Drawing for a year

I meant to write this post a couple of days into the new year, but a couple weeks is ok, too. I want to share a few thoughts about my 2014 daily drawing project with the NeoLucida, a portable optical drawing aid. This project came from a simple premise: I wanted to teach myself to draw. I had been thinking about daily art practice and, when I received my NeoLucida as a reward from the Kickstarter campaign, seized on the challenge of a drawing a day.

I was frustrated as an artist. Creating video art and projections with a computer is often a battle with software. I wanted a daily practice with a daily result. Make a drawing. Look at the drawing. You made a drawing.

From the beginning, I kept it as simple as possible: one pencil, one postcard, one drawing each day, and, for the first 30 or 40 days, I purposefully did not seek out drawing tips, or look for drawings by others using the NeoLucida. (I was a bit nervous about letting it get complicated or psyching myself out.) I posted my drawings on Flickr and Twitter. After a few months, on my birthday in April, I let loose a bit and bought myself some new pencils of varying hardness, colored pencils, and art paper (at that point my wife’s collection of old postcards was running low!). From then on, apart from experimenting with different lights and getting a kneading eraser, my tools remained the same for the rest of the year.

Some days it felt like a chore, especially at the end of a long work day, and I’d sketch something as quickly as possible before bed. Other times I could really lose myself in the drawing, giving it as much time as felt right. Looking back, overall, it was satisfying. Being able to draw an object in perspective is, I gather, a rather difficult thing to learn. Having that leg-up of being able to quickly outline or draw reference points for the shape of a thing is quite an advantage. In other words, it’s a great way to learn to draw.

If you’re just getting started using a NeoLucida, I recommend getting two bright lights with built-in stands and fairly wide beams: one for the subject, one for your paper. It will make it much easier to light things properly and get used to the device — an 80W bulb on the ceiling just won’t do. As a filmmaker, light is one of my most important tools and likewise was crucial to my learning to draw with a camera lucida. In film lighting is important, but drawing has taught me how much more latitude I have behind a camera. With the NeoLucida, I learned that I had to use light to reveal contour, contrast and texture to attempt to capture three dimensions in two, which has made me even more attentive to using light to add depth and reveal character in my video work.

I didn’t draw as a social exercise. At the start, I wondered whether I would discover and join a community of other artists, using the NeoLucida or no. That didn’t happen, though I did receive support and advice from a notable few. My wife’s aunt, a talented painter, gave me words of encouragement and reflection on technique and media. Pablo Garcia, co-creator of the NeoLucida, who I met at a talk he gave at Kickstarter headquarters in May, was both encouraging and inspiring. He was excited that I was using his creation so frequently and, as an art teacher and collector of antique cameras lucida, had many helpful tips to give. My friends Andrew and Ilan responded to me on Twitter with tips, praise and discussion.

A few weeks before I met Pablo, I had started reading Secret Knowledge by David Hockney, in which he lays out the theory that optical devices (mirrors and lens) were used by European artists from the Middle Ages until the advent of photography. In his own practice with a camera lucida, he would make a series of quick reference marks of the subject, e.g., eyes, nostrils, lips, ears, to get the proportions, then use his naked eye for the rest. I challenged myself to do the same, which opened up a new level of experimentation with line and shadow.

It changed the way I go to museums. Now, on top of seeking out video art, I’m checking out the Vermeers, Rembrandts and other old masters. I’m not looking for evidence to support the optical device argument — I’m a believer. I look for inspiration. As Hockney says repeatedly in Secret Knowledge, “optics do not make marks, only the artist’s hand can do that, and it requires great skill.” The beauty that Medieval and Renaissance artists could achieve with paint and brush, and a little perspective help from a concave mirror or convex lens, is astonishing, but it took WORK. Craftsmen hacking their way to greatness, working as quickly as possible, depending on patrons and wealthy men and women wanting a sliver of immortality to hang on the wall.

If I could talk to the me of last year, I would challenge him to take on more challenging subjects, more often. More portraits. More human bodies. More landscapes. The first time I took the NeoLucida outdoors, on a hike upstate overlooking the Hudson River, I clamped it to a clipboard on my knees and struggled to see through the prism. The field of view through the NeoLucida is quite small, which I imagine frustrated quite a few Kickstarter backers. I gave up and drew it freehand. Later on, I did a few more landscapes, most notably on a retreat in Vermont, on a board clamped to a tripod. It was another reminder that drawing is as much about what is left out, capturing the essential and re-composing the scene. For the most part, I drew at our kitchen table, one object at a time. I did draw portraits, but mainly from photos on an iPad. I drew butternut squash many times.

Speaking to you and me now, I’ll say this: I’m not done. This year, whether every day or not, I’ll be drawing. I’m going to finish reading Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I started it early last year, then realized that its exercises were incompatible with using the NeoLucida. I’m going to use the naked eye, and explore viewpoints beyond single point perspective. I’ll continue to use the NeoLucida when it feels right. Most of all, I’ll hold on to the importance of dailyness and reflection in the process of making things.

Thank you, Pablo. Thank you, Golan. Thank you, Beeple, for the Twitter challenge to make something everyday. Thank you, David Hockney. And, always, thank you, Emily.

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