I just read an interesting interview by WriteAway of writer and illustrator David Lucas (who is ranked by Booktrust as one of the UK’s Ten Best New Illustrators). He says some slightly unusual things, one of which is upholding a quotation by Roger Fry that ‘the emhasis on gesture is a sign of low aesthetic ambition’. He claims, ‘It’s quite cheap to go for the gestures. To create great structures and beautiful composition is much more what you should be doing.’
I’m not sure I’d go as far as that in criticising a reliance on gestural marks, they’re very important. But I can see what he’s saying. I think that many artists, particularly when they start out, can scribble with energy but have a poor grasp on composition, something which isn’t really taught in art colleges right now. I don’t think composition is a very innate thing, I think it has to be studied before it becomes an ingrained habit.
About ten years ago, an elderly Dutch professor named Charles Stegeman gave me a lot of good advice in an art appreciation class at Haverford College. As part of the course, he assigned us to find a piece of art we liked every day and write detailed notes about what we liked about it. I found it really helpful to copy the artwork into the notebook, because it made me look much more closely at everything. Particularly with early masters such as DaVinci, I got a much better understanding of their obsessive attention to precise compositional lines and as I kept studying them, I found I was able to bring a lot of the same elements into my own work, even just in the way I’d set things up before beginning to draw.
I’ve kept the 1999 notebook, here are a few scans from it:
DaVinci treated composition almost like maths. The second picture is a study from a Rembrandt painting, when I was having trouble with tonal variation and trying to work out where to put lights and darks.
My drawing teacher had me copy this painting ten feet tall in charcoal, which made me think of the composition very differently, actually having to get ‘inside’ the picture. Copying things very large makes me think a lot more about what goes into them. I wish I could find the photo I took of the big drawing. It was kind of scary it was so big, with the baby’s eye swiveling around to look at you.
It’s interesting applying the same compositional study to sculpture, because the composition changes as you walk around it.
I started out drawing this Giocometti very small on the right side of the page. But Mr Stegeman came by and saw me drawing and bellowed, ‘Draw it larger, you’ll never learn anything that way!’. So I drew it larger on the left-hand side and he was right, it was a lot better.
I’ve recently come across some interesting work by South African writer and illustrator Jeremy Tankard. He’s very good with a brush and reminds me how important gestural stuff is. I like it when he does big sweeping brush strokes and intersperses them with tiny detail lines.
And my 17-year-old friend Erick, aka Pull-Up, is at the very last stage of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail by himself, walking 2,175 miles from Georgia to Maine! He’s just approached Mt. Katahdin and his dad’s driving out to hike the last bit with him. Hopefully they won’t have to wait too long, because the mountain has been closed since Thursday due to snow and ice and there’s no drinkable water in the park. But there’s no way this guy’s giving up now, he’s become a total walking machine. Go, Erick!