Sunday, August 21, 2011


These are some drawings I recently did at the sculpture gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These are great subjects to draw. For one thing, statues are models that can hold any pose for as long as you need. Secondly, the pristine marble, spotlit or under the skylight sun, is great for studying light and shadow. There's nothing better for studying value. The core shadow is so dark, and the brightest highlights are luminous. And the subject matter itself contains so much to study. Form, value, gesture, anatomy, drapery   . . . you get it all from drawing these things.

One of the few books I picked up at Borders' liquidation sale was Juliette Aristides' Classical Drawing Atelier. Aristides runs a Seattle-based art school with a curriculum based on traditional academic aesthetics and techniques. A large part of the curriculum consists of drawing from casts, plaster replicas of classical sculptures. The students at her atelier spend at least the first year (out of four) drawing from casts, and in the second year spend each afternoon painting from them.

Copying masterworks dates back at least to the Middle Ages, and was codified during the Renaissance. By the 19th Century, the practice formed the basis of art training. The United States didn't have a respected arts training establishment until schools were able to import collections of casts in the early 1800s. Between 1863 and 1873, Charles Brague and Jean-Leon Gerome published a series of lithographs of drawings of casts to be used in instruction which became known as the Brague Course (I'm not sure why poor Jean-Leon got stiffed in the credits). Students would copy copies of masterworks.

The method fell out of favor in the latter half of the 20th Century, but in 2004, art historian Gerald Ackerman compiled a reproduction of the Bargue course and recreated its instructions, which recommends spending up to 15 hours on each copy. He writes, "It's quite typical, in the schools where the drawings are still used, as in the Florence Academy of Art, to spend three to five weeks of three daily hour sessions making exact copies of the plates . . ."

Man. does that sound BORING. I get bored during the 40 minute poses at figure drawing! I did these drawings over several hours at the Met, and enjoyed it. But I can't imagine doing it for a whole day, day after day, week after week, and spending all that time on a single drawing. Sometimes I'll glance at another artist at a drawing session, and they've spent 40-60+ minutes drawing an arm. True, it is great looking arm. But I like to knock it out.

Still, the results do speak for themselves. I just finished reading Malcom Gladwell's Outliers. In it he writes that researchers have found that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve expertise and excellence in any field. I bet I've spent at least 10,000 hours of my life drawing, but I'm no master. That's because what he's talking about is purposeful, focused practice, not just doodling around or tossing off quick sketches of Batman.

I could use a lot more of that sort of practice. My undergraduate art training was the polar opposite of the classical approach. There was some basic theory and technique taught in the introductory survey course, but the bulk of my time in that program was spent with instructors who felt that codified academic techniques only stifled creativity. I had a painting teacher who had us buy an assortment of paints and brushes and then basically just told us to go to it. Not a single lecture or demonstration on making a palette or manipulating the media, no color or composition theory. At the end of that semester, she told me, "Your work is so interesting, because you're not doing what we'd consider 'good' paintings." Hello! I wanted to make 'good' paintings, but had no grasp of any technique at all.

The same week I did these drawings, I also saw the blockbuster Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Met, and he had this quote: "I spent a long time learning how to construct clothes, which is important to do before you can deconstruct them." I think this is what those art instructor missed. Maybe they thought we'd already been trained in the fundamentals, but really I think they just rejected the idea of fundamentals outright. It's a prevalent train of thought that you can't be creative while following 'rules' in art. But that absolute freedom actually didn't free me, it constrained me, because I didn't have the toolset to achieve the creative results I was aiming for. Building that toolset has been what I've been trying to do for the past several years now.

I still don't see myself spending 15 hours on a single drawing of a plaster cast, though. My life is too short, and I'm not getting younger!

No comments:

Post a Comment