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.