Seeing The World In Black and White

The past few months, I’ve been experimenting with charcoal drawing, under the aegis of Robert Semans, the eminent artist under whom I’ve had the good fortune to study. The learning curve has been steep and steady, with one or two new techniques or concepts introduced each class, and laboriously executed by the group. Homework has been reading selected books on drawing technique and practice, practice, practice. It was an adjustment for me. I needed to be able to see the world through a black and white lens, and that really threw me off. I love color, and to take that out of the equation was unexpectedly difficult.

Barns, barns and more barnsWhen I’d see a barn on country drives, I would see the difference between the color of the weather-beaten barn, the sky, and the earth-tones in the ground around it. I loved the contrasts and colors that I’d see. Taking out that color and still make the distinctions my eyes saw was very, very difficult. I had fun calculating the angles in a barn partially destroyed by earthquake and ground erosion. Once a geek, always a geek. Learning how to make wood look weathered took me many tries before I got something Bob gave a “not bad” seal of approval. No, you can’t see the previous failures. They’ve all been recycled.

My first drawings were crude and ridiculous. I had no idea how to measure, perspective was a daunting task to my untrained eye. I was the only newbie in the group, many of whom have been studying for several years, and I felt my lack of ability keenly. The mistakes I made were initially a humbling experience, having Bob take my sketch pad and correct my drawing in front of everyone in the class. After a while, I realized he did that to everyone, and frankly, it is in those corrections that we learn the most – even more than in his demonstrations and explanations.

Jug of flowersThe next big step was contour drawing, and shadows and light. Yes, I drew the Dreaded Paper Bag, and found it to be a frustrating experience, but it did teach me how to judge differences in tone. After that, I struggled with texture – learning when to rub, and when to leave the charcoal in a natural state. I am getting much better at choosing wisely between HB, 2B, 4B, and 6B pencils, and when vine charcoal will work best. I’m not always right, but it’s certainly happening far more often than when I first started. Flowers are much easier now my petals aren’t so starkly defined as well. I’m getting better at this.

Spheres and CylindersFree-handing circles and ellipses became easier and more accurate with the tips Bob shared. After a few weeks, perspective and measurement also became easier, and my drawings improved rapidly. A foamcore ball and a roll of paper towels became a lesson in direct and indirect light, along with spheres and cylinders. This was a lot harder than it looks to achieve properly. Shades of white on a brown base with a black backdrop and a spotlight caused even the most experienced of us problems. We were giving each other encouragement, and there was a lot of surreptitious peeking at each other’s sketch pad going on. I now know what “Push those shadows” means. It was said a lot during that session. I’m learning a whole new vocabulary.

I’ve also learned some out-of-class lessons. Did you know charcoal is very hard to get out of clothes? Neither did I – until I ruined my favorite shorts. Now I only wear my grubbies when drawing. It’s so nice to be past the time where I gave a flying whatever about what others thought of me. I wear stuff to class in which I wouldn’t have been seen in public in the past. No, I will not post a picture. I have a little dignity left, thankyouverymuch.

Working in the tight confines of the studio, I’ve learned my hair is a great place to holdThe Art Student pencils, blending sticks and vine charcoal. There have been classes where I looked like a porcupine with all the tools of the trade sticking out of my head.  Now I need to learn to take them out at the end of class.  I recently went to the grocery store and the dry cleaners with a 2B pencil in my hair after class, and no one told me. If I wasn’t before, I am now well on my way to being the Neighborhood Eccentric.

Practicing at home has been a challenge at times. Both my cats are immensely Art Catinterested in what I’m doing, and experience unholy glee when they lay on, roll on, and completely smudge my practice drawings. The Fluffball, in particular, has developed a taste for pencils, and will pick one up and contribute to my drawings when my back is turned.  I went to answer the door, and came back to find him correcting my bird of paradise drawing. Everyone’s a critic.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I will admit it – – I am having a whole lot of fun. When the pottery vase that was supposed to be our subject in class this week accidentally broke, I begged to be able to sketch the shards, immediately seeing the possibilities, and positioning the shards and light until I had just the subject I wanted. The result was enough to earn a ‘pretty good’ from Bob, for which I was absurdly pleased. Not that I came out completely unscathed – I got a detailed lesson on foreshortening, and grayscale in shadows that really made a few things click into place in my brain. The resulting drawing is the cover photo for this post.

At the end of class, Bob said I was now ready to move to the next level, and start to experiment with color. I am also accepted into his Wednesday oil paining class – but I’ll need to take an interim step for a while with a different medium. On Monday, I will be using pastels for the first time, and playing with the color I love.

I’ve scheduled in study and drawing time into my new routine, and the peace and serenity I experience while sketching has increased my happiness level enormously. This black and white experiment has enabled me to look at the world in a different way – seeing light and shadow as I never have before. Taking color out of the equation has made drawing more simple and yet more complex than I had ever considered. Now I get to start expressing myself through color, and I’m very excited.

I have found the passion I was looking for to carry me into retirement.