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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Tools for a Snowy Day

Don't look for snow shovels on today's post! The blizzard is raging, but my focus is still on books.

There is no such thing, in the abstract, as “too many books.” Can a poet have too many books of poetry, a chef too many cookbooks, a philosopher too many works of philosophy? Not if the books are serving the purposes of the various readers, whether that purpose is served daily, weekly or only once every few years.

Besides fiction, field guides and a lot of philosophy, I have a lot of books on drawing. It all started one year when David gave me such a complete beginner’s set of art equipment that I only had enough nerve to sharpen the pencils and try out pencils and eraser in the black-bound book of smooth, white, empty pages. We went to Florida that winter and the next, and with delight and dedication I took up my pencils and sketchbook to draw—my foot! David’s foot! An empty shoe! A palm tree! The second year I was braver and attempted entire scenes. Other than shopping and cooking, there were few demands on my time, and drawing helped me settle into a strange new place.

Then came two years without Florida, and here at home in Michigan I passed those winter months like the summer, without making a single sketch. Next, two Florida winters and an entire sketchbook filled. But this is silly! Michigan is my home, and it’s where I should be taking the time to absorb and record the world around me. My stillness project this year is about doing just that. So out come the books—not all those borrowed from libraries in Florida, of course, but certainly those I have collected for my own private library over the last half-dozen years.

One of the first I fell in love with, loving trees as I do, was Drawing Trees, by Henry C. Pitz (NY: Watson-Guptill, 1964). Here are the first sentences of the author’s preface:
As this introduction is being written, outside the studio window a first fall of wet snow has covered the ground and clings to the branches of the barren trees. With an overcast sky, the scene is essentially a black-and-white picture, in which the tracery of the trees is enhanced by this change in nature’s cycle.
- Henry C. Pitz, Drawing Trees

Certainly appropriate to the season, all that talk of snow! Well, it’s been two years since I’ve looked at Pike's book, and it captivates me anew with its straightforward lessons and clear illustrations, but the author is obviously addressing serious art students, not amateurs and dilettantes. For instance,
The exploring of new media and techniques is an exhilerating [sic] experience for the true artist and should be indulged in by the student freely and naturally, unmindful of any comment that technique spells death for the creative impulse. The creative spirit that is killed by technical investigation is a piddling thing that will not be missed.
I have never thought anyone would miss my "piddling" sketches were I to turn my back forever on the attempts! Drybrush, pen, carbon pencil, charcoal—I study the author’s drawings, noting appreciatively the effects he achieves with various media, and then I pick up once again my soft lead pencil and sharpen it to a new point. Time later for more ambitious experiments. Everything in good time. Don't rush me!

Books that speak to me more personally are those by Clare Walker Leslie. 

In fact, her advice is so perfectly aimed at my interests that it is as if she had me in mind when she wrote. Here is what her introduction says to the reader:
I find drawing to be the simplest, the most direct, and the least expensive art medium for studying nature. We have so encumbered ourselves today through sports, recreation, and hunting with an abundance of tools for “being in nature” that we have lost the greatest tool of all: simply sitting and watching. Drawing allows for this. We have also lost the ability to learn on our own and to trust our own learning. Nature drawing is a solitary pursuit. The experience is between ourselves and the object. Often it becomes more sketching than drawing, using the pencil more as a tool for taking notes of observations than for creating a lovely drawing.
- Clare Walker Leslie, Nature Drawing (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980)
Leslie also recommends different media and different kinds of paper and experimentation with different techniques, but early in her chapter on “Methods and techniques” comes these refreshing and encouraging lines:
 ...Above all, enjoy your study. Use it as a time to be in full contact with nature without the distractions and worries that so flood our everyday human lives. If a day’s drawing results in nothing but torn-up pages but was fully enjoyed otherwise by being outdoors watching birds courting, studying various plant forms, or observing the wind blowing ripple patterns across a pond, then consider your day a success. Drawing should bring you to nature, not back you away from it. So be patient. Your way of drawing will change, evolve, and mature, as will your study of nature.

The Art of Field Sketching (Layton, UT: Peregrine Smith Books, 1993) continues in the same vein. For this author, drawing and nature are of equal importance, and one learns both together by sketching in the field. These books renew my acquaintance with terms I had forgotten, e.g., contour drawing, gesture sketch, and detailed drawing. The gesture sketch is important to me at this beginning stage of my learning, not only because it is a way to catch subjects that move quickly (dogs, squirrels, birds, etc.) but also because it must be done quickly and loosely, not with a nervous concern for results.

Giovanni Civardi’s Complete to Drawing (Tunbridge Wells, Kent: 2010; originally published in Milan, Italy) on the other hand, tells me so much more than I can take in that it’s overwhelming. There are pages and pages on drawing the human figure—pages of anatomically correct hands alone, in various poses. My solution is to turn to a section late in the book (pp. 279-80) where the author shows tonal drawings in four different stages. Yes, yes, I see! After studying those two pages for only a few minutes, I see the landscape from the car window very differently, composed into areas of light and dark, and I feel I have learned something. Every book on drawing gives me something, whether it's pages of examples, paragraphs of encouragement, or one new idea.

I have written before about Frederick Franck’s The Zen of Seeing and Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing. Franck was my earliest inspiration, in that he inspired me with the longing to draw, many years before I found the courage to try. The nature side of my study is excited by Paul Rezendes’s The Art of Tracking & Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks & Sign (Charlotte, VT: 1992) and an old, oft-reprinted Michigan Department of Natural Resources booklet, Michigan Wildlife Sketches.

There are too many relevant books to list, and I know there are many more that have yet to come my way. One more I want to mention from my currently active stack these days may seem only peripherally a nature book. Certainly not intended as a drawing book, the translation of Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, with photography by Jane English and calligraphy by Gia-Fu Feng, does have many illustrations of trees on its pages, but the thoughts fit my stillness project as well as the images. “In dwelling, be close to the land,” this book tells me. There is also an injunction to “Magnify the small.” Close to the land, with attention to small details, my studies fill me with contentment. Seeing a cold, cold week in the forecast, I did my outdoor hour on what looked like it would be the warmest day, and now I can only hope that next week will have at least one not-brutal hour for outdoor meditation with sketchbook and pencil. Another day I'll write about keeping warm while sitting still outdoors. People have wondered about that, and it's a crucial topic. 


Gerry said...

I could almost be persuaded. Maybe I should just go ahead and try it--the sketching I mean, probably not the sitting outside on a day like this.

I could sit by my door - on the inside of it, looking out through the window. That way I could keep feeding the fire. It is cold out there. In fact, it is cold in here. If it gets any colder, the Cowboy's breath will freeze and it will snow inside.

P. J. Grath said...

If I had any windows with the right kind of view, I'd do it that way, Gerry. There are examples in one of the Leslie books of sketches made by looking through windows. Be brave!

Dawn said...

Love the photo of the barn and the blowing snow. Really really like that. Some of the books look interesting...when I was a kid I loved to draw trees with pencil, did that for many years...wonder what happened to all those drawings. Sometimes I still see trees, particularly in winter, that seem so drawable. I did a tree study in photographs when I was at UM going to school a few years I must still be tree lover.

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, when I was a kid I tried to draw horses. REALLY wanted to draw horses. More than that, wanted to HAVE a horse, but I didn't, so I had no model to draw. Should have stuck with trees, like you.

Last night Sarah wanted attention, so I got down on the rug with her and used her for a model. Dog noses are very hard to draw. When it comes to human faces, I can get everything but lips; with dogs, my drawing falls apart at the nose. I guess that tells me what I need to look at more carefully and practice drawing. Trees are good models because they hold still.

dmarks said...

Very nice. I used to draw a lot, but haven't in a while. This makes me think of drawing again.

However, I think most of my talent lay in drawing maps. said...

This is a side of you that had been unknown to me. You have so many, many wonderful talents...

P. J. Grath said...

Maps! I loved drawing maps when I was a kid, too, dmarks. Had forgotten that! Most of them were islands with treasure buried somewhere, but also lots of coves along a complicated shoreline.

Helen, it isn't that I have much talent at drawing, only that the world is so beautiful, and focusing on that and trying to draw it calms my soul.