My God, where do I begin?
Perhaps 20 years ago to the first time when I attended the Drawing Marathon at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture. As a mere bud of an artist, I was unprepared for the depth and length of concentration that the workshop demanded: For the first half of June, it lasted two weeks at 12 hours per day of drawing and critique, with studies of master paintings during the weekend in between. The program is more structured today but the intensity has not changed.
My initial experience at NYSS was no more triumphant than a flail but I knew that this program was important, deep, and transformative, even if it hadn’t been for me to grasp on the first go-around. I had not given up. Fast forward decades to today, I felt an irrepressible hunger pang for it again, with a visceral certainty that this time, the light bulbs would not remain dim, but illuminate, like the Sheila Klein streetlamps of Santa Monica.
Logic may be a frenemi but intuition has always been my fairy godmother. Securing the two weeks of vacation from my employer and finding a kind offer of lodging from my high school classmate Tami, I headed to 8 West 8th Street, NYC.
The school boasts large and small ateliers flooded with luxurious, diffused, natural light. And that’s the extent of its opulence. Scrappy in an unapologetic way, the NYSS is all-business when it comes to the matter of drawing, at least. In fact, it was the home of the original Whitney Museum and the institution itself conceived by Mercedes Matter, Herbert Matter’s better half. With the Whitney’s most recent incarnation in Chelsea as a megalithic stack of glass windows and jutting metal patios, the original stands as a starting point for measure. The Whitney’s evolving manifestations could well symbolize the burgeoning of an artist herself, from a modest but stalwart seedling to an eventually glorious bloom. And both would share the same site of origin.
Thirty-some participants from all over the world, ranging from professional artists, to full-time students from NYSS and other schools, to graphic designers, to photographers, to art educators, and to a civil engineer convened to partake of what NYSS had to offer in a compact and brief moment. Every art school has a philosophy and a vision of what constitutes art. To me, NYSS focused on drawing as an offering of epiphany as a “documentation” of personal investigation and discovery through the great and highly-wrought tradition of drawing.
We used 90-lb cold press paper and layered drawing upon drawing and paint upon drawing. Plus erasures, the buildup was thick and rich. The heavily worked surface seemed to be the site of confrontation between artist and perceptual thought.
The mornings started promptly at 9AM. We started trickling in with a caffeine-induced wakefulness at 8:32AM or so. Ava, whose easel and shelf were next-door to mine, fueled up on dark chocolate like a vitamin or energy drink. I chewed on my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, in that same shared silence, which, from appearances, seemed passive and dormant, but inside, all pistons had begun firing and the cylinders had begun to accelerate their churn. As the models took their positions, the staccato of staple guns affixing huge sheets of paper onto boards on metal easels broke the silence and then the soft whispers of vine charcoal stroking the rough paper surface ensued.
Making work and critiquing it alternated in multi-hour blocks with a 1-hour lunch break in between. The day’s work would often end when the rest of New York City was preparing for bedtime. Sometimes, we’d end by 8PM. But it was never grueling and never burdensome. Many of us had devoted our annual vacation time from our full-time jobs to do this. And it was so good to commune with others who had similar interests and drive. Feedback from my new friends was thoughtful and direct. I tried to reciprocate.
For concepts and inspiration in the realm of drawing, Graham Nickson, Dean of NYSS, shared the works of old Venetian and Dutch masters, noting their compositional strategies in story-telling and spatial creation. When in doubt of one’s work, Graham advised to go back to study the work of the masters.
Titian’s work was often a source of analysis. As was Nicolas Poussin’s. Also Pieter Bruegel’s paintings and drawings. Below is his Bee Keepers and the Birdnester (1568).
As a group exercise, we gridded Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding (1567), to analyze the composition of each component as an independent image.
Then we cut the entire into squares and we each drew one grid square on a separate sheet in charcoal. Finally, we recomposed it in the big lecture hall, The Whitney Room.
The total piece disintegrated a bit only because each of us draw so differently, that the eye had difficulty amalgamating all squares into one whole. The variety of styles created a speed bump for the reading at the same time that it also provided a new interest absent from the original. This joyous, boisterous occasion that Bruegel caught and freeze-framed took on a new life through our group interpretation. The micro-spaces of negative space (or “Golden Space” as Graham rephrases it) as well as the pathways for the eye were different in our rendition than in the original.
And it does boil down to the meaning of the mark of the hand, like those of the earliest people. On the second day of the first week, Graham showed to us photocopies of the ancient cave paintings in Lascaux, France. These included the emphatically outlined and blown paint images of the mutilated hands, as well as the bison — two very important, very cherished things. They are rendered with deference, passion and visual awareness of their forms. These also exhibited an understanding of space, movement, and composition, leading me to believe that this knowledge of drawing is a primal one, that we somehow lose or erode and need to reteach ourselves.
And we each painted our active hand too, like our ancestors of Lascaux, as an homage to humanity and the limb that we use the most to inter-relate between our internal and external worlds. Then we drew the model’s hand.
And then we drew all the activity surrounding it. From this exercise, Graham impressed upon us the relational inter-connection that underlies all drawing.
Fran O’Neill, visiting artist faculty and abstract painter, and Katie Ruiz, painter, also guided us through the marathon, with one-on-one comments and provocations that counterbalanced Graham broader historical references and allegorical statements. Each day featured 2-3 models and some simple props on a stage in the center of the room.
While no shortage of drawing insights, some of the standouts for me were: “You might start to wonder what is beautiful or what is ugly. And you think about it more and discover the thing that is ugly might be the most beautiful.” I loved that.
While we also studied other a variety of other artists workings, such as Max Beckmann, Montaigne, Gideon Bach, Stanley Spencer, Henri Matisse, Signac, Giorgione, and Giorgio Morandi. In the critiques, every participating artist’s work was reviewed by all, pinned up on the giant wall with nearly 80 eyes and 40 minds considering it. Graham made a point to say:
“Change your thinking and not your mark-making. Changed thinking will automatically change your marks.”
With this one, we drew each 22″ x 30″ tiled sheet separately. After completing nine of them, we recomposed them to form whole. Not everything lined up. It created unexpected charms and possibilities.
This one was a 4 feet x 4 feet sheet in which we explored the idea of eye movement through a pictured space, pathways, and staircases, as the case was in mine. How do you invite the eye to tour a space, browse in corners and stroll along edges?
Next, this model setup was inspired by the Beekeepers by Bruegel. I tried to convey a sense of depth and a journey for the eye. I have the tendency to draw a lot of the background and not edit out elements, when a leaner image might deliver a more powerful message. Graham often talked about the “Pictorial Subject” of a piece. Sometimes it is clear and the artist knows what its is from the outset. Other times, it emerges over the course of the work. And in the most unfortunate cases, it is vague, under-developed, unaware. We would point this out for each other, talk about sub-themes too, and identify the drawing methodology that either advanced or hindered these ideas.
Graham was also keen at finding “visual echoes” of a shape repeated elsewhere in the drawing in a different context. For example, a fabric fold might repeat the form of an arm. Or a cloud might look like both a cloud and the head of the model. A conscious awareness of visual rhetoric, plus the artist’s own subconscious yearning, combined to help to forge a memorable image.
We produced about five times more drawings than what you see here. These are only highlights. The cognizance and momentum built up from such a training has deeply altered the way that I draw. It also jump-started my desire to keep drawing, which I need to keep up. The inter-connection of all space — negative spaces, visual pathways, line quality, tonal range, attention to the corners of the picture plane, noting what is in the center, metaphorical translations, abstraction of tertiary subjects in the service of the primary — became the over-arching theme of this particular Drawing Marathon. Each iteration of this event is a new shade, so some participants come back over and over again, like me!
As we packed up our supplies and drawings at the end of the two weeks, Fran advised us not to discard our drawings. She said, look at them later and they will make sense and be valuable to you.