Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Drawing People

I've been drawing people all my life. Why do we draw people? I don't know, any more than I know why we make music, play games, or have pets. It seems to just be a part of human nature. Prehistoric men drew on the walls of caves, although from what's been left, they were apparently more interested in other animals than their own kind.

One of the better things about the school system here in Italy is that in elementary schools kids learn to draw, just as they learn to read and write and count. Drawing is perceived as another basic skill and means of communication. I don't recall much of that emphasis on drawing in the USA. As a kid, I went to church with my father every Sunday and spent the hour, or at least the parts where we weren't supposed to pray or sing hymns, drawing on the borders of the church bulletins. I tended to favor images of football players in action over Biblical figures.

After quietly accepting her abject failure in trying to teach me to play the piano, my mother went with the flow and sent me to an art school in my early teens. Although I was eager to paint, the school insisted that first we learn to draw, so I spent many afternoons learning how to render geometric shapes, from fruit to vases to classic busts. The discipline was good and there was even some satisfaction in it. However, drawing people (and other animals) is both more challenging and more fun. The subjects move, which creates much of the challenge, and they also change expression, which has a lot to do with the added satisfaction.

Many drawings of people are simply made up, based on observation and some acquired knowledge of anatomy, while others are remembered images. Both approaches can be enhanced by drawing people live. Shown here is the frontispiece of the book 90 Secondi all'inferno, with images drawn by Francesco Chiacchio, one of the best, among people I've met, at spontaneous drawings of remembered images.

Over a lifetime I've found a few ways to indulge my predilection for drawing people. Many years ago I visited my friend Ed Wallace in Germany, where he was studying in Tuebingen on a post-graduate fellowship. As I was assisting his research into the remarkable diversity of German beers, I occasionally pulled out my sketchbook to capture the likenesses of fellow researchers. Seeing the results, some on-lookers asked if they could have their images immortalized too. Presaging his triumphal career in the law, Ed jumped up and said of course they could but they would each have to buy a round of beers for our table. Thus, my unfortunately short-lived career as a semi-professional portraitist got started. Ed was the closest thing to an agent that I've ever had. Sadly, that ended when we both returned to our studies back in the US. Nevertheless, for a short time our research was accelerated, our spirits lifted, and my artistic self-confidence boosted.

It's not easy to find a way to carefully draw people, other than by asking them to pose for you, and you don't know most of the people you would really like to draw. Except for remarkable people like Francesco Chiacchio, drawing takes time. If you start to draw people you don't know, they will probably wonder why you're staring at them. They might be offended; they may go away; but in any case they will rarely stay in one position for long. When by-standers notice that you're drawing someone, they tend to gather around you, sometimes even offering compliments, but the anonymity and immediacy vanish and self-consciousness grows, making the drawing ever more difficult. Photography has largely replaced drawing and painting in the capture of human images and photographers, especially if unburdened by inhibitions, have few such problems. They can just poke a camera in a subject's face, click and be off., leaving the subject to wonder if that was a new incursion by the NSA or something else.

Snarling Dick
The trick is to find a captive subject.   Television is one place where the subject can't object or leave, but good TV directors work hard to see that camera angles keep changing, just to make the imagery less monotonous. Drawing faces quickly can lead to caricature and I've ventured into cartooning after years of drawing faces. Some faces lend themselves to caricature more readily than others. Dick Cheney's asymmetrical snarl was perfect. He seemed to be designed by a caricaturist and he inspired me to devote more time to that aspect of drawing. C-Span is the cartoonists dream. It features talking heads with little moving other than the mouths. Unfortunately , it's not available in Italy but I will be visiting the Rogue Nation this winter and C-Span should help to pass the time.

The most obvious chance to draw people live is in life drawing classes. I've done a good deal of this at times but living in a small rural community severely limits the opportunities, since such classes tend to be located in big cities and college towns. Years ago, professors in the collegiate centers seemed to be always spouting the obligatory apology that life drawing had nothing to do with sexiness or eroticism. It's true that when one is busy trying to understand the nuances of anatomy, perspective and foreshortening, and trying to capture all that on paper, the process is about as erotic as rendering the effect of light on a peach. Nevertheless, I still think the professors exaggerated a bit. After all, people have been paying to look at nude women through the ages, from Las Vegas to Timbuktu. While many drawings from life could just as well be of stones or of fruit, there are artists, such as Milo Manara, whose sketches are as sensuous and erotic as any images can be. If it's true “that beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, then Manara's eyes are a divine gift.

In drawing the nude, one tries to objectively capture the essence of the figure but I find myself either trying to idealize the form or else tending to emphasize the divergence from the ideal, depending on whether the model conjures images by Renoir or instead puts one in mind of Francis Bacon. The world being what it is today, I'm seeing people more and more resembling the images of George Grosz, from another very similar era.
Grosz nudes
Renoir nude
Francis Bacon nude

Drawing nudes is something like painting flowers. You try to capture the beauty of the bloom but if the flowers are too wilted, the emphasis shifts to pathos and decline. Portraiture tends to focus on how character and life experiences have molded the face, with clothes, backgrounds and other props filling out the narrative. Bodies tell their own stories too, from the dancers who often model at life classes, recognizable by their muscular legs, to others, too desperate for the modeling fee to even care that people see them in their current sad state.

Archie Shepp in SF 1966
I've probably spent as much time listening to jazz as I have drawing so it's unsurprising that at some point I would start sketching musicians as I watched them perform. You can't get better subjects to draw. You've paid to see and hear them and you can watch them as they work, sometimes up close. While they may object to photographers popping off flashes in their face, they can't object to someone looking at them too intensely, and they're too busy to notice. Better yet, they're not just sitting there; they are at work creating music and the effort, intensity and joy of making music can be seen as well as heard. There are problems in drawing at live music venues. Usually, performances are at night, and while the musicians are well lit, the audiences are not. Drawing in the dark is difficult. Maybe Ray Charles could have done it (he could do everything else in the dark) but for most of us, it's not worth the effort. Sitting up close to the stage sometimes resolves the problem but intimate outdoor afternoon concerts are as good as it gets. People often ask if I miss New York. In truth, not very much, but I do miss Caramoor, and the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in Tompkins Square Park almost as much as Minerva's drawing studio in Soho, all great places to draw.
Amina Myers at Caramoor

Roy Haynes at Charlie Parker Festival
Musicians have become technically more proficient over the years I've been drawing them but there has been a significant decline in the visual appeal of their performances. Dizzy Gillespie's ceiling- aimed trumpet may have had acoustic motivations but I suspect it was as much a stylistic affectation as his beret and goatee. Miles Davis paid almost as much attention to his appearance (perhaps more in his late rock star years) as he did to his music. Thelonious Monk, whose spiritual home was light years away from Madison Avenue, was always impeccably turned out in a suit and tie. This served to heighten the contrast between his attire and his unconventional music and demeanor. The extreme exemplar of theatricality in jazz was the Modern Jazz Quartet, whose musical director, John Lewis, insisted that they perform in dinner jackets. Jazz musicians, especially black jazz musicians, had not been taken seriously by the (white) public and their dress code was a highly successful stratagem to change that. They created an unforgettable visual impression to go along with their splendid music.

Marsalis brothers
In subsequent decades musicians came to regard themselves as artists rather than entertainers and many felt that people should simply come to hear the important art that they were creating. That worked for a John Coltrane, whose intensity was riveting, but there was only one John Coltrane. In keeping with romantic and popular notions of eccentric artists, many musicians showed up looking like they'd they'd just crawled out of the cellar they were sleeping in. Sometimes they created fine music but more often than not, audiences at live music venues want to be entertained as well as being privileged to be in the presence of art. Times are changing again and many musicians, following the lead of the Marsalis brothers, seem to be rediscovering the importance of the visual aspect of their performances.


Raphael Madonna
Raphael woman
Italian 1400's
Fashions come and go. When I first came to Italy I was astounded by how good people looked. Young men seemed to resemble the images of their Tuscan ancestors painted in the 1400's and the women often replicated the sensual beauty found in the Rafael's madonnas. Italians like to be trendy. With the arrival of Yul Brynner on the big screen and Telly Savalas on the TV, they got accustomed to totally bald men, but when Michael Jordan came along, instantly all Italian men wanted to look like him. This led to a dubious experiment in baldness. If shaving one's head could make you look like Michael Jordan, why would it not also turn you into a world class athlete? (The butterfly tattooed on Serena Grande's thigh has stimulated a comparable effect among Italian women.) Among jazz musicians, Tony Scott was 
Tony Scott (hairless) at Mississippi Jazz Club
Tony Scott (with hair) at Iridium
ahead of the curve, both in the bald look and in the return to hair. (as well as in pioneering modern jazz on the clarinet) In recent years many more people have gone through chemotherapy than in the past, and I wish them all the best outcomes, including that their hair grows back more luxuriant than before, but if all the people in Italy who look like they're in the midst of chemotherapy actually have cancer, there's an epidemic that the press just isn't reporting.

Among the many impressions I've taken away from this year's inaugural Jazzit Fest is a sense that hair seems to be coming back. (I have nothing against drawing bald musicians but hair is one of the distinguishing traits of people, even if long hair and untrimmed beards can create an anonymity not so different from bald heads.)
Given the dismal economy that we're experiencing, it's understandable that a certain amount of scruffiness is also in evidence, but at least it's a more virile sort of scruffiness. I've even detected in a number of musicians (among the more than 400 in attendance) an increased self-awareness about how they appear. Whether the subjects are bald or hairy, well groomed, elegant or scruffy, I'll continue to seek opportunities to sketch musicians as they perform. UJ in Perugia, with most of its concerts located in the huge stadium, no longer offers many opportunities, but UJW in Orvieto at New Years, still features musicians up close. I'm especially hopeful about drawing while listening at the Jazzit Fest in Collescipoli next year. See you there. I might even draw you.