Drawing as the Artist's Compass

Who doesn't need a secret weapon?

Above is one of mine. It's one of my sketchbooks attached to a pedestal in my current show at Friends School of Baltimore. In the photo above my large oil Down to the Bay hangs on the wall next to a framed working drawing I did to help me adjust the silhouettes in the big piece (detail below). A working drawing is a quick way to test out a new idea before you make a major commitment to it. 

Here's a close up of one of the pages in the sketchbook on the pedestal. This is a drawing I did midstream as I was working my way incrementally towards finishing my oil Adirondack Lake: Red,  24 x 18", 2012.

The thing is ideas, good ones, come to us only when they will.

When they do come the trick is to be ready for them. If I have my paints and brushes ready I can go at it. But if not, I make a note of the idea as clearly as possible. It's best to do this immediately. This means draw the idea in its essentials. There's nothing to lose as I'm not obligated to use the new idea the next morning. But if after some time has elapsed the sketch still looks promising, I work with it.

Above is another piece in the Friends School of Baltimore show- Home Triptych. Sometimes after I've done a more finished black and white drawing in vine charcoal I'll try out several alternative ideas for color, using soft pastel chalks as I've done here. My little drawings are all pretty faithful to the major shapes I arrived at in the original charcoal drawing. But in each I try to do something completely different in terms of color. Very often my favorite version will be the basis for a larger oil painting. 

The artists who've trod the path before us often times used drawing as a way to find their way forward when they do major oil paintings. (Long time readers of this blog won't be surprised to see me pick Edward Hopper as an example). He is a good artist to study as so much of the expressiveness of his work come through his focus on clearly drawn shapes. It turns out, he thought through his paintings as much as he could before hand, often times doing numerous studies of potential compositions. 

Here's Hopper's major oil, Summertime, in the Collection of the Delaware Art Museum. I pick this painting both because I love it, but also because it's one where it's easy to find some of his preparatory drawings on line. 

Below is one Hopper drew to gather ideas for the details of how the shadows could play over the stonework of this building. To me it has an unmistakable feeling of a drawing done from life, with Hopper more intent on capturing a few specific details than in orchestrating an overall composition. 

It's fascinating to see him circling around his growing idea in the next drawing. Here you see him with a slightly different point of view with a more oblique approach to the building as he experiments with where to pose a woman's figure on the steps.

Which drawing came first? We don't really know. What we can see is he took key elements from each- the elegant cast shadow from the first drawing above and the woman on the steps from the second. 

His final composition accepts neither drawing as the last word. There may well be other studies he drew to help find his way. Or perhaps most of his inventing and adjusting took place on the canvas itself. But he had saved himself a huge amount of casting around for ideas first with charcoal on paper. 

Drawing isn't the same as painting of course. But it is a medium that lets an artist think farther and think faster. And we need that. The entire idea of "master drawings" in Western art history is in almost all cases simply the evidence of artists preparing to do their paintings. It's an honorable tradition of artists taking good ideas and figuring out how to make them better before they create a finished piece. 


My exhibit at Friends School of Baltimore will have an opening reception Wed. Jan.16 from 6-7 p.m. All welcome. The show is in the School's Katz Gallery (lower level of the Forbush Building) and continues through Feb. 15, 2013. For more information on the show click here.


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