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After several years of drawing almost entirely with charcoal, I decided to take the plunge and try two new things: color, and a brush. I have a couple of brushes, but I couldn’t find them this morning, and just grabbed one of my eight-year-old daughter’s, with plastic bristles (Poor child! We must treat her to some proper brushes). I recently bought a few bottles of ink in shades of reddish brown for another project, so I brought those, and also the watercolor tubes I haven’t opened in five years.


I brought my box of charcoal just in case, but I didn’t use it. But I was tempted. So tempted, because . . .


. . . This was hard! I didn’t know what I was doing. I was figuring out the media as I went: how does ink spread? How do you judge the color when it’s in the dish? How much liquid does the brush hold? What happens if you paint over a place that’s already been painted and dried? I felt like I was back in kindergarten. It was less playful than scary.


That fear was a humbling reminder of something I wish were not true of me, but often is: I do not like to do things I’m not good at.

imageHuh? What am I in the studio for, if not to do something I haven’t done before? Am I really playing it that safe most weeks? I hadn’t thought so–each session is certainly challenging and exciting, just trying to draw with the charcoal–but the way I felt today was unmistakable. It was what I feel when I’m doing something new and scary.


As a result, it was also the most exciting session in a long time. The drawings are messy but (rather, and) full of novelty. In every one, I was trying something I literally haven’t done in decades, if ever. I even got my playfulness back.



As Munchkin was looking at the drawings, she said, “I like these. You can tell you were really looking at the light.” I demurred, saying, “Sometimes I was, but mostly I was just making it up as I went along.”

imageShe looked at me and said, “That’s what art is.” My daughter, my teacher.



My morning of drawing this week. I was enjoying the newsprint so much that I never moved on to charcoal paper. I like the smoothness and may try out some smooth white paper, like Bristol.

A few of the two-minute gestures:


Three seven-minute:




Two ten-minute–the second looks like watercolor to me, a nice effect I now want to try to recreate deliberately:





And 45, still not enough time this time:

As part of my study leave last week, I did an extra session at the figure drawing studio, so today’s session was the third in eight days. The cumulative effect was very positive–unless it is a coincidence that last Wednesday was better than last Monday and today was better than last Wednesday. I don’t think so. I think I powered through to a better place, because today was full of “aha”s. I was working small and with a fair amount of detail, but I mostly kept the gestural quality that I like instead of going all stiff, and I know how I did it. The first “aha” was with this one. Sometime during this seven minutes, I realized that the life was in the parts that had no lines, but were just drawn in with shadows:

10 14 2013 7 min c

So I set out to draw almost nothing but the shadows, and this was the result:

10 14 2013 10 min d

AHA! Definitely getting somewhere! I did the same for this gorgeous pose:

10 14 2013 10 min e

The above is my favorite of the day. I wanted to stay with that pose for the rest of the session, but alas, it was only ten minutes.

We had a forty-minute pose, and I am happy with both the face and the body in the drawing that resulted, but d’oh! they are out of proportion to each other. It’s really hard not to go too large on a section that I do last and give lots of attention:

10 14 2013 40 min g

I needed a few more minutes on the legs, too. But I used the time to tackle the hair, something I usually ignore, and it’s not bad.

Here are the first two of the day. Not bad, but pre-breakthrough. The fabric on the first one works pretty well even though (because?) I gave it only the most cursory attention.

10 14 2013 7 min a

10 14 2013 7 min b

I never note scale on these drawings, and I ought to for my own purposes down the line (I toss most of the drawings, so I only have digital versions and will never remember the original dimensions). These are on 11 x 14 paper; I went to that smaller format deliberately because the larger paper was “making it harder to capture subtleties of light, not easier.” If I can remember what I’ve done today, it may work well to go back to a larger sheet. I’m not even sure what was going on there–just that I am now at the point that I have to use little tiny pieces of charcoal in order to work in the space I’ve allotted myself, and that’s getting old. This was also the first day that I didn’t use newsprint at all, and I didn’t freeze up, so I’m going to keep on doing everything but the warmup gestures on the good paper and see where that leads.

Some I like, at least bits of them (nice light / hand / knee!), some I don’t (so stiff!), one I threw out without wanting even to look at it anymore, much less photograph it. But I haven’t posted any drawings in ages, and I am going to dispense with commentary and just get them up here.

9 30 13 7min a

9 30 13 7min c

9 30 13 10min d

9 30 13 10min e

9 30 13 10min f

9 30 13 10min g

9 30 13 20min h

9 30 13 25min i

Ooh was I having fun today. Here are the drawings I like best.

Something I’ve been trying to do is cut down on the range of tones. I can get lost in the jungle of an infinite variety of shades, fussing so much to get each one right that I lose the big picture and the passion. So I’ve been trying to go darker and leave white in places that do have subtle gradations of light and shadow.

2013 04 08 c 7 min2013 04 08 e 10 min detail

On the other hand, when I use a broader range of grays, I can convey more about the light. With the longer poses I have time to do that. The light was so interesting in this one, but the drawing came out kind of messy and indefinite.

2013 04 08 g 20 min

I like the light in this one best, which is probably why it’s my favorite for the day.

           2013 04 08 f 20 min

Faces are so tricky. This one was looking quite a bit like the model until I made just a couple more strokes. Now it doesn’t look like her at all:

2013 04 08 h 30 min

I took a deep breath, took a big step and tossed a dozen or more Mondays’ worth of drawings into the recycling. I like taking photos of them for the record, but I don’t always keep up, and the backlog had become a pile. At some point even a somewhat obsessive-compulsive person has to ask whether the time invested in such a project is worthwhile. I felt a pang as I tossed them into the big blue bin, knowing that there were some lovely bits in there along with a lot of mediocre, brave attempts, but I was resolutely Buddhist and closed the lid.

Here is a sampling from those that had been recorded before the big purge, or have been done since then. They range from September to February and the poses range from ten minutes to an hour long. All of them are on charcoal paper, instead of my more usual newsprint. I’m still getting the feel of this paper. It’s even less erasable than newsprint; a mark made on this paper is there for good.

2012 09 10 d 10 min

2012 09 10 e 10 min

09 17 12 d 10min

09 17 12 e 10min

09 17 12 h 40 min

2013 01 28 g 60 min detail

2013 02 04 f 20 min

2013 02 04 h 20 min

I was so happy to get back to the figure drawing studio yesterday after the month’s break. I was prepared to be stiff, but actually right from the warmup gestures I could tell I was having a good day. I resolved to keep that fast, loose approach going in the longer poses. It worked pretty well for the seven-minutes:

01 07 2013 a 7min detail

01 07 2013 b 7min detail

In fact, the third 7-minute pose yielded my favorite drawing of the morning:

01 07 2013 c 7min

The light on the torso is what I loved most, and what came through. It was less successful on her right arm.

The poses got longer and if I was done and in danger of overworking something, or just dissatisfied, midway through, I flipped over the page and started a second one. So these two five-minute bits emerged from a 10- and 20-minute pose:

01 07 2013 h 5min detail

01 07 2013 f 5min detail

The vast expanses of back and belly, with their subtle shadings, are often beyond me. I put in too many marks or make them too dark, or else I back off entirely and the whole thing ends up flat. Yesterday I was able to evoke something of those slight changes in tone, like in the back on the first drawing, the belly in the second, and the arm here:

01 07 2013 d 10min

Three slightly longer poses. I was done with this next one after 15 minutes. I got the proportions wrong and made her too stocky–she’s actually very slim–but I wasn’t going to erase and fix it (almost impossible to do much of that on newsprint anyway). I was trying to keep my hand moving and focus on the light. Wherever I can see that light in the drawings, it makes me ecstatic. I never could understand the Impressionist obsession with evoking light, but I get it now. Though frankly, the Dutch masters’ success in this area left nothing to improve on, in my opinion.

01 07 2013 g 15min

In this next one the light ended up a little lurid. Not sure why. But it’s a sign of my erring on the side of boldness and high contrast, and that’s good.

01 07 2013 i 20min

01 07 2013 j 20min

The wrinkles on the bottom of a foot are a puzzle to me. Maybe the next few times the pose makes them visible, I should focus entirely on them and see if I can figure it out. Other than that and whatever happened with the calf, and once again making her torso look wider than it is, I like this last one pretty well. The light works in several places.

No time to comment, just putting them up before I go off to this week’s session.

Something amazing happened at drawing today. When we moved from the 1- and 2-minute gestures to the 7-minute poses, I just stayed in short-pose mode. I didn’t do it on purpose, but when I realized that was what I was doing, I stayed with it and was really happy with the results, especially with the last two. Usually, much as I try to think of every drawing as a completely disposable experiment, I shift into a “this is for real” mode when we start on the 7s. Keeping the energy of the fast, “just draw” intensity of the 1s and 2s, but having more time to get to all the details, was thrilling.

Here I decided I didn’t have enough time for the hands, after having to correct my proportions on the body and arms a couple times. Still, I like the energy:

This was the “AHHHHHH!” moment of the day, when I drew the face so that it really looks like her:

In this one I couldn’t get the face to look quite like hers, but it does look like a person’s. And I like the drawing overall. This pose was 45 minutes and that was almost enough.

Interestingly, I stopped pressuring myself to use the darkest charcoal, and actually started with the lightest on most of these, working all over and putting in subtler touches, then I used the medium, then the dark. Again, not a deliberate choice. There just seemed to be good things happening with the light charcoal; it didn’t feel tentative but alive, full of movement, and I wanted to keep that going.

The music might have helped. I liked it all, but I draw fastest and loosest to rock that I like, and we had David Bowie and Bob Dylan today. There’s no way I can draw slowly to “Hurricane.”

Along the way, I rediscovered the song “Space Oddity.” My introduction to it, at age 13, was eight weeks of just about daily doses (sometimes many times in a day), because I was at camp and one of my cabinmates was obsessed. It has made it a little hard to hear it for itself. Today I realized what an excellent song it is. The Bowie we were listening to was clearly a greatest hits compilation, but we almost always change the music at the rest breaks, and so we only heard 20 minutes of it. Just as well–I was already smokin’ and if “Suffragette City” had come on, I might have burned a hole right through my paper.

. . . which is a good reminder that progress isn’t linear (sigh). I’d learn more, though, if I looked at the previous week’s drawings before I went off to draw some more. They are the best reminders of what I’m doing that is and isn’t working.


With the above drawing, I grabbed my darkest charcoal and avoided getting bogged down in delicate shading. Quick, dark, high-contrast. Seven minutes doesn’t allow for much more (yet–I’m speeding up), which is good; and I know how hard it is for me to sustain energy while getting into detail. On the next drawing, I lost my nerve, used the medium charcoal, and got picky again, and it shows. It’s not a disaster–there is some good light on the thumb and fingers–but all in all the first drawing has more of the energy of the person modeling.

The most alive parts of the above are the elbow and the shadows cast by both arms.  I’m getting less intimidated by the subtlety of the contours of backs.

The first two drawings were on newsprint, but the above and those that follow are on paper with a lot of “bite” and texture. It is more forgiving when I make an unintentionally sharp edge: for example, on a shadow that actually fades into light more gently. On the newsprint, the sharpness will always show, but on this heavier, rougher paper it can be softened.

I don’t pay a lot of attention to composition in these sessions–I go by instinct and I don’t fuss if my composition gets messed up by my miscalculating how long the legs are or some such–but I like the composition on the above. Also, it’s an illustration of the importance of shadows. She would appear to just float if there weren’t those shadows anchoring her to the floor. That’s fine if you don’t want to evoke the space she’s in, but I do. I want to sense as I draw, and I want the viewer to sense, what she is feeling where her hand and arm and side touch the carpet. I didn’t realize that until I wrote it just now.

Back to the dark charcoal on the above, to good effect. I started to draw the face, also; it went all wrong; so I started again in the corner of the paper and drew the one that follows (you can see some of the gone-wrong face in the lower right). What success I had with this was due to keeping in mind what I try to remember when I’m drawing hands and feet: it’s just like the rest of the body, just pay attention and respond to what you see. (To misquote Annie Savoy from Bull Durham: “Drawing is like hitting a baseball. You’ve just got to relax and concentrate.”) There’s a freedom to this drawing that I’ve never achieved in a portrait before.

I’m happy with this last one because the hand and wrist convey a sense of the weight they’re supporting. It’s the first drawing I’ve made that I think is good enough to go into the future exhibit of hands that I sometimes think about putting up in the lobby at church.

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