video in this post.  But an easier way to follow through his text explanation may be for you to open the YouTube video in a second window.  Then scroll down to Jonathan’s text in my post below.  Place it next to the YouTube video, and go through the two simultaneously side by side.

It’s fun to go through the video and commentary more than once, because you’ll pick up more of what Jonathan’s actually doing as you become more familiar with both text and video.

One interesting technique Jonathan used was frequent “wiping down” of the powdery-charcoal drawing.  It may seem counter-intuitive to non-artists to repeatedly wipe out an entire drawing as you’re working, so we’ll talk a bit more about that later.

Jonathan began with watercolor-toned paper.  This means that the paper has been covered with a layer of paint to provide color and texture to the background, and as the bottom-most layer of the drawing.

The first drawing implement Jonathan uses is vine charcoal, which is a very soft, light charcoal, easily erased or wiped nearly clean.

Jonathan Linton’s text commentary for YouTube video of drawing “Meg:”

Vine charcoal was used to place the face, mark the axis of the eyes and apply an initial tone.

0:18            In order to give a softer tone to the drawing, I often wiped the drawing with paper towels.  I wasn’t worried about the awkward scribbles showing through to the final layers since the vine charcoal spreads easily.

After placing these rough indications with the vine charcoal, I used a charcoal pencil to feel out the shapes with more specificity.  Since the charcoal pencil’s marks have a lot more sticking power than the vine charcoal, I tried to keep the lines interesting by varying their weight.

0:43            Cross hatching followed the turn of the form.  The idea is that the drawing will end up having some texture in the shadow areas and I wanted that texture to give info as well as to provide interest.

1:15            Everything was wiped down to soften the drawing and unify the tones.

1:18            Back to the charcoal pencil – refining edges and adding tones.

1:50            Another wipe down.

1:52            The erasers lifted the rubbed charcoal off the lighter areas easily.  (The Faber-Castell Perfection 7056 is a great tool, because you use it like a pencil – even to the point of cross-hatching.)

2:10            Back to the charcoal pencil for further restatement.

2:39            Another wipe down – then charcoal pencil.

2:46            Using the white Factis eraser, I made horizontal strokes across the drawing for macro texture.

After this I used the charcoal pencil, the pencil eraser and the paper towels in quick succession – attempting to refine the shapes and nail the tonal variations – trying to keep the lines interesting and decorating with final details.

Now back to me:

Jonathan uses two techniques in the video which involve removing charcoal rather than adding it.  One of these techniques is erasing parts of the drawing in order to create highlights: the areas of the face and hair on which most light falls.

The second removal technique is wiping over with a paper towel the entire drawing he’s created to that point.  The basis of this technique is that the charcoal is only partly erased by the paper towel, leaving a “ghost” image behind.  The ghosts can pile up on top of each other, adding depth and texture to the drawing intermingled with more defined marks.

I recently ran into a description of this wiping technique on the very quirky and entertaining website of a wonderful artist, the 70-year-old Jack Spiegelman.  Spiegelman wrote his description in the fictionalized voice of Otto Dix, the famous German painter.  I’m including it here because there’s something in Spiegelman’s writing that captures the rhythm and highly-focused momentum of an artist’s process.  As I said above, it’s very difficult to write about drawing in a way that captures – well, maybe a tad dramatically at the end of the quote below – the non-verbal state an artist can get into while working.  So, in the “voice of Otto Dix” by Spiegelman:

“I draw and wipe out, draw and wipe out, draw and wipe out. Everything goes on the one piece of paper. The results can be interesting. An energy is produced in this way. Each sketch in some way evolves or is driven by the image that has preceded it.  The erased images remain present as ghost images….

“I draw and wipe out, draw and wipe out, draw and wipe out. Once the drawing begins to happen you switch to a pencil with a  harder lead and work in a little detail.  I draw and erase and draw and erase. Its starting to happen. There is some energy.  I slash away.  I go back and forth from the soft stick to the hard pencil.  I slash away.  The charcoal is flying.  I love this paper!”

Speaking of paper, for Meg Jonathan used Arches Hot Press.

And that brings us last but not least to Jonathan Linton’s materials list:  Bounty paper towels, pencil sharpener, kneaded eraser, Factis eraser, Faber-Castell Perfection 7056 Eraser, vine charcoal, charcoal pencil, and paint brush.

For more online drawing demos, click here.

Nicole Mone on the importance of drawing from life

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

This is part of a series of posts about drawing and how artists use drawing.  Others in this thread are here.


Great works are not created with technical ability alone, but it is the starting line.  I like the quote from William Morris Hunt, “Imagination comes in after we have experience.”

Nicole Moné on why she believes constant sketching from life is important.

Maia (left) and Outdoorsman (right), by Nicole Moné

Maia in Profile (left) and Outdoorsman, Potrait of the Artist's Father (right), by Nicole Moné

Nicole Mone's sketch of a boy on a Metronorth train

Nicole Moné's sketchbook: Drawing of a boy on a Metronorth train.

Nicole Moné almost always carries a sketchbook – usually a Moleskine – with her, to record her impressions of sights she sees in her travels both exotic and routine.  “In my opinion,” Nicole says, “you can never draw and sketch enough, nor will you ever reach a point where you no longer need to.  Continuous observation is essential” for artists.

For those wanting to draw the human figure, Nicole feels,

“a very important exercise is people-watching.  Studying people and the way they move, observing how arms relate to shoulders, how the back arches, how the pelvis tilts when legs move a certain way… When you train yourself to notice these things, you can more effectively translate your observations into your artwork.”

Nicole uses her sketches to record ideas for paintings or sculptures, and as studies for finished works.  Along with her sketchbook, her constant traveling companions include a camera.  “I always have a camera with me as well, and often use the photos in conjunction with my sketches to create a painting back in the studio….”

But if Nicole takes photos of something, you might ask, why bother sketching the same thing?  Nicole responds that drawing

“is important to me because, while sketching, even very quickly, I am more present in the moment than when I snap a photo and move on. Sketching teaches you to see better and remember more. You absorb so much more of your surroundings while sketching and you are listening, smelling & hearing the world around you in that moment….  Sometimes I only have a few minutes, or less, to capture a gesture or some intangible that I want to remember.  There is very limited information but I’ve gotten what I wanted.”

Nicole Mone's sketchbook: ink drawings of Key West

Nicole Moné's sketchbook: ink drawings of Key West

Nicole Moné's sketch of Aaron Shikler

Let’s look at a painting Nicole created based on one of her sketches.  At the time she made the sketch (left), Nicole herself was being painted by portraitist Aaron Shikler.  Sitting for him gave her time to study him from a unique angle.  Being simultaneously a model and an artist, Nicole was able to create an unusual work of art, “The Model’s Perspective #2” (below).

I love the way Nicole’s finished painting of Shikler captures the contemplative, right-brained state that artists often enter while working “in the zone.”  As an artist, I deeply resonate with the mood of this painting.  And apparently a lot of other people are affected by it, also: The Model’s Perspective #2 has been selected for the “Inspiring Figures” Exhibition and Competition through the Portrait Society of America, hosted by the Butler Institute of American Art, following a New York showing this summer in the Salmagundi Club’s Painting and Sculpture Exhibition for Non-Members.

The Model's Perspective #2, by Nicole Moné

The Model's Perspective #2, by Nicole Moné

Nicole described her process of sketching Shikler, which ultimately resulted in her evocative painting of this mood:

“While I was sitting for a painting for my friend and mentor, Aaron Shikler, I was intrigued by the way he was silhouetted against the windows of his studio and the look of the pipe smoke in the light.  I had plenty of time to observe him as he painted.  I made the sketch to work in conjunction with a few photos that I took with my camera phone.

“As you can see, the sketch didn’t end up being the exact pose I used in the final painting, but it provided me with the memory of the scene as I wished to convey it.”

Nicole’s initial sketch is a lovely example of a drawing that stands on its own, independent of the painting for which it was made.  She used lines and shading based on artistic choice rather than strict realism.  While the sketched lines of Shikler’s body capture his position perfectly, the shaded area draws our attention to the lines of his head as he turns away to focus on filling his brush with paint from his (out-of-sight) palette.
This sketch also provides an excellent example of how an artist makes decisions about how to compose a final painting.  For the painting, Nicole made a major departure from her initial drawing.  She decided to paint Shikler in 3/4 view instead of the profile she had first sketched.  And Shikler’s hand is central in the final composition, not hidden as in the sketch.  Nicole made these choices because she wanted to show Shikler
“directly engaged with his work, instead of reaching past the easel to an unseen palette….  The 3/4 view also allowed me to convey some space and ‘air’ around the subject by playing with the smoke lingering between the pipe and his far shoulder.”

She began to make these decisions immediately after creating the sketch – while he was still painting her.

For comparison: The Model's Perspective #1 (left) and The Model's Perspective #2 (right), by Nicole Moné

For comparison: The Model's Perspective #1 (left) and The Model's Perspective #2 (right), by Nicole Moné

After Nicole returned to her own easel, in her first painted study (above), she began to experiment with the position of Shikler’s hand, the turn of his face, and the amount of shadow she wanted him in.

It’s interesting to compare # 1 and #2, in which Shikler is leaning father forward, his head slightly more tilted.  These slight changes in body position in #2 show him at a moment when he is more engaged in the act of painting.  Also in #2, Nicole has shifted her perspective to create less distance between Shikler and his easel: the window no longer separates them.  We see more detail in Shikler’s face, so the backlit lens of his glasses is no longer key.  To me, the first painting, while lovely, is more a study of light and smoke.  The changes Nicole made in #2 make it more about an artist’s process and mood while he paints.

Autumn Leaves - Week 16 of The Skeleton Project, by Nicole Moné

Autumn Leaves - Week 16 of The Skeleton Project, by Nicole Moné

Another of Nicole’s artistic interests is the skeleton, inspiring her to begin the Skeleton Project.  She draws from her own life-sized male skeleton which she bought from a medical supplier.  For animal skulls, she uses friends’ specimen collections and gifts she’s been given of animal bones by friends and Skeleton Project fans.  Nicole wrote,

“I love skeletons; there is something deeply beautiful about the human skeleton. Drawing skeletons gives you a greater understanding for drawing the human figure. When you know the architecture underneath, drawing the figure makes more sense.”

Skeleton Project painting by Nicole Moné

Skeleton Project painting by Nicole Moné

In the Skeleton Project, Nicole is fulfilling the words of William Morris Hunt which she quoted (above): “Imagination comes in after we have experience.”  Her fantastical skeleton paintings grew out of her studies of skeletons.  Nicole has turned her drawings of “the architecture underneath” on their heads.  What were initially sketches –  tools to prepare her to paint the human figure – have taken on a life of their own in Nicole’s imagination.


Note on Nicole’s sketch materials: She wrote, “I enjoy the spontaneity & line quality of drawing with ink pens (brands I like are Stadtler, Prismacolor and Faber-Castell PITT artist pens)  though I will often use pencil or a combination of both.”  She also sometimes uses a kneaded rubber eraser to “sketch” on a page toned with Conté crayon, removing color to reveal a drawing.

Reuben (left) and Andy (right), by Nicole Moné

Reuben (left) and Andy (right), by Nicole Moné