Sketches on location


Dear Artist,

One of the fun things about Blackberry co-dependency is the ability to send and receive emails pretty well anywhere. Up here in the Rocky Mountains, however, the little darling is as mute as a dead gopher. Missing those soft vibrations of the pocket, I sent my unit with a day-tripping friend who was off the mountain overnight. The machine came back fully revived, her tiny cheeks bulging with fresh seeds.

A Trench, Thiepval: German Wire, 1917 by Sir William Orpen (1878-1931)

A Trench, Thiepval: German Wire, 1917
by Sir William Orpen (1878-1931)

Ed Abela of Markham, Ontario, asked, “Do you ever have the inclination to make pen and ink sketches on your travels? I find it a useful tool. A few felt pens in different sizes and a small sketchbook can reap rewards. The drawings can be developed into paintings once I’m back in my studio, but can also be left as stand-alone vignettes.”

Thanks, Ed. No, I don’t, not these days, and I’ll tell you why. While I’ve no complaints with pen or pencil sketches, I prefer to cut directly to the chase. I suppose it’s somewhat a commercial decision — my effort goes directly to an eventually more collectable item — but there are artistic considerations as well.

When they make a drawing, many painters find that while they may gain a deeper understanding of the subject, they also lose some of the impetus for more ambitious work. I find worthwhile subjects need to be caught and held in a final, definitive form during the initial wave of connectivity that takes place during that “wow” moment.

On The Cliff, 1913 18 x 23 inches by Sir William Orpen

The Yacht Race, 1913
18 x 23 inches
by Sir William Orpen

Further, the convention of line is much different from the convention of the painterly brush. One tends to be thin and delineatory, the other a juxtaposition of patches. Too much early attention to line can baffle the discovery of an effective pattern. Drawing can run interference on composition.

Also, you may have noted that many seasoned painters simply don’t draw, perhaps because they’ve done so much of it that lines and forms are more or less projected where needed.

Looking back, I’ve been through all kinds of drawing phases. There’s nothing like a beautifully rendered drawing. Many of the not-too-bad ones I did thirty years ago are still in dealer’s drawers. Maybe someday I’ll get them all back and put them into a book. Maybe that’s a good place for them.

Study of Male Nudes charcoal on paper 16 x 16 inches by Sir William Orpen

Study of Male Nudes (20 minutes) 
charcoal on paper
16 x 16 inches
by Sir William Orpen

Best regards,


PS: “Drawing is not the same as form.” (Edgar Degas)

Esoterica: It may come as some satisfaction to readers that most everybody disagrees with me. “Drawing is the basis of art,” said Arshile Gorky. “A bad painter cannot draw. But one who draws well can always paint.” And Robert Henri notes, “The sketch hunter moves through life as he finds it, not passing negligently the things he loves, but stopping to know them, and to note them down in the shorthand of his sketchbook.” Also, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: “Drawing contains everything except the hue.” And Sir William Orpen: “A painting well drawn is always well enough painted.” But then, none of those guys were in love with Blackberries.

This letter was originally published as “Sketches on location” on August 4, 2009.

OrpenThe Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“A critic at my house sees some paintings. Greatly perturbed, he asks for my drawings. My drawings! Never! They are my letters, my secrets.” (Paul Gauguin)