Epiphanies in the Artist’s Studio

Saint Ignatius Drawing in the Studio

This is a blog that I began this morning, and then decided to “cook” throughout the day.  I have had this habit of not editing my blogs, but rather posting them as rough drafts, and so by day’s end, I have ended up posting two or three of them.  Today, I have chosen to experiment to see if I could send out a stronger blog at the end of the day, after it has had plenty of time for composting and editing.

At the moment I am listening to Howlin’ Wolf’s “Spoonful.”  I love spinning vinyl in my garage while working in the studio.  And the Blues are serving me well as I work.

I have declared today a study day, perhaps my first ever, deciding to keep the brush and pencil in the boxes for as long as possible, and spend my time instead researching Andrew Wyeth’s drybrush and pencil techniques, in an attempt to “solve” the conclusion to this Saint Ignatius painting.

I have a considerable body of Andrew Wyeth material–monographs, biographies, criticisms, museum catalogs, interviews and videos.  Recently,  I have locked onto a special Drawing edition of American Artist from Spring 2004.  It contains an article by Henry Adams: “Seven Secrets of Andrew Wyeth’s Technique.”  The writer was inspired by a show of Wyeth’s drybrush studies and drawings at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum in 1963.  There are  a couple of quotes I wish to post from this, because the writer unequivocally echoes my own observation and conviction:

While in my mind I know that his reputation rests primarily on his remarkable tempera paintings, I have always personally responded less powerfully to them than to his drawings and studies–particularly to the studies that don’t attempt to cover the whole surface of the paper as in a conventional watercolor, but instead focus on a few elements, so that the image seems to emerge magically from the empty white paper, rather like a photograph that we observe in the process of development.”

This is precisely the nature of Andrew Wyeth art that has held me since the ninth grade–that unfinished quality that allows white space to creep into the composition, and also allows the detailed renderings of his subject to fade into washes and sketchy lines as they move to the perimeter of the piece.  I like the writer’s comparison of Wyeth drybrush compositions to a photograph “in the process of development.”  My description of the experience has run along these lines: as we look at a subject, our focus is on a very small area, while everything on the perimeter moves out of focus and eventually leaves our field of vision altogether.  That is how I myself have justified detailing the heart of my composition and letting the rest of it fade into a soft-focus effect, and eventually to white.

Another quote from this article that held me was this:

“Perhaps equally as beautiful as the pencil work of the drawing, however, is the use of empty space.  As in many of his other drawings, Wyeth abruptly stops just at the point where we are eager to know more about the subject.  There are two reasons for this.  One is that Wyeth is not interested in tediously filling things in . . . .  The other is that what is there serves to evoke what is not there even more powerfully than if he represented it in detail.”

In interviews, I have heard Wyeth declare that the strength of a composition depends not on what the artist puts in, but what s/he can leave out.  As this article further points out, “most artists try to describe too much.”  Ouch.  I stand convicted.

So, after repeated cups of coffee and wonderful Blues music played by Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Albert Collins, Son House,  Big Bill Broonzy and Robert Johnson, I got out the pencils, eraser and brushes and went to work, drawing and re-drawing the windows to the left of this composition, and some of the cut stones making up the wall.  I laid in some light washes to suggest mansard roof color and rough-cut stone color.  And I thoroughly enjoyed the fundamentals of drawing once again.  It has been much too long.  I have gotten away from the sketchbook and the core values of drawing for drawing’s sake.  I like Andrew Wyeth’s fencing metaphor as he speaks of the sharpened pencil and the need to be decisive where you thrust the point of it, and how you move it across the surface of the picture plane.  He’s right–it’s not for the timid.  I have been timid too long.  Thanks to a day with Wyeth, this large watercolor is becoming fun again, as I find my way back to the fundamentals of drawing.  I wonder why I waited so long to return to the “graduate school” of art.  This study has been very invigorating for me.  I cannot wait to see what tomorrow holds.

Thanks for reading.

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2 Responses to “Epiphanies in the Artist’s Studio”

  1. lindahalcombfineart Says:

    How did you achieve this vibrant sky? Intense (but not Wyeth like.) I have a book that talks about his drawings…remarkable!


    • davidtripp Says:

      Thank you. I had plenty of trouble with the sky–300 lb paper kept developing annoying water rings which led to my re-painting darker and darker. I would love to know the title of your Wyeth book–I buy about every one I can get my hands on.


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