Drawing at the Aegean Center: Part 1

21, February 2013 § 2 Comments

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When I first came to the Aegean Center in the fall of 2007 to work as John’s assistant, I had always been under the impression that artists were born with talent,  with a special way of seeing the world and the rare ability to easily render it on paper. Drawing had never been easy for me. My love for art would often inspire me to try my own hand at it, but the results were always discouraging. I thus resigned myself to being  an admirer of art, to visiting museums and taking art history at university (where studio art was closed to non-majors, giving the artist this special status and reinforcing the idea that art cannot be taught to the uninitiated).

This was something that on one level upset me, as I had always had the urge to draw and to express myself visually but never the ability. On the other hand however the forces at work had conspired to convince me that this would always be out of my reach, and so I, with not a small degree of regret, accepted my place in the world, or my place outside of art.

Then I came to the Aegean Center and for semester after semester I watched students with no prior training– armed only with that creative urge– enroll in one or both of the drawing classes and emerge three months later able to draw, to do competently all those wonderful things that artists had always impressed me with — lively gesture drawings, still lives with dramatic tonalities. The students were happy and their work seemed painless.

So in the spring of 2010, at Jun’s urging, I finally took the dive and enrolled in Basic Drawing. This class met once a week every Thursday morning from 9 to 11. That particular semester we had a handful of returning students from the Italian session and I remember that first day in class feeling particularly uneasy being with others who already seemed to know what they were doing, for whom drawing, to some degree at least, came relatively easy (for a classic overachiever like myself this was a very intimidating position to be in).

The first thing Jun had us do that morning was to draw a series of lines and circles, in an effort to loosen up our arms. We then explored the range of our pencils, making marks with varying degrees of pressure. It wasn’t until the end of class that Jun placed various still life objects on the tables in front of us giving us five minutes to draw them. This was mine, my very first drawing. As you can see I couldn’t even fit it on the page:

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We were then instructed to draw the same object but instead of focusing on its outline, we were told to draw its mass, with the pencil beginning at the center of the form and pushing out towards its boundaries. Already there is a marked improvement; the vase is more upright, more symmetrical and better conveys a sense of volume. Nevertheless, I remember leaving that class a thousand times humbled, but I was determined to learn, and I trusted Jun one hundred percent.

I was not disappointed. In the following two weeks alone, with very basic instruction on perspective, I was already able to competently render the illusion of three dimensions on paper. What was particularly amazing was that I was already in possession of the skills I needed to do this– 1) I could tell time and 2) I could draw an ellipse.

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For the remainder of the course we built on the techniques that add movement and emotion to a work, completing various exercises on line quality and tonality. We also received further instruction on how to see the way an artist sees (yes, it can be taught!), appreciating negative space and identifying composite shapes. This new way of seeing immediately changed the way I saw the world both in and out of class. It added something to my routine walks around town and helped me to better analyse why I found something beautiful, what it was about a certain tree or building that appealed to me. Otherwise boring minutes in a waiting room or in line at the bank became instructive, as I would catch myself thinking, “Now how would I  draw that?” all while isolating shapes and imagining line quality.

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I quickly discovered the value of being in a class with more experienced draughtsmen than myself, for I learned as much from them as I did from Jun, who took great care to foster an encouraging, constructive and non-competitive environment. Whenever we looked at each others work it was never with the intention of a critique but always with the intention of learning how to achieve certain effects, what improvements can be made and how — always how. To see how my classmates rendered the same objects in a still life, to gain insights into their decision making and problem solving, was an invaluable experience. (I should add that my insecurities about my own progress vanished once I realized a mixed level classroom is beneficial to everyone; you can learn just as much from a poorly conceived drawing as you can from a good one).

At the end of the semester Jun assigned a final drawing entirely of our own choosing. As I am particularly attracted to the melancholy in art, I wanted to try constructing a vanitas scene, a la 17th century Dutch still lives. I imagined something dark and moody, a bittersweet reflection on the ephermeral nature of existence. I imagined my viewer and the quiet terror that would seize him as he contemplated his own mortality! With these thoughts I deviously  went about collecting all the necessary items — the drapery, the skulls, the roses that would inevitably wilt! I set up my still life late at night within the darkened walls of my living room and was certain (oh so certain!) that my intention would be fulfilled because I had willed it and because I had the skull, a real skull (no questions, please)– but no! Hours later, looking down at my paper, was the chair, covered by my bed sheet, and there the skull, looking ever so goofy and benign. The roses too refused to look menacing. And only then did I realize where the real difficulty lies in making art: to perfectly illustrate your intention, to convey mood and alter the emotional state of the viewer, to conjure feelings and stimulate his senses. This takes more than three months– it can take an entire lifetime– but I emerged from Basic Drawing confident that I had a better idea of what I had to do to get there, and this involves working towards a masterful command of perspective, line, composition and tone.

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While I feel that I did not capture the mood I intended, or achieve much by way of composition, I am always so impressed whenever I compare my first drawing of the vase to my final drawing. At the same time, however, I am saddened. My original ideas about art and art making were wrong. But why? How did I come to believe them in the first place? That art making was reserved for a talented elite? I cannot pretend to understand just how these ideas came to permeate society, but they are dangerous, to say the least, and have far reaching consequences. Looking back I realize that had art been taught differently in school when I was a kid, with equal focus on crafts and traditional drawing techniques, my life could have been vastly different. I believe that children can afford to make one less snowman out of cotton balls if it means acquiring more sophisticated means of exploring the world and expressing themselves.  Children are curious and capable and a crafts based curriculum seriously underestimates them.

It is these thoughts that lend my final drawing its elusive somber mood. But the good news remains, that art can be taught, and I delight in this as I draw and examine this beautiful, mysterious world of which I never, ever tire.

– SS

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