Self portrait of an idiot (and very grateful learner)

I’ve had a lucky run of super-satisfying model gigs lately. Not only were the lessons taught by some of my favourite young teachers – all charged with genuine excitement for art and learning – they also happened to be thematically related. Sweet!

OCADU, where I model most often, has a curious separation between the faculty of art, and the faculty of design (yes, fine art and graphics work are two different professional vectors – BUT – both can learn a great deal of use, from the other approach). They also have a number of teachers who came up with French Academy method (still very powerful in Russia and East Asia, in particular), and many who derive through the tradition of classic American illustration (which branched-off from the French Academy tradition, a bit more than a century ago). Most teachers add some material from each, for their own rich blend.

As a failed but still passionate cartoonist, I have enduring love for the great classic illustrators – and I was delighted to find a bunch of pieces of the big story of illustration fitting together in a brand new way just recently, thanks to some especially great presentations by these instructors.

Kieran Brent (whose work is superb) gave an especially good presentation on Hands – one of the most difficult of all areas (most expressive body-part after faces, also very offensive to the eye, when done wrong). He used several great breakdown drawings from Burne Hogarth – who literally wrote the book on drawing hands – and who I haven’t heard mentioned at OCADU, since the brilliant David Campbell retired. I knew Hogarth’s work when I was a kid, thanks to the old Gold-Key Tarzan comic books. Campbell, like many fine art painters, had little use for most comic art, but found Hogarth’s attention to anatomy commendable. Indeed, considering the early period he was working (in the decades just before Marvel comics happened) I’ve long thought Hogarth deserved a measure of credit for the way Marvel strived for good anatomy and all sorts of fun extreme perspective shots, from a very early point in their output. A genuine standard-setter.

The other link I got from a recent in-class discussion, really blew my puzzle-assembling mind. I was talking about Norman Rockwell’s strange combination of high technique and low-bite with the affable (and also very talented) Rob Akow – who was presenting a fantastic lesson on the gesture and rendering of the head in portraiture – and he pointed me back to JC Leyendecker, who was the standard setter for quality North American commercial art in the early 20th century – essentially, the human bridge between French Academy and modern advertising. His work is a revelation – just as precise as Rockwell’s best, it also contains that missing bite – you can feel exciting sarcasm underlying, and many layers of critique! It was even his developed and revolutionary format which Rockwell later emulated, for his own long and famous run of Saturday Evening Post covers. JC created many standard magazine design principles (and himself painted more than four hundred covers – 322 for the Saturday Evening Post alone). And then, digging around in the hyperlinks for a bit, I found another juicy clue that linked up a couple of great and wildly disparate art heroes.

The books of Andrew Loomis are genuine modest masterpieces of art instruction. None of his clear and informative drawings look so refined or complex as to scare you, but every bit of advice he offers is smart, refined, and proven useful. You also can’t help but recognize his influence on commercial art as a whole, when you scan his books – the guy was a genuine giant (download the free PDFs of his books while you can – one branch of his conservative Mormon family estate is suing to remove them from the web, because they contain images of unclothed women – that is, useful figure studies). ;o)

Will Eisner holds similar heavyweight status among cartoonists – not only do most credit him with inventing the modern multi-page comic-book format – an early hit as a Saturday insert for newspapers – but already in a very modern style, wildly creative panel layouts, and still some of the best splash-pages and inking technique ever demonstrated. Decades later, he pioneered serious graphic novels with profound human themes and a real poetic searching heart. (Try “The Building” a sentimental urban masterpiece).

So what could link these two incredibly influential creators? Would you believe – the same art-teacher? A Canadian, George Bridgman, who taught at the Art Students League of New York for 45 years. Like Leyendecker (who was especially blown away by Lautrec and Mucha), Bridgman studied in Paris in the late 1800s, when the French Academy was at an energetic peak – but the bulk of Bridgman’s efforts went not into creating fine art – but fantastic artists! Not only are his books also standards (and stand-outs – many still around, in lovely Dover editions), they also pioneered the box-construction ideas favoured by both Hogarth and Loomis for their own approaches to conveying proportion, dimension, gesture, and the incredibly difficult problem of foreshortening.

Just in case any of my earnest and badly underpaid friends ever feel discouraged – oh yes indeed, teaching art really can improve the culture of the world!

The enemy is detail – Study by (and courtesy of) Kevin Bae

I am at best, an intuitive line-guy who gets undeservedly lucky – my painting ignorance knows no bounds, even the basics of colour defy me. But I am insatiably curious – especially about infinite-beautiful inquiries like art, and the transmission of knowledge, so I try to get into costume early, that way I can pay close attention to every lecture. Even when I’ve heard them before, there are always many juicy and useful ideas to soak-up and, as noted above, wonderful reaches into history, for source. Now, I must declare in advance that as a non-expert, I don’t mean any of the following as practical plan, so much as philosophical riffing. Where I do get it right, the credit goes entirely to the lovely teachers I’ve been listening to – but all errors land squarely on me.

The trickiest idea that drawing teachers struggle to convey to new art students, is that they must overcome their desire to interpret the forms before them, and translate them into memory-stored symbols, before they come back out of their fingers as drawings. This sounds obvious, but it’s actually an incredibly hard thing to do, especially when you’ve developed your own way of ‘doing a nose’ that mostly seems to work for you, and has done for quite awhile.

By habit, we want to draw all the parts of an eye that we know are there – but that is almost always way more information than our subject actually gives us – unless there is full-on light with no eye-socket or nose shadow at all – and even then, too much clarity can feel preachy and invasive, almost aggressive!

Big challenge number two for drawing, tends to be staying general for much longer – most students like to get deep into one single area and work it much too far, before checking whether or not it is in good balance with the other areas – but a great mouth still has to be erased and done over, if it’s in the wrong place – and the waste of effort from such poor tactics (not to mention the heartbreak of losing the great mouth) makes this difficult lesson very richly rewarding, as it is steadily mastered.

With painting, everything gets infinitely more complicated – not only are we trying to indicate form, depth, light, texture and materials on a flat plane – we’ve added colour – uncountable new questions and judgements to be made. But here’s the curious thing that the idiot (me) has noticed, thinking about the excellent approaches and techniques I saw offered to young minds, in the last couple of weeks. The point of tight discipline on the simple stuff, is really to allow yourself the freedom to playfully enjoy the pleasure and exploration of the later development of the image.

When the teacher goes around the room and says, “Don’t forget to put in a background tone early, so you can use it as a reference for your other colours,” there is always some resistance – and even some who will insist on painting their subject on a pure white background, like an isolated animation character cel (just like idiot-me, at the top of the post). ;o)

But here’s where we get into that second-order problem of transmission of knowledge. Does the student hear a critical parent saying “You’re wrong!” and react defensively, clenching their mistake more tightly as an act of proud defiance? Or do they understand that they are being offered more tools to make their work easier, which means more fun in the work, and more pleasure in the result? How do we first learn to accept critique as aspirational, instead of hurtful?

Part of this is always beyond the teacher’s control – and anyone who is determined not to learn, can succeed in that aim like few others on earth. But I am continually amazed by how many workable approaches there are to this challenge in interpersonal alchemy. Can’t help thinking of aviation – so many different shapes fly very well. The only three ingredients which are absolutely required, are skill which can be demonstrated, active empathy for the state of the one who doesn’t know, and excitement about new learning. Okay, back to painting…

Getting the drawing right first, really counts. Capturing the gesture (the real subtle angles, rather than an infinitely-blander mentally adjusted simplification) and proportions, are both tricky – but make the foundation solid – and allow the next stages to be more playful.

Squinting your eyes (or taking off your glasses!) where are the big shapes? Not what do we ‘know’ is there, but what can we truly (albeit fuzzily) see? Knock those big shapes in, with some good general values and colours, simple-simple mind you, and then you’ve taken your careful drawing into crude planes.

So now you can finally paint-in some detail, right? NOPE – “Detail is the enemy!” Yang Cao modestly deferred credit for this line, but even if he got it from a teacher himself, it was still the most memorable and funny way I heard the concept offered, all week – and fits well with his extraordinary empathy for the challenge of the learner, and constant seeking for simple and directly enabling ideas that they can bring to bear that very day, and make their own. (Yang’s work is breathtaking – wondrous surreality of the highest order).

Now, you can start to work those big simple (but accurate) blocked-in shapes into more subtle variations of local colour, that gradually describe the light, and thus the turning of increasingly subtle planes, better and better, bit by bit, all around the canvas in stages. (Back to that drawing idea of continuous all-over balance)

This way, each stage of effort gives you a solid foundation upon which to have more and more subtle fun, and thanks to the care in early stages (gesture, proportion, colour organization and value) more and more room to play freely, without surrendering the likeness and realism of gesture.

The exquisite study above was done in-class in roughly twenty minutes, by Kevin Bae – and thank you so much for sharing it, my friend! – but it’s probably more accurate to call it the work of thirty years, and the attention of twenty minutes. Kevin’s consuming passion for art, kindness, and wunderkind skills with local colour are legendary among the students – and he remains the only teacher who has ever requested my all-white (doctor) and all-black (gangster) costumes for two-week painting classes – and then brought the entire class to profound new colour insight with those extreme challenges (stunning how much colour there really is, within lights and darks – and if you can learn to see it clearly there…)

The likeness is nothing short of wonderful – but even more usefully for the students, you can really see how he has built-it-up in layers, starting with the most general problems, giving himself energetic guidelines to preserve the gesture, and only gradually making more specific distinctions. This piece could easily be developed to an extreme level of finish, but because of the balanced way he’s done it (and his great talent for beautiful lossiness) it is an extremely satisfying image, exactly the way it is. (How and when to walk-away, is a high-order art problem that even masters continue to struggle with)

Writers are endlessly told to “Show them, don’t tell them,” and McLuhan famously pointed out that when we are offered only partial content, our brains get more actively involved than when we’re given too full a sensorium (no room for imagination). Television makes you lean back and shut-down. Radio and Books make you meet the author half-way, participate in the creation of the imagery they suggest – and this activity by the brain of the reader or listener, makes it feel far more, not less real.

The sweet isomorphism I see here is that there actually is a whole ton of lovely detail in this image – but not a single bit of it is literal, diagrammatic, explaining to us what we already “know”. Instead it is built up entirely out of honest and deliberately naive witness. It’s the careful observation of the turning of the forms, which gives our mind the same sort of suggestive partial information that it uses all the time in real-life, to assemble the face of someone we know.

The fact that we are left to recognize, from these pleasing essential forms, instead of being spoon-fed a bunch of standardized cliche (and thus boring) symbols for features, is what draws us into the creation, and gives our brains enough work to really feel it for ourselves.

Bravo, Kevin – and my sincere thanks to all of these inspiring teachers and artists – cheers!

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