Friday, June 13, 2014

Drawing from Memory, and Photos

Unicorn Clubtail. Ballpoint Pen and Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

When I first started using birds as my primary subject, about eight years ago, I realized quickly that my wife Jerene, who doesn't consider herself an artist, was far better at drawing from memory. This was most evident in her drawing of our cats but also in her small sketches of birds. This wasn't  a great surprise to me. But it did remind me that I've always been more skilled at drawing what's in front of me, rather than drawing something from memory. I don't tend to internalize shape and structure.

But I have gotten better. I think that's mainly due to doing so many sketches from life, where you really have to pay attention to structure, but also to working from photos, especially when I use them to help understand structure that has not been clear in the field.

The sketches below are all from memory. The Carolina Chickadee was drawn five hours after seeing it at Morris Arboretum as it brought a caterpillar to a youngster. The Eastern Towhee and Common Yellowthroat on the right side of page are based on birds seen at Houston Meadows yesterday, before the rain arrived. The towhee was started a few minutes after seeing it, then amended from other views over the next five minutes. As I recall I didn't do the Common Yellowthroat until I got home. But I was struck by the shape of the bird as it moved around and that's what stuck in my memory.

Common Yellowthroat, Eastern Towhee, et al. Pen sketch from memory by Ken Januski.

All well and good you might say, but So What!? I'm writing about this just because I continue to find the subject of drawing fascinating. And also because I think field sketching and memory sketching is a healthy antidote to the deadly work that is so often based on photos, and nothing else. So often there is no sense of a living thing underneath.

Working from memory I think helps to internalize the bird, or any other subject. The drawings above look a bit clunky. The proportions are off on the two Carolina Chickadee sketches. But next time I see one I'll look a bit more closely. Eventually I'll have an encyclopedia of birds in my memory. I can draw from that encyclopedia any time I wish to do a more developed drawing or painting.

The drawing at top, by contrast, is from a photo. It's based on a dragonfly I'd never seen before a few days ago. We saw very many of them at the Manayunk Canal a few days ago. This was the only one that ever sat still. So I was able to look at it and take some photos. At the moment for almost all dragonflies I need to take photos in order to ID them, though experts will tell you that even this is enough. For most you actually need to catch them and examine some details under magnification.

I'm not sure that we'll ever get that far. But they are fascinating creatures in appearance, history and biology. I won't go into all that here. My main concern is being able to use them as artistic subject.

But they seem to be even more susceptible to the constraints of photography than birds. How can you possibly see the detail without photos? Once you do how do you avoid putting down every single vein of the complex venation in their wings? As with birds I think the answer is to understand them well enough that you can internalize them in your memory, then use that to create a shorthand for rendering them.

I still haven't drawn one from either memory or from life. But I plan to change that this summer. In the meantime I've tried to keep a looser style in the ballpoint pen and watercolor sketch above.

As I was out yesterday I noticed many oak and sassafras leaves, particularly on young saplings. Especially with the sassafras I was tempted to sit right down and draw the leaf. They have a magnificent shape. That is another aspect of drawing that I can only touch on here but one that I think is very important, at least to me. Shape! It often seems to me that more than anything else drawing is connected to shape. And yet that is really not true for all art. Look at the more or less shapeless sketches of Seurat. So for some tone and mass are just as important. I value them. But I have to confess that for me drawing is primarily about shape.

I'll stop now but I do think I could write forever about drawing. And also, though so much of my work is abstract or quasi-abstract I do think that shape is at the heart of most of it.

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