Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, dear Reader. Not that I’m Irish, or you’re Irish, or even feel this day is special … this is just one more semi-holiday I have the pleasure of posting on.
I say semi-holiday because for someone in my trade—the specialized trade of word and image—any state, national, religious, or any other type of holiday (or weekend, for that matter) is a purely abstract idea, acknowledged but not necessarily observed.
And so we all read and write, respectively, through this holiday. Considering these basics, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a group of introductory drawing students I now lead as esteemed (or not-so-esteemed, depending on the day) TA. Quite by chance, when entering graduate school, I reunited with an undergrad drawing professor of mine. A couple of years later, I am now conducting the class with him. Each Tuesday we meet for four hours to discuss and practice this curious thing called drawing. Two professors and eighteen students—all from very varied backgrounds, experiences, levels of motivation and expectations, etc.—meet to discuss drawing, that most abandoned art, that all-too-often “preliminary” art, that “art on paper.” Given the trend toward installation, video, and everything else under the sun, why would one ever resort to such a dead, set, and dull medium as drawing? Why draw if a computer program can render something for you? Why draw if you’d rather paint? Why draw if no one cares about work on paper, or bound into a book, or done by hand, or not readily reproducible and broadly distributable? Why draw when you can YouTube?
These are some of the questions I must answer each week. But the students have even better questions: how do you convincingly draw a hand or foot? How do you make a three-dimensional building’s wall and façade and roof work together correctly on a two-dimensional surface—the page? How do you depict narrative in a fixed scene? And finally, the ultimate question, posed in person, sketchbook in hand: how does this look?
Thus far we’ve drawn still life setups and the figure in class, visited the drawing room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gone to Grand Central Station to study gesture and architectural spaces, and ventured to every known corner of the New York Public Library’s beloved main humanities and social sciences research division to study spacial systems and perspective.
The best part, for me, is that this is an intro course: I get to work with students between eighteen and thirty-something; I get to work with art majors, science majors, math majors, and everything in-between; I get to work with artists who’ve tried all sorts of drawing, and those who have never faced a blank page in their lives. We show them De Chirico, Leonardo, Piranesi, Michelangelo, Grosz, and many others. Some students want more structure. Many want to be told their line is right or wrong. Many want to be given an idea, and many want to be told what to do. Luckily or unluckily, the artist/prof. I’m working with is very open and highly focused on concept, and gives minimal rules, in hopes that the students will challenge themselves in adhering to those rules while aiming to break all other boundaries. I have been surprised at how docile and well behaved almost everyone is; where I studied, rules were optional—here they seem to go unquestioned. So I’ve set about inspiring them to follow the rules while simultaneously shattering all paradigms (theirs, and mine, and the prof’s). Tomorrow is the midterm, so I’ll let you know how it goes.
But each week I can’t help but think that this must be just like any other field: the intro courses of any field are the most basic and can be the most general and mundane, but—done well, with the right fiery passion (à la Irish Saint Patrick’s day)—can also be the most fundamental. Thinking back on my studies and teachers, the profs teaching intro had the hardest task, and the most magical: pass on your understanding and passion for this vast, boundless field (genetics, mathematics, linguistics, color theory, drawing, anything…) to your pupils. Every teacher—just like every comedian—knows that the audience is select, and only a chosen few will really get it. But when they do, they are unstoppable.
Previous Lunar Refractions can be read here. Thanks for reading, and have a great week.