Did you know that between 1820 and 1860 there were more than 145,000 “How to Draw” books published in the USA? In those pre-camera days, gentlemen and ladies kept memories alive by drawing them. A book by J. Liberty Tadd instructed young women to sketch pigs while standing in a pigsty — “in order to more accurately reflect nature.” Many of these books are now on the trash heaps of history, but they nevertheless remind us of other times and other values. This is being made clear in a current exhibition in New York’s Grolier Club. “Teaching America to Draw” is worth taking a look at if you happen to be in the area.
Show reviewer Michael Kimmelman says, “Drawing used to be a civilized thing to do, like reading and writing. It was taught in elementary schools. It was democratic. It was a boon to happiness.” He notes that these days we have acquiesced to playing a passive role as receivers. We consume drawings rather than make them. There are easier ways to collect images than to draw them.
It seems to me that these days, while a lot of the fine art drawing has turned to forms of tracing, and high quality drawing is somewhat rare, there is still lots of it around. Particularly with the advent of the Internet, there’s an outbreak of drawing-for-its-own-sake. With over 9 million visual artists in North America, and over 70,000 new blogs coming on stream daily, drawing is alive and well and living online. And it’s not just Plain-Jane drawings of your standard barnyard sow. With the advent of modernism, the ways of drawing have broadened. Contour drawing, broadside drawing, inverted drawing, multi-facet (cubist) drawing, and process drawing are high on the menu. Add fantasy, caricature, cartoon and anime, and the world of drawing is large indeed. Art workshops encourage drawings of 30 seconds, one minute, and ten minutes. Art stores fuel the passion with an ever expanding kit of tools. (Today I bought a ‘Pigma Graphic “2” Archival pen’ — perfect ‘speed’ over both smooth and toothed, nice chisel for thick and thin. I’m not your local representative for this pen — there’s a brilliant marker for every individual style and temperament.)
Folks who never thought they could draw are now drawers. For many, drawing represents low commitment and high joy. For others, drawing’s the key to everything good. Fact is, drawing is still important, still relevant, and still irresistible.
PS: “Do not fail to draw something every day, for no matter how little it is, it will be well worth while, and it will do you a world of good.” (Cennino Cennini, 1370-1440)
Esoterica: For those of us who would be fine artists, drawing is still the bottom line. Next to composition, it’s the most neglected skill. A drawing a day keeps the cobwebs away. One in the morning before coffee is a credible tonic for a day filled with above average work. Canvas or paper, it matters not. “Good drawing forms the bones on which a strong painting hangs.” (Chris Bingle)
In praise of drawing
by Betty Cavin, Cobble Hill, BC, Canada
I’ve been reading a wonderful book called Cezanne’s Composition by Erle Loran. In it, Mr. Loran has taken photos of the sites of many of Cezanne’s landscapes. If you look at the photographs, you might wonder why anyone would want to paint the scene — and then you see what Cezanne did with it. It is truly inspiring.
Plein air anywhere
by Lillian Wu
While attending my uncle’s funeral two Sundays ago, it became very hot. At the site where the attendees were waiting for the coffin to go down in the grave, they were all standing under a canopy. I stood back and sketched the people with their backs facing me. The hot weather made me sketch as fast as possible. The skeleton of the sketch was later refined when I was in a leisurely pace.
More respect for artists
by Theresa Bayer, Austin, TX, USA
Some people still cling to the myth that artists are born, not made. However, it isn’t so. Just like Olympic athletes, we artists work very hard to develop our natural abilities to their fullest potential. I believe that once people grasp how hard we artists work to develop our talents, they will respect us more, which will make them more willing to pay us better prices for our work.
Sketching on frequent flights
by Carol Lyons, Irvington, NY, USA
Truly, drawing for me is a high joy. For more than 10 years I have been drawing hands, my husband’s hands, as we make frequent round trip flights between New York and San Francisco. My husband is usually reading or sleeping and therefore makes a perfect hand model. Several books have been filled with his drawn hands. I never tire as the time goes by quickly with my intense concentration. The first sketch invariably is terrible. Knowing this happens, I turn that page in my little book and do more sketches. The completed drawings always surprise me because the initial lines look nothing like the finished sketch.
by Loree Harrell, Corbett, OR, USA
While I couldn’t sketch a recognizable pig to save my soul, drawing is nonetheless the base of everything I do — from painting to writing. Some unconscious function of the process “maps” work and words to come, sorts out the rough bits, and holds the place for future work until it rises to the surface. While I am beginning to see a bit of a shift, painting with a brush still has more value in the marketplace than drawing with ink or marker or pencil. ‘Tis a shame… there is some remarkable drawing going on out there.
Early drawings signify past experience
by David Wayne Wilson, White Rock, BC, Canada
I can remember, fleetingly, how precious my early drawings were to me, especially after some months had passed. They were not susceptible to criticism but signified an experience, a subject, an attitude (my own) and an otherwise irretrievable occasion/circumstance. The drawers in other centuries recorded “time-space” before the concept was popularized by physicists. That truth is still truth, however the noise of modernity presumes to replace the capacity of people to translate sight to paper for another’s eyes. Hundreds of my earlier drawings are gone with the wind — but sometimes an old friend sends me a copy via email, and I am moved. That time-space incident pops into the present bearing sentiment from ‘before’ the way only drawing and music can do!
by Minaz Jantz, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Drawing is a universal language and a tool for the imagination to materialize. No matter what, where, or when… I draw. While embarking on a mathematical education, I decided to conduct a presentation to demonstrate “Seeing” by drawing. Each student had a piece of paper and pencil placed before them. In a classroom of mostly males, shock, mumbling, protesting, “…she kidding?” came over the room when I stated that I could teach them to draw in a few minutes. I chuckled to myself witnessing the same shock I would have expected if I asked them to remove all their clothes before me! Drawing is revealing…
by Amanda, Western Australia
I’m in my first year at art school, and being kept busy exploring mediums and reading widely. Currently, I’m reading J. D. Hilberry’s book Drawing Realistic Textures in Pencil and am enjoying it greatly. Unfortunately one of his tools for great blending is, as I have read elsewhere too, the chamois. As a committed animal lover the real thing is out of the question and the synthetic one I’ve bought is behaving more like a sculpture when allowed to dry.
The drawing frame of mind
by Susan Avishai, Ottawa, ON, Canada
I confess I’ve not moved much beyond drawing my entire artistic life, despite the galleries who have told me painting sells better and is considered more serious work. Sometimes I’d like to nail it down, if only for those who keep asking. Is it a drawing if it’s a quick study for a larger piece? Nope. I’ve done drawings in silverpoint that take days and are ends in themselves. Is it a drawing if one uses dry media on paper? Nope. Pastel and colored pencil are often far more painterly approaches. Is it a drawing if the subject is expressed in line? You can do that with a brush on canvas too. I suppose I’ve concluded over the years that drawing is a frame of mind, a loving embrace, if you will.
The traveling state of mind
by B. J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA
With the last letter suggesting the use of the digital camera for timed shots and today’s letter including drawing, as another warm up, idea gathering, way of seeing the unexpected, I am packing for a trip west. Included in a carryon are both a digital camera (with extra batteries and memory cards), two sizes of sketchbooks, pens and pencils, and hope. I will return home having accumulated many large and small scenes, ideas, and plans to keep the travel effects fresh in my mind and studio. Keeping that state of mind, fresh, has always been a challenge. Hopefully these suggestions will keep the travel ambiance in the forefront of my working life for a while longer.
Individuality revealed through drawing
by Laura Higgins Palmer, MD, USA
As a mid-career artist I found my favorite class to teach was drawing, where I saw the most progress and happiness among my students. Drawing is also essential to my own artwork. I draw regularly and have countless sketchbooks which reflect my “modern” Bauhaus-based education and style. It was a shock to me when a young man showed me his photo-based Photoshop piece and called it his “painting.” Though I have done extensive photography as part of my various jobs, for myself there is nothing more riveting than drawing and painting. Through them we face our individual character and the individual character of the viewer.
by Michael Chesley Johnson
I ascribe my career as an artist to the lateJon Gnagy, the American artist who presented a TV show suitably in black-and-white — called “Learn to Draw” back in the ’50s and early ’60s. When I was very young, my parents bought me the “Learn to Draw” kit so I could follow along. Using charcoal, I started off drawing cubes, spheres and cones, and graduated to the landscape. Today, my drawing is done with a brush or pastel stick, but I still think of Gnagy and his simple shapes.
Intensified view through drawing
by Jo Scott-B
Drawing intensifies observation and understanding of the subject. My historian friend John Atkin and I run a series for schools (and adults) entitled “How To Look At Neighborhoods,” a combined art and history workshop. By taking students into historic areas and getting them to draw, it is fascinating how much more they see and appreciate the details and significance of the historic fabric of their hometown. It is through experiences like this that I can grow to hate a camera: its quick snap sight-bites cannot compare with two or three drawings which can take from ten seconds to several minutes to produce but are then indelibly recorded in memory; not so with one hundred photos.
Positive side-effects from drawing
by Nancy Marculewicz, Essex, MA, USA
I have always maintained the belief that drawing is a communication skill that is just as important for everyone to learn and use as reading and writing. Any educational system that does not include drawing along with reading, writing and arithmetic isn’t educating their students fully. I completely agree with Betty Edwards, author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, who claims that if you can write your name, you can draw. Drawing not only develops hand-eye coordination, it teaches one to really observe, to see, as nothing else ever will. Not to mention the sense of peaceful engagement one gets while in the act of making those marks.
21st century art-making
by Gene Ouimette, Consecon, ON, Canada
Six years ago, I began a love affair with digital imaging and photography. Much of my work today involves a combination of digital photography, scanned elements, and elements painted directly on the computer with a pressure sensitive pen. At least half of all the images that I produce in a given series are still painted on an easel. However, the compositions are generally worked out on the computer, and then projected onto the canvas for the basic layout. Though I have no objection to this, as you know even many old masters projected their images on to their working surface. I have begun to misdirect drawing so I’ve gone back to doing some very basic drawing exercises. The twist is that I’m now doing this on the computer with my Wacom tablet, rather than in traditional mode. Who knows, I may be inspired to go back to drawing in traditional fashion as well.
by Chantell Van Erbe, NJ, USA
Drawing, my first love, has accompanied me everywhere throughout life. I cannot remember a time in my life when I wasn’t sketching something or somebody. Back in my early twenties while endeavoring to find a creative place in the world, I began dabbling in several mediums. That is until my uncle Christopher gave me an invaluable birthday gift. A book entitled Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing (Meditation In Action) by Frederick Franck. This psychologically spiritual hybrid focuses on the sole act of drawing. The author shares his charming viewpoints and urges the reader to get out and experiment. Two years after reading it, I was exposed to colored pencil as a mainstay, thus completing the circle. I shall forever sing the praises of drawing. The process of depiction is inherent. It is the frame on which most artistic values are built.
Painter’s bag of tools
by Edna Park Waller, Aiken, SC, USA
My first art studies were with Leon Eugene Wright in the middle 1940s. Within the limits of a high school setting ‘Sir’ imparted a classic art education to all his students. And, of course, everything was based upon drawing. Once a week we invited a student from study hall to model for us and when the weather permitted we took our pads outside. Even on field trips to museums we were expected to carry our sketch books along. What a wonderful experience.
Fast forward to the present and my most recent teacher Albin Beyer insists that we carry our cameras everywhere. At first I had trouble adjusting to this new dictum. Every time I clicked I could hear ‘Sir’ saying, “Draw, draw and then draw some more!” Now, however, I have come to realize that both activities have a very important place in every painter’s bag of tools.
Technology a two-edged sword
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
Because “line” is the backbone of art, drawing by default is the skeleton. Drawing is still “a civilized thing to do,” and more than that, it is a civilizing thing to do.
It is estimated that in the United States, in 1900, one person in four could read music, and many more people played a musical instrument by ear. People gathered after dinner to sing and play music. Music was an activity, rather than a passive consumptive listening. Playing music was once “a civilized thing to do.” It was a social lubricant. With the advent of the IPOD and MP3 Player, recorded music becomes a solitary distraction.
Who listens to the wind through trees these days, or to their own inner voice? And while we can all listen to Pavarotti these days, if we never hear our friends and neighbors sing — have we not lost something most special? Technology is a two-edged sword, and unintended consequences are just a fact of life.
Experimental approach to drawing
by Mary Nichols, St. Louis, MO, USA
I am a painter that draws everyday. I always keep a stack of small 3″x 3″ paper on my desk at work. One year I drew an insect a day, during another I drew an alien a day, and one other year I drew a portrait everyday. As well, I work at an art museum that has over 350 pieces in their Pre-Columbian collection, so one year I drew a Pre-Columbian artifact each day.
Last year on my vacation in Colorado, I decided to draw while doing various activities. I drew while riding a horse, riding in a raft, on the sky lift and even while driving! Though, I didn’t look at my paper very much and it is pretty easy to do while driving across Kansas. Another time, while riding in a car for about a hundred miles, I did thumbnail sketches of everyone that drove by. I only had a glance at the drivers but ended up with lots of fascinating faces, profiles for the most part. I also do drawings from TV with the talk show host or someone posing for me for a half hour or more. I still do a lot of traditional-style drawing, but all these other exercises have enhanced my drawing and painting abilities.