As a student at the Art Students League in the 1980s, I discovered Conté pencils and crayons and fell in love with them. Especially the sanguine color. I used regular pencil, pen, or charcoal for short sketches, but always switched to Conté for the longer poses.
One day at the League I was sitting next to a student who annoyed me. The main reason he annoyed me is that he was famous enough to have his work hang in museums! He was very good. But I also noticed that he had become so adept at perfecting things that he could do less and less with each drawing. In a 25-minute pose, he would start with the model’s hand, and not get to anything else. The hand was exquisite, with perfect attention paid to the difference between the shadow on the nearest—as opposed to the farthest—side of every vein and tendon on the hand, loose areas of skin rendered as loose, tight layers obviously tight at first glance, and so on. His partial hands were beautiful. But he’d become frozen by being so perfect that he could draw almost nothing. (I feel that I’ve since learned that there is no “plateau” in nature or in our own development. We can’t “stay good.” A famous pianist confirmed to me that a pianist who plays her signature piece with perfection year after year will get worse, unless she comes fresh to the piece and discovers something new in it each time. There’s no plateau to just rest on. You’ll fall off the plateau at night, or a tiger will come and dispose of you! But I digress.)
|Hommage à Courbin|
Rather than try to share what I’d discovered with my neighbor (for his benefit, of course!), I patiently took every pencil, charcoal stick, eraser, pen, tool, crayon, razor blade, and bandage (a close relative of the razor blade) out of my art box and put them on the floor next to me. Then I put the drawing board with my large, blank sheet of paper on it on the floor, and shook out the empty art box onto the paper. That dumped out months’ worth of shavings from Conté sanguine pencils and dust and small bits from the crayons. It was a delightful mess. I vigorously smeared this mixture on the page with my hand until the whole page was red. Then I put the drawing board with its red sheet back in front of me. The pose started. I used an eraser to “draw” the complete figure. That is, I erased a light-colored figure into the red page.
My neighbor barely even got started on his hand this time, probably out of horror at watching me.
That sort of “subtraction” technique didn’t seem really that effective, though. So I experimented with paper that was all red to begin with and using white chalk on it. The chalk seemed to just lay there on top of the page, and I didn’t like the colors of red available for the paper.
But I came, gradually and inadvertently, to the idea of what I call my saturated pastel technique. I don’t use Conté crayons or pencils, as I find them too waxy, but regular pastel sticks. The color I generally use is sometimes called English red, sometimes called rust, and other things, but is close to the color of Conté sanguine.
I draw the figure—all of it, the parts you see in the finished drawing and the parts that you don’t—very lightly with a pastel stick or a regular lead pencil. Then I put in all of the dark parts that make up the background and the shadows on the figure. I use the pastel stick and my finger. The “saturated” part refers to rubbing as much pastel into the paper with my finger as the paper will take. I pretty much fill up the “tooth” on the paper. After doing that, the parts of the drawing that I want to be light, particularly toward the bottom, aren’t anymore, as they’re covered in pastel dust. I blow that off. Then I use my eraser (still using it, but a different one!) to clean up the white part right down to the paper in the lightest areas. In-between shades I work with my finger. I don’t use stomps, brushes, masking fluids, or anything except a pastel stick, my finger, and an eraser.
This gets an effect that I like. It’s a gimmick, granted, but I’ve become obsessed with it. To my knowledge, no one else is doing it. It’s not particularly easy. It’s kind of like working with one eye closed and the opposite hand tied behind your back. I don’t particularly like pastels—a museum show of pastels is not the first thing I would rush to—and I find them fussy to work with. I prefer oil paint as a medium. But to get (and develop! Gotta remember that plateau) my current technique, I am wedded to my pastel stick!
Have I ended up like my neighbor years ago at the Art Students League, just in a different medium? I don’t think so. For one thing, I never attained his level of mastery. For another, each drawing is a fresh challenge to me—just getting something onto the page that looks like it might conceivably work, and then, with luck, making it work. For a while I was working on medium-sized pieces, and then in a precious, small manner, and now, for what reason I do not know, am doing pieces as big as I have wall space in my studio. How I draw and what I draw ebbs and flows with something, perhaps my mood. Whatever, it seems very important to follow at the time. I also use other media—but keep coming back to the saturated pastels.