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My Marathon Experience: Drawing is an Adventure
by Rachel Rickert, MFA 2015, practicing artist, Recruitment Coordinator for the New York Studio School
Drawing and Sculpture Marathons are intensive two week programs that kick off each semester at the New York Studio School. Full-time MFA and Certificate students are joined by outside students of all levels for these immersive studio and educational program.
As an entering MFA student, I had always drawn, but I had never considered what I understood about drawing, never considered how to push myself, and what the implications of each mark I made could be. I began my experience at the Studio School with Graham Nickson, Dean of the School, Professor of Painting, and creator of the Drawing Marathons.
Day one, faced with the models perched purposefully on a multi-tiered platform, I slowly began an outline of their forms, one that I was trying hard to make perfect. My drawing barely included anything but the figure. My marks hovered far from the edges of the extreme thirty inch by eleven inch rectangle we had begun with. After four hours tackling a few drawings in the huge, sky lit Lehman Painting Studio, we brought our drawings down to the Whitney Studio. In my first critique, Graham pointed out that I had finished certain parts of my drawing too soon, too conceptually. The dark blob I had made as a notation of the model’s dark hair was creating a distracting bull’s eye in the drawing, punching a hole in the space. He told me to think about suppressing the literalness of tone to instead support the form. We looked at the edges of all the drawings up on the wall of the Whitney. Mine was among the majority that left the edges unactivated, we, as artists, never traveling all the way to them. Graham explained a drawing could always be complete at whatever time you stop it, the pieces are always there, like a chess game, it should still be dynamic, still together, even if you stop before the game is over.
Each day we were presented with a different drawing challenge—pushed to build drawings in new ways, at new scales or sizes, with critiques bringing the students all together to learn from Graham and each other. The drawing exercises directed our attention to different aspects of a drawing, reminding us that corners exist, to pay attention to the speed and scale of our marks, and to think about how to distribute information within the rectangle. We drew from 9 am until 6 pm, with a lunch break, and then headed to the Whitney each evening, with drawings that were getting larger and larger, our faces dusted with charcoal.
Graham Nickson asked me “Is the image ruling you or are you ruling the image?”. Goya established an image before the process of making it, while Monet discovered the image through the process. He asked us to think about flatness and space at the same time. The flatness being the basic truth of the paper, and the space arising from the metaphor for the room I was gazing upon. In critiques we were encouraged to find moments of authenticity in the drawings which showed that the artist was really looking.
I started to see and enjoy the awkward authenticity that happens when working from life. I exchanged measured perspective for trusted looking. Graham told me drawing is not about rendering or copying, but instead about building and remaking. You can never make a figure, but you can show your response to it. Graham showed me that making changes is what makes a drawing exciting, that “corrections are the life blood of the drawing.” Reconsideration and corrections are as much tools for drawing as charcoal and acrylic. Drawings can develop a density as previous decisions amalgamate into forms. According to Graham, overworking a drawing is an impossibility, an art school cliché.
Despite the fact that we were all in the same room looking at the same set up, and working with the same materials, the drawings looked incredibly different. And as the days went on, each artist seemed to fall more into their own expression, their own hand writing. Graham told us not to let style dominate the truthfulness of the experience.
Indian Miniatures taught us interlocking geometry; Chauvet cave drawings are relevant though made 30,000 years ago; with Giacometti we were shown to constantly think about the figure in relationship to the whole space; with Auerbach, that the form was found with planes sometimes, and masses other times; Rembrandt showed us to always have a sense of the rectangle, and geometry in depth; Bonnard encouraged the sense of adventure and discovery; and Matisse told us that exactitude is not truth. Graham showed us these works and many others, presenting a broad definition of drawing, and encouraged us to find our vision of the world.
I began to understand the ingredients of a drawing- space, form, tensions, interconnections between disparate parts, unity- and that these ingredients can change based on the artists intentions and experience. But in addition to learning these elements, I was challenged to question them- why is unity interesting? Suddenly the negative space that holds the form, something I previously deemed the lesser “background” of a picture, became my way into a drawing. I drew the strange shapes around and between, my charcoal seldom leaving the paper as I carved a path through what I was seeing. I began to think about interior of the form, the figure in context. Graham told us to exchange the concept of finishing a work, for strengthening and clarifying. He encouraged us to be ambitious and bold. The last mark should be a dangerous mark, not a safe one.
I had not anticipated that I was capable of moving from a twenty-two inch square on day one of my fourth marathon, to an eight by seven foot drawing by day 10. I pushed myself toward new goals in drawing: risk taking, exploration, surprise, and discovery, elements I had not previously realized should be part of the drawing process. The Drawing Marathon forced me to think differently and to consider drawing an adventure and an emotional encounter. It pushed me through the anguish of art making to find the magic that comes with connection and understanding.
By the end of four Marathons with Graham Nickson, I could not believe what my drawing had become. Through two years of intense looking and development of my own language, I was now making intense, immediate, particular work, with history and complexity. My drawing now felt unique to me, while deeply connected to perceptual experience. The Marathons opened up my understanding of the important issues in drawing which I will continue to confront and realize throughout my life as a visual artist.