My most memorable experience with learning classical drawing began with a crisis. Like most people who draw as adults, I never really stopped drawing as a child. Almost all young children love drawing, but few continue with it into adulthood. Lack of instruction generally ensures that a young person’s drawing ability stagnates. Lack of ongoing guidance causes the infantile representations of “mommy and daddy” or horses and rainbows become fixed symbols in their mind and give decreasing satisfaction as the child matures. I was lucky enough to have many talented artists as teachers who inspired and encouraged me to pursue a carer in the visual arts. My high school teacher R. Anthony Askew was and is still an exceptional person and brilliant teacher. A full 55 years after he inspired me he still teaches and encourages artists. To fully appreciate his incredible ability, check out this video: Santa Barbara City College, Tony Askew Teacher Profile (Art).
R. Anthony, “Tony” Askew was and still is a magnificent art teacher.
In the United States, there is no general education curriculum that includes structured instruction in drawing. Young people are usually left on their own to search out books on “how to draw” or, most often, “how to draw cartoons.” Like most young artists in our century, I was, therefore, a self-taught draftsman. At the age of 15, I decided to pursue art professionally and, by the age of 18, had worked professionally in graphic arts. I had executed murals and assembled an excellent portfolio for an artist of my years to present to art schools.
David Macaulay won an impressive number of awards for his numerous books illustrating and explaining architecture, history, and life.
My first art school was Rhode Island School of Design, where I went in order to study with David Macaulay, a well-known book illustrator with a great ability to research the past and describe how things were built or done. It was an appropriate decision for me, as I have had a lifelong interest in both architecture and art history. On the strength of my portfolio, I entered as a sophomore. It was at this time I was told by one instructor and one guest lecturer that I had no “talent” for drawing and would probably never be proficient at drawing the human form. Instructors suggested that I choose an area of art that did not require excellent drawing skills. Many young people would have been completely discouraged by these declarations, but I was obstinate and had little respect for authority. I had never before been told that I could not do something in the arts and was not keen to accept the verdict without a fight. I was not particularly interested in learning classical drawing, I just wanted to acquire drawing skill.
Line drawing was an essential part of art education in the 1980s. My drawing of the artist Katherine Kean was done from life.
I once again sought out drawing books from the library, but now looked at them with an intensity born of frustration and experience. Some of the books had examples of renaissance drawings, and I saw them as if for the first time. It occurred to me that all of the drawings done at my art school would be pretty much equally awful when compared to a drawing by Leonardo, Michelangelo, or Raphael. Any differences between my inadequate efforts and those of other students would be dwarfed compared to the works of artists in past centuries. Why was this? It was not our because of our youth, because the artists of the renaissance had all become proficient in drawing by the time they were 20 years old. It was a mystery that I could not solve in an institution where instructors did not demonstrate, and students, consequently, could not learn to draw well.
Harry Carmean gave brilliant lectures and demonstrations that brought art history and theory to life in an unparalleled way.
I left the school and was careful to enroll in another school, which was nationally recognized for its excellent drawing instruction. Here I had several exceptional instructors, the most influential for me being Harry Carmean. For the first time in my artistic education and at the age of 19, I was able to see an artist draw with mastery. It was a profoundly impressive, thrilling, and sometimes disturbing experience. For the first time in the visual arts, I saw a skill that I not only did not posess but could not even imagine attaining. Yet Harry Carmean asserted with complete confidence that learning to draw did not require some ethereal form of “talent,” but was an attainable skill for anyone. Each evening he would start the class with five gesture studies of five minutes each, working from a live model. Then he would open a book that he had taken from the school library and analyze a master drawing. It began to occur to me that learning classical drawing was vital to mastering the skill of drawing.
Harry Carmean created drawing demonstrations from life in minutes, while simultaneously describing complex relationships of line and tone.
Carmean’s brilliant ability to draw from the model while explaining a historical and formal artistic concept was a dramatic performance. This experience probably influenced me in my pavement art, which I initially considered as a form of drawing demonstration. I suddenly became aware that drawing was primarily an activity; it was all process and action. The final drawing is only the result of that activity. The word “mastery” can only refer to the act of drawing. A clumsy or incertain process will appear in the product, no matter how finely rendered the drawing is. Suddenly, drawing was no longer about sitting in front of something and desperately trying to replicate it on paper. The process of drawing was about developing ideas of form and space. It was about history, personality, and communication. In short, drawing was not just a mechanical tool that expressed an observation; the structure of drawing was a composition of artistic ideas. Harry Carmean is now 97 years old and is still engaged and inspiring.
I finally understood that drawing was a language of form and space developed through history by the cumulative experiences of centuries of artists. It was not the responsibility of a young artist to reinvent the art of drawing from scratch, but to build a personal form of expression from the vast smorgasbord of formal ideas that stretched back through centuries. One human lifetime would never be enough to invent from scratch all of the refinements of expression seen in a classical drawing, any more than we could expect one mathematician to create for himself the entire history of mathematics. Every generation of artists must, therefore, assimilate the discoveries of past artists to attain mastery. That is the goal of learning classical drawing.
Wenner. Two figure studies done from classical sculptures.
As logical and straightforward as this concept was, it was not how institutions presented drawing instruction in the 1980s (nor is it how we now describe the study drawing in our time). In Carmean’s class, we learned about a vast pantheon of past artists, from famous ones like Michelangelo and Rembrandt and Rubens to more unfamiliar artists, such as Pontormo, Piazzetta, and Delacroix. Each artist was used to illustrate a particular idea about line, tone, proportion, mass, or perspective.
It was not always easy to assimilate these concepts, and often we did not initially even believe what he said and would debate the truth of it during our coffee breaks. But the act of drawing can be a harsh mistress. After throwing away reams of unsuccessful efforts, we learned the hard way that the artist is ultimately responsible for the success of the artwork. No amount of scrutiny of an object can replace the expression of an idea. Carmean would often say, “The model hasn’t brought any art with her tonight.” We finally learned to begin taking responsibility for the design of our drawings. At the end of two years of intensive study, I had taken my drawing skills to a level that would have been more than sufficient for any art student in the U.S.
Drawing from the famous sculpture of “Laocoön” in the Vatican Museum in Rome.
By now, the mystery, refinement, and subtlety of classical drawing had seduced me by its unlimited potential for manifesting the imagination and intriguing its audience. I could see that there were still significant differences between my drawings and the drawings of the European masters. I knew enough to understand that the differences were not just in the quality of my work; they were structural. I had the feeling that I could continue to draw for the rest of my life without achieving the qualities or abilities that I admired in the great drawings of the past. But now I had a new skill- I could study and learn from the past. I realized that there was one major exercise that I lacked in my formation. Artists of the past often spent several years drawing from casts of Greek and Roman sculpture or, even better, from the original works.
Wenner. Drawings from Classical Sculptures. I did hundreds of these studies to learn the classical language of drawing.
At the time, I could not have explained what results this exercise may have attained or whether it was truly vital to my work. It was, therefore, a complete act of faith for me to quit my job, sell all of my belongings, and board an airplane to Rome. I planned to spend all my savings in a country and culture I knew nothing about to repeat this time-honored but discontinued and arcane tradition. In Rome, I looked for an art school as well but could find nothing better than the excellent instruction I had already received.
Wenner. Compositional Drawing of St. George. This was one of my first original works based on my classical drawing studies.
Instead of attending classes, day after day, I sat and drew from the collections of the great Italian museums. These included the Villa Borghese, the Vatican Museums, and the National Archeological Museum in Naples. With my very first drawings, I could feel in my hand that the exercise was immeasurably important, but I would not have been able to explain why. It was a final confirmation of what I had learned from Carmean: classical figurative art is entirely abstract. A work of classical drawing or sculpture may appear to be a copy or replica of the artist’s observation, but, in reality, it is a pure and uncompromising design.
To read further, continue to: Classical Drawing for Pavement Art.