Tuesday, December 13, 2016

My life with Kimon Nicolaides - Epilogue

Having worked myself twice through the bulk of 'The Natural Way to Draw', independently as well as supported by a variety of teachers, I dare say I am entitled to phrase my opinion on this workbook. Yes, the experience was Spartan, and, no, I do not believe it was worth the time and effort. Having spent four years at Max the Mutt, drawing from the model about eight hours a week, sketching on the streets of Toronto at least half an hour daily, I can only admit my drawing skills are basic.

In a nutshell, I believe the problem with Nicolaides is that he was an academic, as opposed to an artist. The art of his hand that has survived the twentieth century lacks the solid observational drawing skills I expect to see from an experienced teacher. It is possible that proof of his draftsmanship is securely locked away from the eye of the aspiring student, but for now I believe his work satisfies the qualification of being 'artsy-fartsy'. Kimon Nicolaides talked the talk; he could not walk the walk.

Of the few things I do agree with, the most pregant is that 'There is only one way to draw, and that is the perfectly natural way', and I do believe Nicolaides was sincerely trying to teach his understanding of this natural way. The same holds for teachers like Andrew Loomis, Michael Mattesi, and Glenn Vilppu, who all teach their view on the matter, each striking chords the others miss. In addition, their teaching job is severely complicated by the fact that students are unique, and a good teacher acknowledges this diversity. This is exactly where Max the Mutt fails, trying to cram its students in the founder's ragged old corset.

What has made Nicolaides' approach so popular over the past one-hundred years is its Spartan approach. It is easy to fall in the same trap as the disciples of  Malcolm Gladwell who believe that 10,000 hours of practice are sufficient to achieving world-class expertise in a field of choice, ignoring the original observation that the "10,000 hours rule" expresses a necessary condition. Just as running for 42 kilometers in the wrong direction does not make one a marathon finalist, completing The Natural Way to Draw does not make one an artist, although it is quite an accomplishment!

Another factor that contributes to the book's popularity is that it provides teachers a detailed curriculum. There is no more thinking about telling students what to do, how to and when to do it: work for three hours according to Schedule 13! Grading is a breeze: just score your students' efforts! Serious teachers will prefer to focus on students progress and skills, as opposed as their shutting up and doing as they are told, but for lazy teachers The Natural Way to Draw is a godsend.

Apart from Kimon Nicolaides being neither effective nor efficient, I believe his approach is not suited for the absolute beginner: I remember the fellow students who got the most out of it had already completed some form of art school, or at least had a solid grasp of the human figure. This is also acknowledged by accomplished illustrator and former Max the Mutt teacher Richard Pace in The Evils of Kimon Nicolaides. I believe there is wisdom in Andrew Loomis' Figure Drawing for all it's worth, where he first introduces human proportions and then presents his students with a simplified manikin as a starting point.

I am looking forward to the opportunity, one Glorious Day, to discuss life drawing with Kimon Nicolaides. I am sure he will agree to include Loomis, Mattesi and Vilppu for a good art class where everything life drawing will come together. For now, in this time and space, I will conclude by paraphrasing the Dutch computer science pioneer E.W. Dijkstra: "Kimon Nicolaides considered harmful."

Thursday, December 8, 2016

My life with Kimon Nicolaides - Part 2

My quest for a unified approach to art education culminated in Operation Switch, and I decided to enroll in Max the Mutt, an animation school which adheres to the teachings of Kimon Nicolaides.

I had been looking forward to go through 'The Natural Way to Draw' for a second time, under the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher, only to find that my teachers were either sticking to one interpretation of the book, or just religiously following its exercises to the letter. My first Max the Mutt teacher made me do gestures blindly, i.e. without looking at the paper, hissing "fasterfasterfaster!" which was a complete disaster for me. My eye-hand coordination has always been bad, and my drawings ended as unintelligible scribblings. It was not until I decided to ignore her that my gestures started to make sense.

She was a believer. I remember she challenged us to show her even one sentence from the book which contained no truth, although she appreciated me pointing to Nicolaides' suggestion to order materials from the Art Student's League of New York, 215 West 57th Street, New York City. Fortunately, every now and then she was able to fill some of the gaps in my understanding of the matter. It was a real eye opener for me to learn that the Blind Contours exercise was all about line quality.

When working myself through the book for the second time, the nagging feeling that the exercises did not really amount to my drawing skills never left me. The enthusiasm of my teacher, who rewarded my efforts with High Passes and, eventually, Honours, made this even worse, as she seemed to mostly award students following directions, while she did not seem to be able to answer most of my questions about the approach.

I am still smiling when I think of her presenting Reverse Poses: we were to draw the model as seen in the mirror. When I asked, confused, where this mirror was supposed to be, she first claimed it did not really matter. When I looked even more confused she added "No no, the mirror is behind you!" and when I looked over my shoulder, she concluded "and you must draw what the model sees in that mirror". When she realized she had just lost the complete group of sixteen students, she told us to draw whatever we wanted to.

Throughout my first year, I was shocked to find how my drawing hand had started a life of its own. Whenever I was stuck in a drawing, usually because of lack of understanding of the pose, the structure of the human body or its anatomy, my right hand started to scribble frantically, as if to compensate for my lack of knowledge. I believe this misperformance was a consequence of my teachers' emphasis on drawing fasterfasterfaster, and of Nicolaides' prioritizing  feelings and intuition over solid skills and knowledge.

I do believe intuition and knowledge are two essential sides of the same medal, not just in art, but also in fields like mathematics and martial arts, and I feel that Nicolaides overly relies on the former. The vagueness of his approach to gestures, line quality and modeling strikes a chord in me, but the lack of solid technique and thorough understanding, as well as ignoring the outcome of the process, makes this intuition fall flat.

Fellow students introduced me to the teachings of Glenn Vilppu, and his thoughtful analysis of the pose, explaining how he guides the eye through the flow of the model presented me a whole new world. This man exactly taught what I found missing in Nicolaides!

My second year at Max the Mutt was a big disappointment when it came to life drawing. The same vague gospel of gesture was repeated over and over, and more emphasis was put on Quick Contours, where I was urged to draw faster in a way that had never worked for me. Seemingly pointless watercolor exercises were added, as well as box forms, modeled after the proportional model of Robert Beverly Hale. I kept working in my sketchbook religiously, and although my teacher seemed to like my work, I left this year with the feeling I had learned nothing.

The third year started well, with a new teacher who did not just talk the talk: he also walked the walk. Geordie Millar never failed to amaze me with his demos of life drawing and anatomy, in addition to being an established animal artist, well-connected to animation industry, having a broad and deep knowledge and experience in art and, overall, being a great guy. He did not so much care about following Nicolaides to the letter, seemed to be more into Vilppu, and breathed the latter's "There are no rules: there are only tools". On top of that, his positive mindset, challenging us to play, was a stark contrast with the negative reinforcement that permeated the school. I slowly felt how things came together, and started to make drawings I actually liked. I have no idea what happened, but Geordie did not last very long. The school's founder replaced him by no one else but herself.

This hard reset sent me back to square zero, with a teacher who barely knew what she was doing. She pragmatically made us repeat the few fragments from The Natural Way to Draw she liked or understood herself, and ignored everything else. In her Advanced Life Drawing course, she still maintained the course was not about making good drawings, categorically skipped the material on design and rhythm, did not want to see Daily Compositions, despite Nicolaides presenting these as the most important exercise of all. In addition to ignoring anything but the first few chapters, she introduced the vague notion of 'contour gesture' she could neither explain, demo or exemplify with course material, and she kept running in circles, stating this was the only way of drawing she could think of, which I believe is true, and that for any examples I was supposed to look at the work of the old masters.

I found some comfort in Andrew Loomis' 'Creative Illustration' which reads "We shall have no examples of Old Masters, for, frankly, what methods and procedures they used is virtually unknown" and concludes in all modesty that "There is but one course open for me if I am to stand with you for whatever value it has. You will thus have the chance to select what is of use to you." For your information, Andrew Loomis (1892-1959) was a renowned American illustrator.

I survived the Max the Mutt life drawing curriculum. My teacher was wildy enthusiastic about my sketchbooks and xeroxed the bulk of it for her archives, but, in all honesty, I have yet to find a single studio representative who shows even a minute interest in my work. So, I discarded my experience with Nicolaides and the Max the Mutt life drawing curriculum as a supreme misfortune where theory outstrips performance, to quote Leonardo once more.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

My life with Kimon Nicolaides - Part I

My next stop was Kimon Nicolaides' The Natural Way to Draw, a classic from 1941 with no less than a Spartan reputation: it guides the aspiring artist through a curriculum of 25 schedules, each of which takes 15 hours to complete. Not discouraged by the cheesy cover blurb that promised it to be "not only the best how-to book on drawing, it is the best how-to book we've seen on any subject", I decided to go for it. As I was unemployed, I had the time to follow Nicolaides to the letter.

I believe Nicolaides is mostly remembered for coining the term 'gesture', meaning the action of the pose. However, he frustrated the living shit out of me with his 'draw not what the thing looks like, not even what it is, but what it is doing', and the examples in the book are not very helpful either. I did follow his directions of drawing 'rapidly and continuously in a ceaseless line, from top to bottom, around and around, without taking the pencil off the paper' without ever feeling I got anything out of it. However, letting the pencil wander around became a habit, which, like so many other habits, started to feel good.

The other directions from the book were not as problematic for me, and with iron discipline I drew myself through the exercises of blind contours, quick contours, modelling in crayon, ink and watercolour, composition, drapery, design and analysis. And yet, even after completing the full working plan, I neither felt nor understood how things came together into a coherent body of skills. The main thing I got out of The Natural Way to Draw was the benefit of drawing every day, but I am confident I would have experienced the same amount of progress, or lack thereof, if I had filled up the pages on my own.

Although the experience was a frustrating one, I did feel some formulae resonating in my mind. The book opens with a Da Vinci quote: "The supreme misfortune is when theory outstrips performance" and I cannot even begin to explain how much I agree, both from my past life in computer science and my attempts to study art; however, it was exactly this misfortune I felt having completed the Nicolaides work plan. Another tidbit is "The sooner you make your first five thousand mistakes, the sooner you will be able to correct them". Nicolaides kept bugging me...

The more I think about it, the more I see this as the weakness of his approach. I totally agree on emphasising the action of the pose, but doing so without paying attention to structure or proportions makes absolutely no sense to me.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

My life with Kimon Nicolaides - Prologue

When I got interested in art, around the turn of the century, I marveled at a whole new world of dots, lines, values and colours. After an introductory course at De Werkschuit in Gouda, I choose to paint in acrylics, and joined courses of life drawing and portraiture at the same art centre and, later at the Vrije Academie and Adelbert Foppe's tekenstudio, both in Den Haag.

The more I drew, the more I found myself running in circles. The courses all boiled down to the same idea of carefully looking, and drawing what you see, without any underlying system. My drawings felt flat, and I wondered whether I would ever be able to draw from life. That is, draw people walking, talking, living, as opposed to carefully copying a patiently posing model. Also, while I did study anatomy, I was clueless about integrating my knowledge of the human body into my skills. So, I started my quest for a unifying curriculum.

It did not take very long for me to stumble across Betty Edwards' Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Although I really liked the exercises and little eye openers, the book did not do a lot more for me than to reiterate what I already understood, i.e. how to map the three dimensions of life to the two dimensions of the artist. I kept searching.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Inside out

Of some men it is said they strip girls with their eyes. I am worse, and that is not because I do not limit myself to girls. I skin them alive.

In animation school, I was taught to draw the human figure inside out. That is, first summarize the pose using simple lines to denote the directions of the big masses of head, rib cage and pelvis, and the limbs, through what is called gesture. Second, build the important masses on top of these lines through use of cilinders, spheres and blocks, and, third and finally, impose the relevant anatomy on top of these.

Academical as this may sound, the fun of the procedure is the application to live humans in what is called 'life drawing'. I have always preferred the English term above the Dutch 'modeltekenen', which has a sense of artificiality. A model is an abstraction of living human being, frozen in a pose to serve the budding artist. The Belgian artist Jijé, nom the plume of Joseph Gillain, believed that 'school is an anomaly: the studio is the real thing'. I like to push it even further: 'the studio is an anomaly: life is the real thing'.

I have always loved to watch the human in his natural habitat, walking, sporting, shopping, playing games, maybe posing for others, but not for me, trying to summarize its acting, its energy, its being. It took me years to grow comfortable in the act of working inside out, and the more I learnt about the human body, its anatomy, draperies and peculiarities, the more satisfaction I got from working from life.

I learnt that, indeed, the naked model is for beginners, while daily life, usually wrapped up in layers of costume, especially in the Canadian winters, is for the advanced, as the human body must be shown inside, like a magician conjuring  a rabbit out of his tall hat.

Hiding in my little corner in the Dufferin Mall I picked my subjects carefully, summarizing their acts in a few lines, then taking my time to dress up the gesture in volume, anatomy and costume. I admit there was a time I was so fascinated by anatomy that I stopped before the final step.

I will never forget the day a lady sitting next to me seemed to be intrigued to watch me drawing. I whipped out a quick series of warming up gestures, before I lost myself in anatomy. When I realised I was basically drawing naked version of mall visitors, it was too late.

So, there is at least one Canadian who came to believe I am a dirty old man. If you read this, I hope you understand I am a budding artist.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Little Pear

The Chinese restaurant around the corner, the oldest in town, caught fire last year and has been boarded up since. It makes the little strip mall look even more desolate: the only shops remaining are a drug store, two barber shops, a shop for hearing devices and a fast food joint. The view of a defunct shopping street has become all too common in a country which is being slowly pulled down by a bankrupt Europe.

Looking over your shoulder seems to be one of the symptoms of getting old, as there is more to see in the past than in the future. Walking by the restaurant revived an old memory: the story of Little Pear.

Little Pear, or 'Kleine Sjang' as the Dutch translation of the classic by Eleanor Frances Lattimore was titled, has always remained with me as the first book I had selected all by myself from the library. I was proud that I could easily read the whopping 343 pages, which is quite a feat for a six-year old, but, above all, it was a revelation for me to discover how a book could make me travel to another space and time. Little Pear introduced me to China, with its colourful kites, mysterious magicians and complicated script,

I became intrigued by the idea of writing my own name in Chinese, and was excited to learn that the Chinese restaurant had its name 'Azië' painted on its window. How convenient! I had already collected three out of four characters, and all I needed was a Chinese 'k'. Not long after, a second Chinese restaurant opened: 'De Lange Muur', and I was utterly disappointed to learn it did not exactly help me to solve my problem.

To be honest, it took me decades to realise the silliness of my attempts to spell out my name in Chinese. If there anyone Chinese out there who can translate my name, which means 'ĺaugher', to Chinese, I am definitely interested.