Whenever we do a drawing or sketch, we typically intend to do our very best, even if the results do not always match our expectations. Like a conversation, the drawing process can sometimes lead in a direction we could not foresee when we started. As it evolves on paper, a sketch can take on a life of its own and we should be open to the possibilities the emerging image suggests. This is part of the thrill of drawing—to work with the image on a journey of discovery.
So a strange thought came to mind—is it possible, in a conscious, deliberate manner, to do a “bad” drawing? Have you ever considered doing a “bad” drawing from the outset? I personally think this would be a very difficult thing to do.
I took the bus downtown a couple of weeks ago to do this drawing of McGraw Square, where 5th Avenue meets Stewart Street and Olive Way. My intention was to document an intersection where various modes of transportation converged—the elevated Monorail that was built for the 1962 World’s Fair and still travels a mile from Westlake Center to Seattle Center; the South Lake Union Streetcar line that runs 1.3 miles from this terminus to the south end of Lake Union; and the multiple buses routes that run east-west along Stewart Street. In addition, of course, there are all of the cars and pedestrians making their way through the downtown corridor.
But sometimes, things don’t work out as planned. Even though it was a fairly pleasant day, I just didn’t have the proper state of mind to finish the drawing. That’s okay. I intend to go back and finish it the next time clear weather is in the forecast.
In his review of Brushy One String’s music for North Country Public Radio’s Tiny Desk Concert, Bob Boilen wrote that “Subtlety and nuance are more easily found in minimalism than excess.” I think Boilen’s observation can also apply to drawings as well. When drawing on location, we are tempted to include everything upon which we cast our eyes with every technique we have at our disposal. Something I think that is worth working toward is using restraint and suggesting more with less.
Back in 1963, an art history course at the University of Notre Dame required me to copy a number of art works. The idea was to supplement the reading about and viewing of art with the act of reproducing art. Here are three examples from my course notebook that I happened upon recently.
Dordogne Cave fresco of a bison
Veronese’s Head of St. Mennas (detail)
Frans Hals’ Young Flute Player
It had long been a tradition in the studio arts to copy masterworks as a way to gain proficiency, the thinking being that one could learn by imitating the compositional strategies, the strokes and blending of colors, and other techniques used by artists more skilled than ourselves. There are art teachers, however, who consider this type of copying to be a crutch and an obstacle to developing one’s own creative mind. Whether the practice of copying is good or bad depends ultimately on the reasons for doing so. The motivation for copying should not be merely the reproduction of a work. Rather, it should be seen as an attempt to explore the process of the original artist and just a single step in the learning process.
I should point out that drawing on location neatly sidesteps the question of copying. But note that even here, we are in a sense copying what our visual system takes in and interprets.
Sometimes, we do our best work when we are the least concerned with the outcome.
By showing you these images, I do not mean to imply they are examples of my best work but there is a fresh quality to my drawings either when I don’t have the time to overthink a drawing or when I am demonstrating an idea or approach as I am teaching.
I have often dreamed of writing and illustrating a children’s book, or at a larger scale maybe even a graphic novel. Always stopping me, however, was the lack of a genuine story to be told, a narrative with emotional and intellectual content. Technique, no matter how well developed, could only carry me so far.
That is why drawing on location suits me. Instead of having to create imaginary settings and characters, I can rely on the visual stimuli derived from direct observation. Real settings that can be experienced in a straightforward manner provide the raw material for my sketches, which I can then interpret in a purely descriptive manner or alter to suit my temperament.
This view of the train leaving O-Okayama for Tokyo is from real life, but even when drawing from a photograph, which lacks the immediacy of drawing on location, the visual information provides a starting point for thinking about and responding in a graphic manner. It’s a matter of fiction versus reality and I imagine even a lot of fiction is based on personal experiences, perceptions, and insights.
Behind each of these sketches lies a possible story. Maybe some day, if I am fortunate enough, I will be able to knit these into a more compelling one.
Have you ever tried deliberately to do a “bad” drawing?
A while ago, I heard an interview on the radio where a voice teacher was discussing one of her students who was having trouble with a certain range of notes. To address this issue, the teacher asked her student to first try to sing those notes badly, to make the worst sounds she could imagine! Which got me to thinking. How difficult would it be to do a deliberately “bad” drawing? And could this actually help us to draw “better”?
We are so used to striving to do our best that to do the opposite is almost unthinkable. It’s like drawing in the dark, as I did with this scene of a tango performance at El Arrabal in Córdoba. In times like this, one has to trust the eye and the hand, and the mind that controls both.
Detective Kim Bogucki of the Seattle Police Department initiated the If Project by posing the simple question: What if…?, and Renata Abramson, an inmate at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Purdy, promoted it among her fellow offenders. See <http://www.theifproject.com/why-if/> for the powerful and moving stories that resulted. (Note the following from the website: “…the women participating do not intend to excuse or dismiss responsibility for any of the crimes committed. Rather, they intend to take full responsibility and choose to look deeply into their past to learn what led them to this place.”)
When Jackie Helfgott, professor in the Criminal Justice Department at Seattle University, told Kim about the Seattle Urban Sketchers group, Kim suggested that we offer a drawing workshop at the monthly session of the If Project to offer another way for the women at WCCW to express themselves. And so Tuesday evening, eight Seattle Urban Sketchers visited WCCW for a few hours.
We didn’t know what to expect as we checked in and walked through the series of secured gates and doors. Upon meeting the group of more than 40 women, Gabi Campanario first asked what their expectations were. Some had drawing experience; many did not. “I can’t draw” was a common refrain, to which Gabi replied: As long as you can hold a pen or pencil and make a mark on paper, you can draw. So one goal of the workshop was to instill confidence and make drawing an enjoyable and reflective activity.
Gabi gave them several warm-up exercises, which then led to more varied choices of media and subject matter. While some women continued drawing from observation, others veered off to drawing from the imagination. It didn’t matter since drawing is essentially a form of visual expression, no matter what media we use or to what end we draw. The women were engaged, friendly, and perceptive, and many shared their aspirations. To paraphrase what one woman said after the workshop: Drawing took me away from where I am for a few hours.
Here is a quick sketch of one group drawing and a photo with Tre, who had asked me to sketch her portrait. I hope it was as gratifying for the women who attended the workshop as it was for us to be there for a few hours. On the drive back to Seattle, it was difficult to process my thoughts but what struck me the most was that we could return home afterwards and the women could not.
Edward Tufte has crafted a beautiful documentary of Inge Druckrey teaching her students how to see, which can be viewed at <https://vimeo.com/45232468> or <http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/>. It’s 37 minutes long but well worth the time to view in its entirety. While Druckery’s insightful and empathetic lessons are clearly appropriate for the education of visual designers, we can also apply many of the basic principles to drawing on location because learning to see—not simply the acquisition of technique—is truly the key to learning how to draw from observation.
I’m resurrecting this from my Facebook posting of March 12, 2010, which has mysteriously vanished into the ether. This is a whimsical sheet that I composed in Bruges, Belgium, back in 1999. Being attracted to the variety of features that crowned the rooftop gables in the historic city center, I started the page with dotted lines to suggest a sheet of stamps. As I began, I also decided to incorporate numbers into the composition of each image, like the monetary values of postage stamps. An example of how we sometimes draw for the sheer enjoyment of the experience.