Saturday, September 5, 2015

The "Life Changing" Block-In

                 I'll never forget the first time that I learned of the "block-in" and the "straight line" drawing method. It was my first day in a still life painting class run by Robert Armetta . I was working in charcoal on a small canvas depicting a few oranges and a vase. I was freely rendering the oranges when it was pointed out to me that they all looked like ping pong balls, perfectly round, with no way of distinguishing one from the other. Robert pointed to a poster of an enlarged Bargue (Charles Bargue artist) drawing on the wall, and explained to me that if I used straight lines at first, like the Bargue drawing, I'd be better able to capture the unique quality of each specific orange. I didn't get it right away, and in fact I'm still working it out 15 years later, but it has probably been one of the largest factors in shaping the look and direction of my work.
    I've recently started a small still life of a mermaid figurine placed inside of a shell; no symbolism implied, I just like the way the forms fit together. Last week I went to see the Sargent show at the Met. The show was great. It was very crowded, even though the museum had just opened. Leaving the exhibit I remember feeling very anxious, I wanted to start a whole new body of work with thicker paint and more brushstrokes, and less underpainting and preliminary drawing. Than I happened to notice that there was a George Caleb Bingham exhibit. The galleries were empty. As I walked through the exhibit I was captivated by the calm workman like way that Bingham had struggled to capture a particular slice of American life. There were lots of drawings and you could see what a large part the drawings played in the look of the finished paintings. It calmed me down considerably. I realized that everyone isn't cut out to be or needs to be a John Singer Sargent. Not to take anything away from Sargent, he is still one of my favorite painters, but I don't feel bad anymore that I don't have his bravura technique. The work that I find myself drawn to these days is a meal, to use an analogy, that's prepared on a slow cooker. Anyway, getting back to my drawing, I suppose I could draw directly with brush on the canvas, but there's something about the contemplative nature of the block-in that I believe ultimately gives strength and character to the eventual painting. Maybe the difference is subtle, and I'm the only one who sees it, but in this era of figurative painting where artists seem determined to figure out who can come up with the most expressive applications of paint, it seems important to remember the Classical ideals that gave me my start.

Here you can see my initial straight line block-in, including the envelope used to measure out the forms. The second drawing shows me adding further refinement while not losing the underlying structure indicated by the block-in.  I will give it one more pass of refinement before I transfer it to a canvas.