The experience of sculpting from life, which gave me such a rich way of looking and working, made me question the value of the drawing that I normally do. Now that I am getting over the initial shock of sculpting from life, I begin to appreciate the contribution of drawing to the sculpting process. First, drawing is much faster, so capturing a sudden lively gesture is much easier in drawing. The proportions and details may be all wrong, but if the drawing captures the feeling of the gesture, then it is possible to get the other aspects right in the sculpture with a gradual working process. Second, I’ve realized that my life drawings contain more information that I thought, and the sculpting helps me to interpret the drawings more completely.
I also started working with wax today, which has the advantage that it is lighter lets me make figures that stand without any support.
I’ve been having a lively email discussion with the artist-sculptor who runs the Michelangelo’s Models website. Although the history of Michelangelo’s sculptural models is controversial (I discuss one viewpoint in an essay on the Sistine Chapel), the various proposals about his working methods can be inspirational for artists today. That is not to say one should be casual about evaluating Michelangelo’s methods, of course. It is only to say that even a speculative art-historical idea can be of value in the creative process, if it proves its worth in practice.
Today I worked for many hours on a clay model of my two-year old son’s head. I worked from some dozens of life-drawings that I have been making over many weeks. Each drawing is from a different viewpoint, which is what I need for the sculpture. And yet it was difficult to get the likeness. Finally when he came home from daycare, I followed him around the apartment as he played with a toy tractor. With the clay model in my hands, I made rapid and decisive progress on the sculpture — even though he did not remain still for more than a moment. In half an hour I accomplished more than in the eight hours working from the drawings.
This experience has challenged my idea of what I am doing as an artist when I draw. Some time ago a sculptor said to me that painters and sculptors draw in different ways. He did not elaborate — perhaps he could not — but the concept has intrigued me ever since. Today I begin to sense the need for a different manner of drawing for sculpture. As a painter, I try to draw to capture light and shade, and through this, the illusion of form. What I realized is that the illusion of form is precisely that, an illusion, and the actual information conveyed is less than what we might imagine. Next time I draw I will try to focus on conveying the information of form more explicitly, rather than the illusion of form through the effects of light.
I have been drawing from life for years, but I only recently tried modeling in clay from life. For one project I made a portrait of my three-year-old daughter (now four years old). Three-year-old girls never pose, of course. This makes drawing them difficult.
Sculpting in clay is a different matter. I made a clay head about one-third life-size, not attached to a base so I could hold and turn it in my hands. Every time she moved, I turned the sculpture and modeled whatever view I had for that moment. It took time and persistence, but after a few sessions I made a good likeness. I was surprised at how easy it was, given how little experience I had in this medium. But there is a logic behind it.
The challenge in drawing is to transform three dimensions into two dimensions. Without a consistent viewpoint, the process is somewhat hopeless. With sculpture, this transformation in dimensions is not an issue, and every viewpoint holds useful information. By going to the third dimension, the most difficult drawing problems become doable as sculpture.
There is a mode of painting that I’ve experienced, where paint becomes something beyond paint.
I make paintings based on drawings, some combination of life studies and imaginary composition. Because the various drawings contain a lot of information, the first job in painting is to translate, in oil paint, this information onto the chalk ground of the panel. Until I have gotten the painting up to the level of the drawing, the drawing remains the source and I do not look beyond that.
The interesting part comes when the painting begins to reach a certain level of realism that it takes on a life of its own. The drawing is no longer the source. The source is in the mind of the artist. At this point I can look at the painting and begin to make judgments about what the faces or figures should look like based on memory of the real person, memories that I could not normally visualize so easily. The painting in a sense allows new access to the mind or memory.
The key here is that when the painting reaches a certain level, I no longer have to look at it as a paint. Instead, I can look through it to a new reality (an inner reality I suppose, but externalized on the panel.) This is a mode of working that gives a strange feeling of being transported to a different place. Working in this mode gives unique results I think. It takes a lot of effort to get into this mode, however. Usually I need to paint for most of the day to get there.
I’m sure that other artists have this experience also, where they no longer feel as though they are painting, but doing something different where paint brush is almost forgotten. I’m curious if there is a name for it. It is not “flow”, which is simply an intense focus on the work at hand. Does anyone know a name, or have a suggestion for one?
I asked Arthur Whitman about his secret for blogging success. He denied he has had much success, but his advice was interesting nonetheless:
I would just say write well, in your own voice, about things you know and care about.
I’ve been consumed with my artwork lately and all but stopped blogging. I realize though that this might be the perfect time to write on what I “know and care about.” I’m going to try picking up the blog again, with a focus on what I am doing from day to day with my painting and sculpture.