Edward Hopper's Secrets About Drawing

When I was in graduate school at Indiana University I used to have a postcard of this painting pinned to my studioi wall. It's by Edward Hopper who was sort of a guiding saint to my art career even back then. It was funny as I had mixed feelings about the painting. It's titled Western Motel and it's from later in the artist's life. Even though I felt the figure  seemed a little uncomfortable on that bed, there was still something that kept drawing my eye back to look at the painting. Here's a preparatory drawing Hopper made to figure out how to do the oil painting. 

As you can see it's really different than the final result. But one thing that hasn't changed is his commitment to using an oversized window to give the viewer a panorama of mountains in the distance. His painting became about that window and how it evoked a hard won balance between the interior space and the outer world (a personal theme that's always cooking away in the background for all of us as we live our lives). There's not a lot of detail in the drawing, and much of what is there was subsequently rejected for another arrangement, but Hopper held on tight to the shape of the big window frame. For him it was the large shapes that were his starting point. And he held onto this perspective as he worked.

Probably he decided the window frame looked a little lonely or too dominating in the drawing. As he moved to the painting version his thinking gelled, and he added a prominent diagonal shadow and highlight on the greenish wall at the left of. This is to me a "drawing move." It's about the contrasting of one big shape against another that has an opposing character. This is like the engine that pulls the painting along.  The mountains are another engine that get some extra horse power added to them as he moves from the drawing to the painting. They get bigger- large enought to hold their own against that window frame. They're perhaps not the greatest mountains in terms of detailed information, but Hopper drew them in as  powerfully contrasting silhouettes against the stark window.

Here's Hopper's early etching Evening Wind. An etching is like a drawing done into metal (especially the  way Hopper did them with simple line work). Think for a moment what the print would look like if you removed the blowing curtain. The curtain's given personality that's just as impressive as that of the figure. It's contrasting the figure with its silhouette, yet its axis runs on a diagonal that's parallel with the woman's spine. Again to me that's what I think of as a drawing move by Hopper. 

Also look at the tightly squeezed interval of empty dark space between the woman's shoulder and arm on the right pushing so close to the bottom edge of the curtain. Squint your eyes at it to see it more simply and the expression is still there in the largest shapes. In Hopper's mind's eye before he drew his model as a woman or the curtain as billowing cloth both were simple flat white shapes that had unexpected and constasting silhouettes. That's a drawing move once again.

Below is another early Hopper etching, House by a River.

Again squint your eyes at the piece until the details of the windows fade away. You're still left with a house that's a simple flat shape with dark unexpected and unpredictable outer contours. (Unexpected and unpredictable, doesn't that sound just like life? No wonder people are drawn to look at these things- they're little portaits of ourselves).

Here below are two of my own drawings, different in style but both showing some of this big flat shape expression I learned from Hopper. First is Land's End, a vine charcoal. When you focus on the foliage, it's rigorously complicated, but very similar to the above Hopper if you look instead at the silhouette of the darkened house. I'm not sure if Norman Bates lives there or not.

And here's another vine charcoal. I was staying at the Hopper studio in S.Truro on Cape Cod and had been looking for just right viewpoint to do a piece about the studio and it's lofty setting up on the dunes. First thing early one morning I ambled down the path to Hopper's beach on Cape Cod Bay. I turned around at the highest point on the little dunes closest to the shore. The just risen sun had pushed entire mass of the distant dunes and the studio together into one giant shadowed form. Thinking to myself "big shapes, big shapes" I emphasized  the curving silhouette of the big dunes and contrasted that against the band of horizontal clouds. 

It felt both heroic in scale and a little somber in feeling (it was Fall and a chilly wind was blowing in off the water). Perhaps because of this I was in a memorializing mood, so I chose for a title the date that Hopper left us, May 15, 1967.


  1. I just found your blog by following a Vuillard link (one of my favorite artists!). What a thoughtful and interesting blog. I look forward to reading more!

  2. Thanks for your kind words Eden.

  3. Yes, the mountains' soft contours do contrast with the sharp windows. Plus, their roundness makes a bridge between inside and outside:
    The far dark mountain shape is just not natural. But it reminds me of the back of a sofa and it is echoed by the red chair's arms and the head board and foot board of the bed..not to mention the suitcases and the hood of the car. This painting is an arrangement of sharp angles, straight lines and short, gentle curves....long horizontals that bend softly into short verticals. Hopper's power is in his composition.

  4. Hello R,

    You are totally right to spotlight Hopper's power in his amazing compositions. He had an ability to visualize the most marvelously unexpected juxtapositions.


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