A tale of Slaves and Freedom in Freehand Drawing

Although at present, "drawing" software programs are all the rage, what these programs do is rob students of their innate ability to draw. But in this sense, I am referring to drawing as an act of thought derived from LOOKING at something that the eyes see, and then proceed to, as it were, write down or mark with shapes on a page whatever it was the student saw, but described with some reference to the subject's relationship of parts to the whole. The result can be something as simple as a gabled-roof house with two windows and a door on the front of the house, where these elements fit together in terms of placement and size --- or the results can be as complex as the scene of someone reading a letter by a window. In the latter case, the inside of the room where the figure is standing by the open window, has taken the place of the outer view of the house and brought a human figure as a new component. But not only: the posture or body language of the letter-reader must also be placed or inclined according to a more emotional aspect of the picture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In his Journals, Leonardo Da Vinci tells the story of a painted fresco he had seen where the Virgin Mary, inside a room, is receiving a letter from God, of sorts, as she hears the Archangel Gabriel tell her the news that she is to bear the God Child, even though she has never had relations with a man. The subject of this scene is the so-called Annunciation of the Virgin. To make the point that in drawing or painting such a scene the painter must be careful to draw the more subtle, inside parts of the subject, Leonardo says that in the fresco he had seen, it looked as if the Virgin Mary was so scandalized by the news that she seemed about to JUMP OUT THE WINDOW. The painter, insists Leonardo, must show by the Virgin's pose or body language, that she is not so scared or insulted by the angelic news as to be about to jump out the window, etc.! (It is remarkable how Sandro Botticelli's version, below, right, shows almost a two-sided or contradictory gesture in the Virgin!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Obviously it may be argued that drawing the façade or the interior of a house is really what basic drawing lessons have to be concerned about, leaving out religious content, as in The Annunciation genre, or leaving out "emotional content,' as in the more secular scene of a young woman reading the letter from her lover, by an open window. And this is where contemporary art lessons in school draw the line and opt out of learning and refining traditional freehand drawing methods -- with the argument that only students with solid drawing and design knowledge of parts-to-whole will fulfill the class's requirements. End of story.

 

I have seen how students actually THINK and make design connections differently when they are taught to understand forms and space, using sight-measuring and other freehand techniques in
the old-fashioned way. But I am grateful that I somehow escaped the sort of dictatorship of such strict lines of categories when it comes to drawing -- and came out of it all with a much more wholistic Leonardo vision of what it takes to draw well. This meant that in the course of my life I kept a sketchbook handy where I drew houses, windows, boats on water, ladies standing under umbrellas, and lovers embracing in a kiss. 

 

Below are images of how such quick notational sketchbook material eventually turned into full-fledged paintings which combined the location and buildings with the human figure in a pose that communicated emotion or spirit and revealed the image as more than a design that could be produced by hitting a keyboard and using a drawing software to, as they say, "create" a picture.

WomanWoman Reading a Letter , by Jan Vermeer , oil, 1650s

The Annunciation, by Federico Baroci , oil, late 1500s

The Annunciation , by Sandro Botticelli , tempera, 1500

Moonlight Boy, pastel painting by the writer, based on the sketch at left, and other drawings of Dinner Key marinas in Miami, Florida,  1986

 Sketch by the writer from travels to Martinique, pencil, 1986

 Sketch by the writer from travels to Martinique, pencil, 1986

Martiniquais Waiting by the Bay, watercolor by the writer,   2020

 Underdrawing by the writer, in pencil, for the watercolor above, 2020

The studies of drapery displayed below come from my old web site,

http://www.otoroazul.com/classfreehandimportance.html

and they show work done by two of my freehand drawing students at the University of Miami School of Architecture sometime in 2007-2008, before I moved to Rome. In this class, I read students
several short passages from Leonardo Da Vinci's journals where he urges students to almost draw "through" the drapes, so the drawing articulates the form that the drapes are hanging from!
In the first of these student studies of draperies, one can indeed "see" the chair underneath.

The crayon study of one of the sea horses in the Fountain of Neptune in Rome's Piazza Navona was the work of Bianca Latini, also my freehand drawing student, as part of her portfolio preparation project for application to an architecture program. In this spirited rendition of Bernini's sculpture ... I think Bianca also lets us "see" the horse under the sculpture! This is comparable to how Leonardo urged students to let us see the emotions inside the figure of the Virgin in an Annunciation painting composition, so that the emotion would be in correct relationship to the subject, overall.

 Student drawings of drapery from my classes at the University of Miami, Department of Architecture, and by a prospective architecture student in Rome, early 2000s.

Drawing the Story: Drawing as Story

Ever since I was a boy in my native Camagüey, Cuba, my sense of the world and all there was to learn about it came from an intertwined "interdisciplinary" exposure to Cuban music (its rhythms and lyrics, both), stories read or told to me from the repertoire of the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault, and films or TV programs (both of adventure and of love). I treasured as much my collection of toy soldiers and dinosaurs as I did my books about Treasure Island, The Arabian Nights, these for the most part quite lavishly illustrated. In short, I formed a strong image-based alphabet with which to "read" the world, enhanced in no small part by the adult conversations, mostly political in nature, which I sat in a corner to listen to in my grandparents' porch, especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when that world began to fall apart, with the arrival in Cuba of Castro and his communist regime. 

It is in great part for this reason that when I reached college age in the United States, and I began to explore a more classical, VISUAL side to the literature, history and science which I had to master for the college-entrance exams --- this more classical VISUAL side provided a large dosis of relief to me from all the dates, names, and equations in school that I experienced up to then. Fastforwarding what I wish to say in this essay regarding this expanded sense of learning and how it relates to learning how to draw in a more natural as well as intellectual way, please allow me to say that I had the great fortune of finding a challenging way to make a living, by teaching at the University of Miami's English Composition Department, the subject of, well, WRITING. In this capacity I not only taught the first-level composition classes to freshmen, but I had the honor of tutoring students of all ages who visited the Writing Center (or writing lab), helping them find thesis or topic sentences with which to strengthen their essays or reports. In these one-to-one sessions, my tutoring tutored me as well as the student who came to my table in these sessions, and I also found many a helpful technique or literary reference from the student's problem paper, with which my classroom work became more effective and even more free. 

In those days (the 1990s), in fact, I turned my attention to illustrating various literary texts---including Ovid's Metamorphoses and Homer's Odyssey, as well as a small book of stories about the Cuban revolution, written by my late friend, Professor Ricardo Aguiar, or Rutgers University, who commissioned my pen & ink illustrations for his book.

At the University of Miami Writing Center, our team of tutors and professors made the work of this department then quite successful and notorious in the best sense of the word. One of my colleagues was a writer in his 60s then, very much a story-teller in his own right, who at first godfathered me when I was initially hired by Ms. Pat Wellington and Mrs. Charlotte Perlin to join the institute. The said professor, Len, would often quote a phrase from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, a phrase that I certainly remembered is said from the Freed Slave character, Nigger Jim, to the young Huck, as the two of them are navigating down the Mississippi River in their escape to Freedom. 

 

 

"Don't let school get in the way of your education," I would often hear Len exclaim during his own tutoring session in the large room where our work took place, and this fellow tutor would say cite this phrase to his "tutoree" to stress a very important point about rules and guidelines and their place in a well-constructed essay. Of course, Twain's phrase, which in the novel underscores the force of "Nigger" Jim's wisdom, vis-a-vis Huck Finn's lack thereof and the sense in this boy that he could thus lie his way through life and especially in his relation to this fellow escapee, Jim, --- this phrase could also be used successfully by a teacher, say, of writing, to warn students against too much reliance on rules or appearance, to the detriment of content and spirit.

 

And this is the spirit and the idea behind the present web page about how to teach and learn to draw. The fact is, much of the learning I did in the course of my life came from live sessions before a subject, with my pencil and sketchbook in hand, and with classroom type lessons in my mind about how to "measure" the right size of objects I wished to draw, and how to place them in correct perspective with each other. But they also came from making errors, and erasing, or remembering something I had read regarding the subject or place I was sketching. For example, the drawing of the great, old wooden bed with its bedposts and the armoire nearby, and the small lamp, etc., comes from the same travel notebook which has the sketch of the boy with the white pants and no shirt, with the sailboat in back: from my Martinique sketchbook of 1986. As to the Moonlight Boy, turned into a large pastel painting, the boy from my sketchbook was positioned in a slightly different angle inside the page, and I toned down the atmosphere of the light (moonlight); but all this would come later, much later, after my trip to Martinique, when I would put together lessons learned in school, with travel notes, and with the narrative content I wished to impart to the scene.

 Hotel room in Martinique, from the writer's Sketchbook of travels, late 1980s, pencil.

But here's a warning, despite the attractive ring to the call of freedom in Nigger Jim's phrase, "Don't let school get in the way of your education," Mark Twain himself had to frame this important battlecry within bounds that were anything but chaotic and freeform 100%. And this is why I end the explanations on this page with the images below, showing how I had to develop through measurements and grids and the use of rulers and even client requests and specifications in the case of the final watercolor of the The Martiniquais Waiting by the Bay (above, at the beginning of the page) --- even if the initial notes from my travel sketchbook came from carefree travel days when I was much younger, in Martinique. Therefore, all this said, the ideas about drawing as an act of understanding contained in this short essay, are very basic, as laid out here, but they are in the spirit of Leonardo, of Mark Twain, and of painters like Jan Vermeer and Sandro Botticelli or the poetic Federico Baroci of the Veneto region of Italy. 

 Study in pencil, from the Martinique travels sketchbook, late 1980s.

Images of how the sketches became a watercolor for a commissioned painting of  local Martiniquais waiting by the Bay. NOte my use of a grid and of tracing paper, which is the RULES part of the final product, to guide and frame the original travel notations into a more formal presentation, fit for hanging on a wall!

EPILOGUE: In many school board departments of the United States, Huckleberry Finn was removed from the canon of the classroom, for its use by Mark Twain of modes of expression considered to be offensive, most prominent of which is the figure of the freed slave, Nigger Jim -- a character who in so many ways frees Huck Finn and us readers of the novel, to make us realize how blinded we are by our own preconceptions and stereotypes, as we navigate our own way through life.

Several days ago, during a conversation with a young musician here in Rome, I asked him if he had read Twain's book, and whether he remembered what he thought of the characters and plot of the novel when he read it in highschool. "Sure, we read it. And I know that it has been removed from libraries and school curriculums across the world now. Just like Hitler's Mein Kampf !"

"Just like Mein Kampf, eh?" I asked my young Punk-musician friend, in part because I was not expecting him -- or anyone -- to put Hitler and his profession of Aryan Race Rule on the same level as Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.

I wonder what "school" of life got in the way of this person's education to make him reach such a conclusion. But there is more to this conversation, and indeed it may be in a very important way related to why in writing or drawing programs anymore, the guidance and the exposure of the students is missing  to his own hand and eye coordination, or to his own voice within the development of plot or choice of words in a given passage.