Friday, May 12, 2017

Crossing the Line

Edward Jonas, Chairman

A university art student recently called my studio to inquire if I mentor student artists in sculpture. I replied yes, that I have and do mentor students, not only for sculpture but for all disciplines of art.  I told him the first step is to bring his drawing notebooks to the studio so I could evaluate if his skill level was at a point that he was ready for a mentor.  In a surprised voice he said, but don’t you want to see my sculptures, painting doesn’t interest me and so I don’t really do much drawing, I just make notes and then sculpt!”  Not being a person to turn their back on any art student asking for help, I agreed to look at the photographs of his sculptures. 

Within the first few minutes of our meeting, my initial hesitation was confirmed and even though the student was very sincere and personable, the work itself was painfully weak.  It seemed thrown together lacking any sense of movement, design or purpose.  Seeing the concern on my face he started asking, “Is the surface too shiny, what if I had painted it instead? Maybe if I put it up on a better base?”  The honest truth had to be faced.  To think that one color, placement or surface treatment gives a work fine art value is far too simplistic.  So I said, "Look, you can’t or at least you think you can’t draw, and in my view, that is a major handicap for an aspiring artist as it leaves you without a vital tool to record and develop your ideas.  You could continue to go on welding, shaping and assembling materials geared, perhaps, for the decorative or architectural market and become quite skilled in your craftsmanship.”

I wanted him to understand I wasn’t saying if he continued on this path he wouldn't be successful and able to develop a healthy business from his work, but craft alone is only part of being an artist.  An approach of bouncing from big idea to the next without any connections leaves little chance of aesthetic growth potential, and I believe that is central to the goals in fine art.  The real power in art is in the statement, that underlying fundamental idea that speaks from the work.  Good craftsmanship can aid in the visual appeal of the work but it is the profundity of the message that gives value. 

As an example for the student, I suggested that if you asked a person on the street to name a famous sculptor you would soon hear the name Michelangelo.  So well-known is Michelangelo’s over-thirteen foot marble statue, David, it has come to symbolize not only the city of Florence but the whole of the Italian High Renaissance period.  Michelangelo saw himself primarily as a “sculptor,” so it is not surprising to see it listed first after his name, followed by other disciplines in which he excelled such as “painter, architect and poet.”  When you study all the work extant today from the 16th Century, even though it is the “major” projects that garner the attention, it is his drawings that are by far more numerous. 

Above all other creative activities, this great master artist spent most of his time drawing.  In fact, it was his lifetime habit to start every project with an initial number of studies, as he worked through various changes and alterations to an idea.  Michelangelo would use any surface available at the time, sometimes it was the edge of a larger drawing or even the back, and when there was no paper he would resort to drawing on the walls.  Michelangelo always considered these drawings as only “sketches” rather than “finished” works, but consider if he drew on a daily basis throughout his 77-year professional career; how many of these priceless works there would have been?  I can imagine that the number would have been in the thousands, but today only a little over 600 of these sketches remain.  Fame had made Michelangelo a guarded man who was fanatically careful about protecting his ideas from his competitors, so whenever he left a studio, he would write or leave word for the house staff to gather all the drawings in his studio and burn them.  Once it took two days to complete such a request. 

Happily there are those artists who are not so haunted and take pleasure in generously sharing their sketches, studies and color notes in the hope it will clarify how artists work towards developing an idea.

Everett Raymond Kinstler, like Michelangelo, has made it a habit throughout his 70 plus -year career of making sketches and thumbnails for each new work.  These studies are a proven observational method for artists to identify those features and mannerisms that are unique in each subjects’ persona. 

Kinstler’s portrait of Mercury 7 Astronaut Scott Carpenter is a great example of how those earlier sketches helped set the tone in the final painting.  As an artist makes these lines and shapes, he or she is creating a memory of the key aspects that make up their sitter's character.  On the shelves of Kinstler’s studio sits several volumes of his sketchbooks that have recently been assembled into a book titled Impressions & Observations: The Sketchbooks of Everett Raymond Kinstler.  Many of these images have never been seen before and gives the reader a peek into his creative process.

Alexandra Tyng is a highly accomplished artist, and recently shared with me how she works out the complex compositional balance of figures and space for her large narrative paintings.  Her 56 inch by 48 inch oil painting, Possible Spaces, is about a time in her life when she had the opportunity to rehab an abandoned old house with a friend.  Alex worked out the development of her idea by starting with thumbnail sketches, then exploring different placements and combinations.  She was very dissatisfied with her first sketch as the elements were much too literal (measuring tape and paint brush).  The second composition is starting to get the atmosphere and feeling she wanted to portray.  In the third sketch she is beginning to firm up her composition, switching the placement of the figures, facing slightly outward and away from each other.  Alex underscores the importance of finding this compositional balance when she stated, “A slight change can make a huge difference in conveying an idea or emotion.” 

Painting and sculpture are like sibling disciplines and the parent to both is drawing, and every good painting starts with good drawing skills.  Another way to consider sculpture is that it is drawing in dimensional space.  But no matter what you want to do in art, drawing is where you must start.

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