Wednesday, July 25, 2007

More Chalk Drawings

The Aesthetic Invitation

For the last few weeks I've been preoccupied with the challenge of working through a change in my approach to making images, and have neglected the blog--I also owe responses to several of you who have been kind enough to comment. I apologize for my flighty behavior! I'll catch up to my ambitions of prompt and steady blogging soon--it's been an unexpectedly busy summer, not least because our son begins college in August. A big change for the family!

The prior string of posts discussing the merits of life drawing coincided with a burst of intense and frequent sessions of working from the live model--more than I've done in years. Over the last several months of steady driving effort I've felt I was pushing beyond a plateau and within the last two weeks I suddenly (it seemed) reached the crest I was searching for. This continuous period of intentional and progressively more instinctive and intuitive experimentation gelled as I pushed, pushed, pushed through hundreds of drawings and dozens of paintings--and eventually lifted my efforts to a new level of awareness that I've been after (not always consciously) for many years.
This shift is difficult to describe in words and I haven't written about it here before now because I wasn't sure I'd climbed within sight of a new horizon I could hold in view, or merely struck a pleasant spell of heightened perception that would slip away from me when other schedule pressures and distractions began to crowd my time. (A regrettably familiar pattern). I'm confident I'm onto a new path though, after an unbroken chain of art-making sessions devoid of an unsure step--a delightful experience!
I've titled this entry "The Aesthetic Invitation" because that phrase best describes the new attitude that seems to be responsible for the fresh (and more importantly, consistent) energy and resonance I'm discovering in my work. I've found a way of shifting my mind toward a distinct, aesthetic assessment of possibilities that are evident in the subject I'm contemplating--before I put a mark down. This can be an almost intangible effect that is outside my habitual spectrum of observation; instead of immediately beginning to mentally measure proportions or locate the placement of contours, shapes and space relationships, I may decide to attempt a visual impression of the fleshy mass of a model's body pressing into the atmosphere around her or him--a subtle essence of a perceived quality that is more than just accurate observation of physical dimensions and form. Or perhaps I might focus on conveying, by means difficult to exactly label or describe, a sense of the person's mood, or an expression of languor, or contained nervous energy.
The resulting process is a flow of largely subconscious intimations that continuously suggests a series of spontanteous yet specific expressive marks; a twist or smearing of a line, smudge, tone or stroke that conveys the impression my mind is responding to, all building and coalescing in harmony as the work reveals itself. This is a real contrast to my familiar typical method of making drawings, or at least the method I'm usually conscious of as I work.
I see now that this semi-awareness I'm attempting to explain is responsible for every "especially good session" I've ever had, but in the past I had no reliable "technique" for "bringing the spell on"--accessing this mental zone of heightened acuity. I now possess an excited confidence that I've unraveled an old and difficult impediment, often described in many creative endeavors as the problem of "getting in your own way", "over-thinking", "trying too hard", and so on. Or more simply and poetically phrased, I've found a way to draw primarily from my heart instead of my head. Hard-won knowledge and skill are indispensable, but in art they must support emotion, not dictate or overpower it.

These portraits of my friend and fellow artist Fred Poore
are examples of the expressive intensity and clarity I've been
writing about--they are made with Cretacolor chalks, a medium
new to me that seems to be a perfect fit for my natural
inclinations. I felt a new and and wonderfully comfortable
"easy insight" as I drew these--I was confident of the merit of
my perceptions and was sure I could express them--a
working condition I am not accustomed to!

This was the last pose of the session--Fred is holding
the model's timer, posing because our scheduled model
didn't show. I think this is the best drawing I did that day,
as each piece fed the next and I grew simultaneously
more relaxed and focused with each pose.

Although the above drawings are accurate in form and contour, that correctness is not the strength of the images--an intangible quality of human consciousness, expressed here with a new (to me) confident grace and vitality is the appeal. I've been trying to consistently achieve this gestalt of seemingly effortless spontaneity and emotional precision in my work for thirty years--I can't tell you how much fun it is to be so pleasantly surprised by these drawings when I stop my hand and take an objective look at what's emerged. It feels like the welcome end of long hard trek!

Friday, June 22, 2007

Why Draw from Life? (Part Three)

(Photo by Bruce Fee)

The artist at work and the result.

Today I’ve posted more images drawn or painted directly from life, done in several mediums; pencil, colored pencil, graphite and Prismacolor on toned paper, oil paint, and the most charmingly spontaneous of all (to my eyes), watercolor touches over a simple fluid pencil contour line.

Oil on canvas panel

Prismacolor on toned paper

Graphite pencil

Pencil and watercolor

Many of these images may seem slight in technique and detail, but they are the result of over 30 years of serious effort toward mastering the art of drawing—at age 46 I’ve devoted more than three quarters of my life to an almost daily obsession with training my eyes and hand to express my impressions—and also anything I can imagine. This history is on my mind lately as I spend more and more time facing an easel and a physically present subject rather than hunching over a drawing table, lightbox or Wacom Tablet creating worlds directly from my imagination.

A few years ago I began to carve time away from my commercial deadlines and return to an idea of creating paintings for myself—an idea I had pushed aside when I moved into drawing comic books full time in 1981. I can’t say I intended to virtually abandon painting, but the demands of monthly comic book cartooning/illustrating soon reduced my non-hired art-making pursuits to private sketchbooks and occasional life drawing sessions.
I quickly grew to love the challenges of visualizing scripts or plots though, in both comic books and later animation storyboards—the demands are staggering, really—at least as I approached it. I know of no other art forms that are so demanding—you must be able to draw anything—under tight deadline pressure—that you or a writer can imagine, and possess an intricate understanding of drama, directing, staging, lighting, timing, cutting, editing, acting, set design, costume design, all the technical rules that make film storytelling work, in addition to the vast demands of visual art itself—composition, form, perspective, anatomy, etc…. the list goes on and on. Add the tenets of painting—color, value, texture, learning to handle various mediums—the challenges are literally endless.
I stubbornly kept my dream and ambition intact though—to become a great draftsman was always the distant gleam of promise that kept me slogging through the dreary bouts of exhaustion, frustration, failures, disenchantments, vast workloads, crushing stress of deadlines, and often indifferent and occasionally hostile reception to my work. (I’ve had my share of praise too, for which I am grateful.)

I never worked for recognition though—I was after experience and knowledge, and used my assignments as a laboratory in which to test myself. I fought against developing comfortable habits and though I was often prompted by exhaustion to try, I was never able to devise effective “shortcuts”—I was compelled to stretch and push in some particular way on every assignment. This doesn’t mean I created an unbroken chain of masterpieces—far from it! The harsh deadlines forced countless compromises and constant all-night bleary-eyed coffee-soaked grind sessions to get a job out the door, but I held on to my ambitions to keep learning and growing, and now feel I’ve reached a harvest time.

Because I decided early on to treat my commercial career as an opportunity to educate myself rather than gain notoriety or use the subject matter of assigned work as a vehicle for personal expression, I can’t deny I’ve often felt lost in an avalanche of hired work that seemed a world away from my own nature and interests. In spite of this I’ve somehow made it to this point with all my enthusiasm intact, which rounds this ramble back toward my central topic; why draw from life?

The discipline of making thousands of studies like those above lead to the ability to invent believable fantasy characters with convincing weight, gesture and anatomy such as these excerpted figures from commissions in progress;

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, since beginning this blog I’ve received numerous inquiries about the non-fantasy images—some flattering and enthusiastic, some perplexed and even disappointed. To many fantasy art fans, prosaic subject matter such as still lifes or realistic figure drawings are inherently uninteresting. I understand this reaction, but do not share it. After more than two decades of straining to render outrageous fantasy characters and environments believable and entertaining, I find I am now most excited by the prospect of capturing a subtle and honest essence of some aspect of the natural, real world I (and you) live in.

I’m sure I will always love and invent fantasy, but my particular fascination is to create, by achieving a convincing portrayal of human (or superhuman) consciousness, an illusion of living, thinking, feeling personalities. The only source for this inspiration is the real thing.
So I find that I have been after one essential quality all along and throughout all my various endeavors as an artist—an illusion of life, animation, a spirit of reality that calls forth an emotional recognition in the viewer or reader. When I work from life, I want to convey the spontaneous empathy I feel with the model as a fellow human being—I don’t want to draw a body, an assemblage of anatomy—I want to portray a person, always. When I paint a still life or landscape, the objects exist only as expressions of their use or creation by human touch, or as a place where people have lived, walked, worked, fought, loved.
As odd (even to myself, in certain moods) as it may sound, these days I am as incited to enthusiasm by the prospect of painting a stained broken teacup in a dusty shaft of light as I am by the challenge of portraying a horde of lost souls tumbling through an afterlife dimension into my wildest fantasies of Hell.
An artist’s life is full of surprises!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Why Draw from Life? (Part Two)

I believe drawing from life with sincere observation (not a mechanical, unmindful or borrowed procedure or set of expectations) will inevitably reveal a visual reflection of your distinct identity, or what is vaguely termed your "personal vision". It may take time to work through the difficulties of drawing on the spot under the pressure of time, and escape mannerisms you may have absorbed from the study of other artists, but the rewards of perseverance are worth the trouble.
It's true that not every artist is interested in making artwork that attempts to convey a realistic appearance--an abstract expressionist may find life drawing an inhibition, but many other non-literal forms of realistic image-making are deepened by accumulating a storehouse of natural-world observation drawing and painting experience. Constant recording of the reality around you trains your mind and hand to quickly discern the essence of your attraction to a subject, which filters down into your subconscious and creates a rich source of information that will help you invent convincing characters and scenes from imagination.
Here are a few recent quick sketches I made during a trip to Disneyland, in celebration of our daughter's 13th birthday. Occasionally I would pass on a ride, find a comfortable spot and relax by drawing for a few minutes, in a 5" x 7" sketchbook.

Drawn across two pages, from a shady spot near the
Indiana Jones Adventure ride. People were streaming
past constantly so I had to choose paused figures to
and scrawl them down fast.

I sat out an early morning raft ride and drew this imposing
giant cartoon grizzly bear figure. I intended to include people
for scale but it was too early for much traffic, I guess. The wall
behind the bear in the lower left of the frame is around five or
six feet high. It's a BIG bear!

These two fellows are part of the decorations across
the walkway from the Enchanted Tiki Room.

This large bird was on the shore of a pond at the base
of the Thunder Mountain Railroad.

This is a quick sketch of my tired daughter Katy
as we waited for the shuttle to run us back to our
hotel for a short late afternoon nap, to strengthen us
for adventures in Disneyland After Dark.

I've done countless thousands of quick sketches like those above, which enables me to invent characters and scenes such as these;

Without a large store of observed natural information to call upon
I could never have satisfied my ambitions here--most of the
personality-revealing elements of the drawings are direct
caricatures or distilled, carefully composed exaggerations of
gestures and expressions I've logged away in memory.

So I encourage anyone interested in creating believable personalities in their fantasy artwork to do as much observation drawing from life as possible. It's not only valuable, it's great fun--and making the practice a habit will develop an addiction you won't regret!