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1. Getting Back to the Phantom Skill

James McMullan writing for the NY Times

Originally published September 16 2010, this is the first column in our series.

Drawing, for many people, is that phantom skill they remember having in elementary school, when they drew with great relish and abandon. Crayon and colored pencil drawings of fancy princesses poured out onto the sketchbooks of the girls, while planes and ships, usually aflame, battled it out in the boys' drawings. Occasionally boys drew princesses and girls drew gunboats, but whatever the subject matter, this robust period of drawing tended to wither in most students' lives and, by high school, drawing became the specialized province of those one or two art geeks who provided the cartoons for the yearbook and made the posters for the prom.

The first few columns of this series on drawing that I'm initiating this week will offer a primer on the basic elements of line-making, perspective, structure and proportion, which I hope will begin to rekindle the love of drawing for those readers who left it behind in the 4th grade. Achieving some confidence in drawing objects will get you started in the pleasure of this activity, and give you the basis for moving on to drawing figures.

I also hope, in later installments, to provide insight into the vitality and sensuousness of great drawing so that your next visit to the museum will be both more gratifying and a chance to amaze your companions with your new-found aestheticism. My method for helping you to draw focuses primarily on two aspects of the skill: first, showing you how to see the structural logic of the object or figure you are drawing, and second, through focused practice, strengthening the link between your eyes and hand so that you are better able to make the drawing marks you intend.

For readers who are familiar with other kinds of drawing instruction that emphasize experimenting with materials, making images with different kinds of pencils, pens and paints, my approach may seem, at first, somewhat stripped down. However, if you try the exercises I describe, I think you will find that they give you the basic thinking and hand skills you need to move on to whatever experimenting with mediums you like.

James McMullan drawing instruction

James McMullan

In the historical and contemporary art I use as examples here, I hope there will be many drawing styles and different drawing and painting materials to inspire you. But, for the exercises in the early columns, I suggest you stick to using a 2B or 4B pencil so that the goal of clarifying your thinking and strengthening your hand-eye coordination doesn't get confused by the difficulties of manipulating pen and ink or any other more complicated drawing tool.

In advising you to begin with these simple materials, pencil and a drawing pad, I am not denying the sensuousness of charcoal or pen-and-ink or paint or any of the myriad implements and colorful fluids with which, like happy children in a mud puddle, we can make images. I'm simply hoping to provide you with a period at the start of your endeavor in which you can focus on learning to see and getting in touch with your drawing hand without the distraction of style or materials.

In every column I will use examples from the history of art to show how certain functions of drawing and approaches to subject matter play out successfully in the work of specific artists. De Chirico's surreal cityscapes will help to dramatize perspective. Edward Hopper's paintings will illuminate how light brings out the solidity of objects and people. Picasso shows us how modeling can emphasize the substance of faces and bodies, while Matisse will be exhibit A in how artists move from realism to stylization in considering the human figure.

James McMullan considering the human figure
James McMullan

My overall goal, apart from helping with specific information, is to communicate the enthusiasm I feel for the immediacy of drawing. It is the activity that most engages an artist's sense of exploration, both visually, as the artist feels out the image, new born, on the drawing surface, and intellectually, as the drawing becomes the bridge between observation or an idea and a graphic fact. In looking at Michelangelo's studies for the Sistine Chapel, for instance, so searching and in-the-moment is the artist's attention to his subject that I often feel the years fall away and there I am, looking over his shoulder as he draws.

I confess that much contemporary drawing disappoints me for its lack of risk and immediacy. It often seems like the product of a too premeditated and too lengthy process of refinement. Part of this may be the influence of the computer and the surface perfection that it achieves so easily; geometrically pure shapes, even textures, clear colors.

Another source of this arid quality may be attributable to the use of photography as a drawing shortcut. Photography as a source for subject matter has opened many amazing possibilities in 20th and 21st century art, but when it is used as a tracing or projecting tool in order to circumvent the difficulties of achieving correct proportion, the resulting art is often static and lifeless.

Drawing is a process of engagement for the artist, a period of both time and struggle that pulls the artist deeply and intensely into his subject and his ideas. Projecting a photograph in order to give you a perfect drawing of your subject has robbed you of all the imperfect yet more interesting drawings you might have made. The recent exhibit of the art of William Kentridge at The Museum of Modern Art in New York was the most powerful expression of the vital possibility in drawing that I have seen for some time, and it made so much other contemporary drawing seem dry and intellectualized.

William Kentridge courtesy Museum Modern Art

Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art. © 2010 William Kentridge. William Kentridge's drawing from Stereoscope 1998-99

During the 12-week period of this column, I will be working on posters for Lincoln Center Theater as well as on a children's book, and I will share with you sketches from those processes if they seem to illuminate an aspect of drawing being discussed. I hope that readers will respond to this column and help to shape and expand its content. I will be only too happy to move into the more arcane aspects of art and drawing if comments indicate interest.

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