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Drawing anything, anywhere: adapting your practice in a pandemic world and beyond

Senior Instructor Ryan Gauvin engages in projects ranging from small, intimate drawings to etchings. Many of Ryan’s works hang in group shows as well as in private homes. Ryan is currently working on a number of commissioned projects including portraits and landscapes.

I was asked to write a few words about sketching outside a studio environment. Given the present public health measures in many places in the world, there are fewer formal places available to sketch. My few remarks here pertain not only to sketching people, but ultimately to drawing anything anywhere — from tree in the park, to something as unassuming as a pillow (as Durer did).

The first thing to clarify is that such drawing bears little resemblance to that taught within a studio setting. There one begins with a generalized construct, moving to the completed construct, leading on to the articulation stage and so on — these three stages alone take considerable time, with lines being continually altered, erased and added anew. So the initial lines committed to paper end up buried or bearing no resemblance to their primary state by the time the shadow pattern begins. All this with the convenience of a model continually taking the pose for a substantial length of time in a well lit studio.

In contrast to all that, sketching in a cafe or subway must be done at great speed, with each line or mark being put down once and once only, the lines being committed to paper as quickly and succinctly as words spoken in speech.

It is more than just that, because the marks put to paper mustn’t only add up to a coherent meaning, they must have an aesthetic organization as well. So the proper analogy is not so much of words creating speech as it is of improvising a poem off the top of your head, in one go, replete with meaning and expression all within an organized structure of measure, harmony, and rhythm.

This is truly the highest form of drawing, and I count no one a fully matured practitioner who cannot accomplish this task. Having said this, there will always be a certain degree of failure due to the difficulties and realities of the endeavour.

As a great artist once wrote, “Drawing never fails but often the artist does.” But in this case sometimes it’s the circumstances rather than the artist. For the model continually moves or may get up and walk away. The light may be inadequate, or your view might become blocked. There are many challenges to overcome.

So where should one begin? By just jumping in. Becoming accustomed to working at speed. Now — with practice — it is possible to catch precisely a given subject but done in a slow and laboured manner. Conversely, it is possible to work boldly and freely yet lack the necessary precision. The goal here is to reconcile these two very different demands: to remain precise, yet with a touch both spontaneous and fresh.

Precise here is a slippery word for there are many ways of understanding precision. Time and the intent of the artist dictate the type of accuracy deployed. Obviously, a drawing made in under a minute has differing priorities than one made in ten minutes. Or ten hours for that matter. Take these three drawings as example: two made in transit, and one in a train station. I consider all three fully finished yet obviously with very different goals set for each.

The first is so economical that it is possible to count the lines used. The last is brought to a considerable state of finish in the form of a large range of line and subtlety of value. Yet they all conform to Nature in the sense of say proportion with each line employed for aesthetic necessity. And of the three, the first is in many ways the most difficult to execute — relying so much on so little. So just jumping in allows one to become acquainted not only with capturing Nature quickly and succinctly but strengthening one’s ability to edit the crucial optical material from the irrelevant.

Alongside this it allows one to begin to concentrate more fully on the aesthetic dimension — without which the drawing is not Art but merely a collection of optical details recorded. Aesthetic concerns are things such as when to use a light rather than a dark line, where a single line rather than a cluster, when a curvilinear line instead of a rectilinear line. From there, how to make such lines in a bold and confident manner rather than with meekness and hesitancy. And finally how to use all this material such that there is a unified coherency between each part to every other part and all parts to the whole.

A close study of drawings by the Great Masters becomes indispensable. The way in which they orchestrate a rich and complex web of markings on a piece of paper that collectively creates the illusion of a given subject. Even though the vast amount of these drawings are not made in the conditions being discussed they nevertheless give one the language to work within.

Drawing people in real life is always problematic because they’re just going about day-to-day business. In most cases they aren’t even aware they’re being drawn. This is where the knowledge gleaned from Master drawings is not enough. The artist now depends on an internal store of memory and information about the visual world, so that when drawing someone you’re not only reliant on the visual information coming in at the present moment, but augmenting that with a store of memorized info such as proportional relationships, anatomical structure, or gestural patterns. This enables you to catch the specific details of a given subject within an internal, generalized framework. The final drawing always being a dialogue between the conditions of the moment and what the artist is seeking or finds.

Concerning materials, I prefer pens or silverpoint and harder pencils (of differing colours) because in all cases sharpening isn’t an issue. The point can be quite sharp or fairly dull. I’m always trying different papers both in book form or as loose sheets, feeling it important to be fluid and continually experimenting.

The gain from developing this manner of drawing is great. For it increases your ability to catch and record the fleeting aspects of life in a range of conditions. It allows you to enrich your understanding of the possibilities of drawing and how you respond to the visible world. Moreover, allowing your work to strengthen in vitality and energy. Something that cannot otherwise be achieved. Lastly, it helps in enabling you to distill and translate the visible world into the language of Art.