Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Drawing Without Borders

In 1964, as it became apparent American kids would be going to Viet Nam, I made the easy decision to go to college instead. In the following weeks I slogged through mind numbing courses on logic, calculus, and earth science, more than once wondering if I had made the right decision.

My first art class, Basics of Drawing, promised to be a piece of cake by comparison. After all, I had been drawing since first grade, so how hard could a beginning course be. There were seven of us in the class, all veterans of excellent high school art programs.

Our smugness that first day lay thick like gesso. Our air of superiority lasted all trimester. Exercises on contour drawing, gesture drawing, value drawing, and shapes were no match for the Magnificent Seven.

By trimesters end, all of us felt certain we had aced Basics of Drawing. But, instead of accolades came the unwelcome news that there would be a final exam. After much rolling of eyes and grumbling, some decided it might be smart to hit the books the night before. Book knowledge, it turned out, would not prepare this group of over-achievers.

Next day, Mrs. Bedeau, a no-nonsense and usually punctual woman, strode into class ten minutes late. And as if to heighten the growing suspense, she said nothing, but looked at each of us in turn. A faint smile crossed her face.

“Your final exam today will be a drawing assignment.”

Turning away from us, Mrs. Bedeau placed something carefully on the drawing stand. Then standing aside, she pointed down at the small object.

“I want you to spend the entire two hours drawing this.”

Before anyone could respond, she was out the door and gone.

All of us moved in to get a better look at that mysterious object. We gazed in astonishment at that which would determine our final grade in Basics of Drawing. It was an egg.

Mrs. Bedeau, in her wisdom, had picked the perfect object with which to deflate a group of art prima donnas. Designed by nature to make life easy on the hen, the egg is neither a circle nor an ellipse, but a combination of the two- a spheroid.

I took one look at that little ovo and knew I was screwed. None of the failsafe methods we fell back on would suffice this time. Outlines would not work for there were no lines. Texture was nowhere to be found and contrast existed only as a subtle difference between egg-shell white and the off white drawing stand. I could not detect a single light source since the room was bathed in an irritating ambient glow.

Nothing would do but to start all over, first by simply looking at the object, in this case an egg, in a new way. After a while, I began to notice minute tonal shifts on the egg’s surface. I found what I thought were the points where the circle and ellipse joined, the lightest area. And that is where I began drawing.

Two hours later, my finished drawing looked stiff, awkward, and altogether un-egg like, but that was the exact moment when I began learning how to draw.

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