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Student Perspective: Brigitte Bentele on the Virtual Drawing Marathon with Graham Nickson & Guests

When I heard that Graham Nickson’s Summer 2020 Drawing Marathon would be held virtually, with the requirement of only a blank wall of at least four feet and reliable internet access, I gave up on the idea that I would be able to take the class, one that I had taken twice before at the New York Studio School until it occurred to me that I could use the balcony at my sister’s apartment where I had been watering the plants and taking in the mail while she and her husband were away. While the experience of working in person among other artists, faculty and with models in the historic Studio School studios cannot be matched online, the virtual course greatly exceeded my expectations.

During the course of the Virtual Marathon, the world outside my balcony overlooking the Hudson River, seemed to be falling apart with justifiable rage leading to curfews and despair. I wanted to do my part to support the protesters fighting for justice, freedom and equality for all, though at the same time, I considered myself lucky to have a creative outlet to shut out the world. The Virtual Marathon changed me in ways that are difficult to put into words. I learned, to quote Graham Nickson, to “think with your own eyes.” Now when I draw my hand, or paint a watercolor, or take a solitary walk; I notice and think about shapes, their form, mass, volume and the space between them; I notice light, patterns, reflections, repetitions; I notice possible compositions; I simply notice more!

Each morning we met as a group on Zoom and were given instructions for the first assignment of the day, and prepared our paper exactly like I had experienced during in-person Marathons. Rather than hearing the bustle of our fellow artists getting ready for the first session, we each set to work in our individual spaces, popping into view on the screen from time to time. The remarkable models posed via Zoom from their own homes, a unique experience for us and for them. They allowed us to inspect their space and their belongings became an extension of themselves. Throughout the day they stayed in their pose for 20-minute intervals and, as one reported, missed hearing the quiet activity of artists at work. We had to adapt to seeing a two-dimensional image of a three-dimensional model while creating a two-dimensional image. Some artists had their screens positioned so that we could see them working; for others we could observe them; and some chose not to be visible. Teaching Assistants Fran O’Neill and Charity Baker held helpful one-on-one “breakout sessions” to check on our progress and Graham logged on to observe us working in between group critiques. Our focus was on the small screen of the model posing and on our own drawing; and although we were all seeing the same view, what we saw of each other’s work during critiques was dramatically different. Each drawing reflected an authentic experience of rendering a model in their environment on a piece of paper and there was no sign of the limits of technology.

As anyone who has taken a Marathon knows, Graham’s lectures and critiques are incomparable. He really notices everything! He opens up a world of artists and paintings and ideas. I readily replay in my mind what he said about a work of art, whether Cezanne, Piero dell Francesco, Goya, Bonnard or a student work from the class. I am inspired to look more deeply, to consider the corners of a surface and use the center as motivation, to try to make the painting finished at any given time, and so much more. Sometimes, in my watercolor classes with NYSS alumna Kamilla Talbot who originally persuaded me to take a marathon with Graham, I hear some of the same. The comments on students’ works, whether my own or others, the variety of interpretation, gave me confidence and daring in my own artistic vision. Analyzing the work of masters and making transcriptions further expanded my knowledge and understanding and deepened my desire to see with my mind. And I want to be an image seeker, not an image maker.

Snapshots From NYSS

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