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Thinking of Drawing

By James McMullan
(Print, March/April 1989)


The author, in his “high-focus” approach to teaching the subject, opens up his students to drawing as a difficult but exhilarating act of re-creation.



Drawing, the ability to make bodies, faces, flowers, or monsters appear magically on a flat surface, has tested artists sever since there were smooth cave walls and chunks of charcoal, and despite the millions of words spent excusing artists of our own time from the rigors of drawing, the test of draftsmanship rattles like an impertinent skeleton in the closet of contemporary art.

The question ”… but can he draw?” hovers silently and rudely in the audacious air of a thousand show openings, tainting the hope that art really can be made by anyone with no particular deftness of the hand but with a little stylish anger on his side.

The persistence of connecting drawing skill to artist-hood in the face of all the elegant argument to the contrary comes not so much from the simple notion that an artist should be argument to the contrary comes not so much from the simple notion that an artist should be suited to his calling, as an athlete to baseball, for instance, as it does from the deeper understanding that to draw is to see. A visual artist’s natural territory is that which can be seen and we have a profound expectation that an artist will have a heightened curiosity about the physical world and that he will have a means for expressing what his curiosity opens up for him. We understand drawing as the most immediate record of the artist’s vision and we innately distrust the work of artists which seems to circumvent this activity. So, finally, the question is not “How can you be an artist if you are not able to evoke things in drawing?” but rather, “How can you be an artist if you won’t look at the world?” 


Thinking of drawing not simply as a skill that gives you the lines you need for painting, but as a fundamental discipline of seeing and taking in the world, has provided the basis for my classes at the School of Visual Arts. What I teach specifically is how to see the human figure and to evoke it in pencil drawing. This is a difficult act of concentration, so I have named the classes I teach and the classes taught by the teachers I have trained the High-Focus Drawing Program. 


Because of my conviction that drawing is a high-level activity, I begin from the very first class with the central idea that the figure must be seen and experienced on many planes at once and that the drawing must be made in a condition of risk. I don’t for example, break the figure down into gesture, shape, or any other “layer” which would diminish it from the whole state in which the student encounters the model; nor do I let the student reduce the risk in the drawing by building it up slowly with construction lines. I explain that when the mind has a strong impression to focus on, it can create a kind of mental construction drawing. The student learns that if he can open himself up to the character of the model as expressed in the specific pose, it will give him a coherent drama that he can then understand in terms of rhythm, stress, relaxation, thrust, repose, and so on. The figure will begin to have a meaning in its overall spirit and in the way each specific part contributes to that spirit. The aliveness of the human body, and all that this implies spiritually and psychologically, is what the student starts to respond to in the figure and what he tries to evoke in his drawing. The more he can open up to the phenomena of the figure, the more the student understands that one cannot really see anything without celebrating it. When the drawing begins to involve this sense of joy in the miracle of the world’s diversity, the artist’s sensibilities are incredibly sharpened and his drawing hand made much more sensuous.


Sensuousness is basic to drawing. It is a kind of reliving inside yourself, or perhaps a mimicking, of the forms you are looking at, and to do that it is necessary for the inner voice to be saying to the hand, “It feels like this,” and for the hand to stroke the paper as a surrogate for the flesh. 


Feeling pleasure in the subject is one way that a student begins to take responsibility for the drawing. He is, in recognizing the pleasure, seeing both the point of drawing and its unlimited potential. He no longer views a drawing as something to be finished (usually for someone else), but as an open-ended exploration that he does for himself. He draws in order to know what he sees and to internalize his subject in a way which is different from every other form of experience. The more he sees in the subject, the more, he realizes, there is to see.


The student also, in the process of opening up to subjects outside himself, is learning to focus his attention and to make complex mental organizations of the material he takes in. Drawing helps him to see, to have opinions, to make hierarchies, and, at least for a few minutes, to live in the present.


 The methods I use in teaching drawing are circular. I introduce the few but complex ideas at the very start—drawing as an exploration, thinking as a combination of analytic and intuitive response, the inherent rhythmic coherence of the body, the importance of seeing the hierarchies in the drama of the pose, the trajectory curve as the basic line of drawing, risk as the element which keeps drawing in the here-and-now—and then I return to these ideas in slightly different form in class after class. The act of drawing changes in each class because there is a different model and because the student comes to it with a slightly different understanding. The students struggle with the drawings and they struggle with the ideas, but sooner or later, for most of them, something clicks and they begin to experience drawing in the only way it really exists, which is as a difficult and exhilarating act of re-creation.

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