I watched an episode of the BBC’s The Secret of Drawing over the weekend, sketching away happily. I was especially excited by the life drawing class they showed and the work of its instructor, Sarah Simblet. How I miss drawing from the model! But without a car, I’m constrained by the bus routes and most of the sessions I’ve seen lately are in the distant burbs. I have to find something though or consider hiring models of my own. I recall how well that worked out for Vincent van Gogh…
“‘I always thought,’ says LF, ‘that the artist’s was the hardest life of all.’ Its rigour–not always apparent to an outside observer–is that an artist has to navigate forward into the unknown guided only by an internal sense of direction, keep up a set of standards which are imposed entirely from within, meanwhile maintaining faith that the task he or she has set for him or herself is worth struggling constantly to achieve.”–Martin Gayford, Man with a Blue Scarf (2010)
In the spring I read Dear Theo, a condensed version of Van Gogh’s letters, and from them learned so much about how he worked and of his hopes, despairs and plans. I’m finding the same thing in the Gayford book. It has no definitive answers, but it does offer a glimpse at a great artist at work, opens a few pages onto his life, his methods, his ideas and his personality. It’s the food I didn’t know I was starving for.
But this quote, and others like it scattered throughout the book, are what it’s all about for me, especially for someone who still dreams of being inside the magical circle that is an artist’s life. How do we keep going, in spite of a less-than-inspiring day jobs; how do we find that faith in ourselves? I don’t know, except that I wonder if it doesn’t have to do with vision, that image in the mind we are always struggling to translate into words or paint, that thing we see that no one else does, that gravitational feeling about our object that will not let us rest. Everything we do, as LF would say, we are doing for our life. It’s that serious…if you let it be. Maybe it’s the vision that takes you home.
“It is the experience and the poor work of every day which alone will ripen in the long run…”–Vincent van Gogh
A reassuring thought on days when you don’t measure up to the best work you know can do. I am now come to the last months of Van Gogh’s life as I read through his letter to Theo, and still, in describing Starry Night or a self-portrait or the famous Irises, you read his lament that he cannot do the quality work he knows he could do. His health is broken and yet he plans ahead, while you, the Reader, sigh and say to yourself “It’s not to be, lad.” A humble man who never got a break. It seems unfair and makes you wonder what Fate has planned for you….
And my view is that a living studio you will never find ready-made; it is created from day to day by patient work.–Vincent van Gogh
And it shows perfectly that to get at the real character of things here you must look at them and paint them for a long time….it is not enough to have a certain cleverness. It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper understanding.–Vincent van Gogh
I had an amazing drawing day on Saturday, 8 full hours of absorption and concentration and a hell of a lot of fun. The work was something I don’t usually do and a subject I’ve only begun to look at–studying the color, style and layout of Hewlett and Martin’s Tank Girl from the early 90s–which may have contributed to the fun. A little. Tank Girl is just fun all by itself; raunchy, juvenile, gross and violent but funny. Hewlett’s drawing style kept me captivated–granted, not in every panel, which at times seemed hurried or dashed off–but often enough; moments of solid draftsmanship and studiously observed detail beside pure flights of imagination, resulting in something like a movie co-piloted by Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino. How could I not have fun?
But…days like that up the ante, so that on Sunday when I could barely make myself draw, it was really depressing. Reading Vincent on the bus in to work this morning though, made me take another look. Maybe I was able to sustain this working day on Saturday in the same way as someone training as a runner: day by day you go greater distances, even run a race, but can’t expect much the day after an extraordinary run, at least not from a beginner. I hope with time I can have more sustained days of work like that because it seems the only way to get a grip on drawing the way I’d really like to.
“Just now I am working on a landscape with cornfields which I think as well of as, say, the white orchard; it has solidity and style. The days when I bring home a study I say to myself, If it were like this every day we might be able to get on. But the days when you come back empty-handed, and eat and sleep and spend money all the time, you feel a fool and a good-for-nothing.”–Vincent van Gogh
“Just when I was going to start home in the morning, very early, I made a drawing of the boats. I have been here only a few months, but tell me this: Could I in Paris have done the drawing of the boats in an hour? And without the frame! [a drawing aid] I do it now without measuring, just letting my pen go.”–Vincent van Gogh
I am still reading the Van Gogh letters; our hero is only recently arrived in Arles. We all know how this story ends, but I have been surprised what a sharp, thoughtful firebrand he wa. These two passages especially caught my eye because I feel somewhere between them these days. I’ve improved somewhat over the last 3 months, and done some things I am pleased with, but I am not consistent. I long for that moment when my hand is firm and can go about tasks, now painstaking, rapidly and with assurance. There is still a great deal of work to go to get there. My trouble is finding the time with a full-time job and a bit of a life.
“For the great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together. And great things are not something accidental, but must certainly be willed. What is drawing? How does one learn it? It is working through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do.” –Vincent van Gogh
It is heartening to be reading Van Gogh’s letters when it comes to learning to draw because any struggle you have, he had–and he wrote about it at great length. But van Gogh had one answer to all his troubles and that was Work! Harder, more, diligently, consistently, and as he might say, with truth and sentiment. His lofty standards make me think about what it is that satisfies me when I think I’ve done well. Is it making a nice arrangement, something pretty? Capturing a likeness? Evoking a mood? Or maybe there is more, maybe one can find that characteristic gesture, look beyond surface to character, hold onto a figure in motion, find beauty where no one has before. I’m used to hearing van Gogh characterized as all impulse and emotion, but that’s only part of a more complex picture. Vincent thinks–and he asks you to think too.
Long ago, I used to do ink drawings in a scribble technique, building up form and texture with skeins of dense, spiraling lines. I moved on to other ways to draw, but recently, looking at the art of Hubert Tereszkiewicz, I was interested anew in linear styles of drawing. His lines are so beautifully expressive! Inspired, I used my usual lunch hour sketch session to try my hand at a scribbled picture using the cover art of the book I’m reading, Dear Theo, as a model.
Ah, good old Vince. Reading his letters may be depressing, but in all things he was bold, even when his skills were limited, and that gives one heart, as he would say. I like the way this drawing turned out, its wildness and distortions fitting the subject.
Thanks Vincent, Mr. Tereszkiewicz and Liz, who pointed me toward his work. I have something new to explore… and it is actually old territory.