Learing To See -- Lesson One Is To Forget What You Think Things Look Like - Including Yourself
The art teacher made fun of my drawing one day in the sixth grade. I felt humiliated. I stopped trying to draw.
This past July, I picked up a piece of charcoal and drew the first picture I'd tried since then. I was intrigued by Gary Faigin's assurance that anyone could learn to draw - even me.
Faigin and his wife, Pamela Belyea, run the Academy of Realist Art, with headquarters in Seattle and summer workshops in Santa Fe. Take a two-week workshop, they said, and we can teach you to draw.
"Learning to draw and learning to speak French take about the same amount of time to master," Faigin says. "The only difference is that most people think that acquiring one skill just takes time and energy, while the other takes `talent.' That simply isn't true. Drawing is utterly teachable."
You don't need to be a cinematographer to tell a good movie from a stinker, or a musician to know a great performance when you hear one. It also isn't necessary to be an artist to talk about art.
It wasn't for my job as an art critic that I decided to take the drawing workshop. It had more to do with stretching my definition of who I am, and what I am capable - or not capable - of doing.
Twenty of us gathered in Santa Fe from all over the country to learn from Faigin. Some were artists; some not. Among our number were a lawyer from Tennessee, an opera singer from Houston, a massage practitioner and a contractor from Santa Fe, a professor of sculpture from Texas, a junior-high English teacher and a corporate designer from New York. Some had studied with Faigin before and were back for more. Only one other student was a beginner.
Belyea issued us big drawing pads and sticks of vine charcoal and pointed us toward easels that bore our names. Draw the woman standing on the model stand, we were told. Let's see what you can do.
I drew fuzzy lines in the approximate shape of the model. It's only a start, I told myself. I've got nowhere to go but up. Those fuzzy lines evoked the sixth grade all over again . . .
Moments of ridicule remain raw in my memory. I remember the day well. It was February. We were assigned to draw something. Anything we wanted.
I decided to draw a boy just losing his footing on a steep, snowy hill. I didn't realize it then, but it was remarkably symbolic of how I was feeling about my life.
The teacher laughed when she paused by my desk. She said it looked like he was stepping out into nothing, and where was he going to put his foot, anyway?
It was a vulnerable time in my life. My mother had just disappeared. My father, overwhelmed at trying to care for three children, had passed us off on out-of-town relatives who made no secret of our being a burden.
I was the new kid in a big-town school. I didn't need more rejection.
I decided art wasn't my thing. I never again drew something that I felt might expose me to ridicule. In fact, beyond recording the shape of an amoeba in biology class, I never drew anything at all.
"Drawing is a natural extension of seeing," Faigin said. "Most people can copy simple shapes, like a nose in profile. Being trained to draw simply means learning to relate those simple shapes to the bigger forms they belong to. If you can draw the detail, you can learn to draw the whole."
To begin, he taught us how to look at the greater shape of a model's position - often a triangle - and to sketch out torso, arms and legs within that framework. He showed us how to use shading to create the illusion of roundness.
On the second day, I learned how to proportion a figure sketch. Hands and feet on my drawings looked disastrous. My drawing was timid and tentative. I seemed to blush a shape into being, drawing on the charcoal, then smudging it to softness lest a line appear sharp or definite.
We did half a dozen figure sketches a day; the first two as quick warm-ups, followed by a lecture, then back to the drawing boards. The models need to rest every 20 minutes; standing still can be exhausting.
Amazingly, I actually saw progress in each sketch.
Not until Thursday, the fourth day of class, did I venture to indicate faces on the figures. I still had no idea how to draw a nose, or an eye. Hands and feet still gave me fits. But I was getting more accurate at proportions. And still struggling - and failing - with foreshortening.
Thursday afternoon, Faigin came behind me as I was drawing and said, "Gee, that actually looks something like the model. Congratulations; your first real sketch.
"Beginning to learn to draw by sketching from a live model is like learning to swim beginning with a dive from a 400-meter board."
Now he tells me!
By Friday, I was astonished at how well my final drawing came out. I was simultaneously wrung out and exhilarated.
The second week was devoted to portraits. Artists develop a sort of shorthand; a way of depicting an eye, or lips, or an ear that in essence form a sort of bag of tricks.
My bag was empty; my ignorance total. My first portrait was heartbreakingly wooden.
Faigin was effusive about what a great start it was. That helped me take heart. The second portrait was already much better, largely because I learned a way of drawing the eyelid to show its roundness.
Again, much of the teaching had to do with looking. Forgetting what we thought an eye looked like, or where we thought an ear sits on the head, and really looking at it.
We worked on only two portraits each day, with models of drastically different appearances. The first day, our models were two bearded men. The second day, a 90-year-old woman and an 11-year-old boy who couldn't hold still. Day three brought a cowboy in the morning, and an Apache in the afternoon. And so it went.
By Wednesday I was in deep depression at my ineptness. Faces I drew still looked crude and wooden, while I seemed to be surrounded by people who drew like angels. I knew they had far more experience than I did; I just couldn't get used to being at the bottom of the class.
Once again it was Thursday before I completed the first drawing I could remotely call decent. I began to get the hang of modeling contours with shadow, rather than trying to draw them; shading in curves such as the area under the eye. For the first time, the face on my drawing pad didn't look quite so flat and amateurish.
During a break, the model approached me and said, "Your aura is really dancing around you. It's light blue." Santa Fe is the kind of place where people are apt to tell you about your aura. I don't know what a light blue aura signifies, and he didn't explain, but it seemed enough to know that I was pouring out energy.
Drawing is exhausting, utterly engrossing work. Time speeds by.
The last day, at lunch, Faigin handed me the Bug-Eyed Beginner's award for the most improved student. I felt improved in more ways than he knew.
I didn't just learn to draw; I learned to see.
In a real sense, the two weeks I spent at the Academy of Realist Art were transforming. They changed my conception of who I am and what I can do. They changed my definition of my self. Now, I am a person who can draw.
"It seems as though anyone who can learn to write, can learn to draw," Faigin says.
Last weekend, I copied a couple of Old Master sketches. It's a good way to experience how Michelangelo and Leonardo drew forms; what better teachers could one ask? I saw their sketches more clearly than I ever had before.
Drawing, I've learned, is not just a skill; it's a way of experiencing the world.
----------------------------------- WHERE TO FIND THE CLASS: --------------------------------------
The Academy of Realist Art, 5004 Sixth Ave. N.W., will have a class in portrait drawing on 10 successive Saturdays beginning Oct. 10. A two-week intensive figure drawing workshop will begin Oct. 19. For more information call 784-4268.
Life drawing classes also are available through many other art schools in the region. The Second Story Studios & Gallery, 89 Yesler Way, will begin a six-week class in life drawing Oct. 7, and an eight-week class in watercolor portraiture Oct. 6. Call 682-9331.
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