Memoirs of a Draftsman

Memoirs of a Draftsman

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An abridged version of this article appears in the summer 2016 issue of Drawing magazine, which is devoted to artists’ sketchbooks and includes sketching lessons, advice on sketching materials, and accomplished sketchbook drawings by a variety of artists. Click here to purchase the issue, or click here to subscribe to Drawing.

By John A. Parks


I was trained in the English art-school system starting in the late 1960s, when you could begin at 16 years old. I was required to spend vast amounts of time drawing. I wasn’t much of a draftsman at first, having entered the field with the vague idea of becoming an industrial or product designer. I had no particular background in art. But soon the countless hours of peering at simple objects—making murky and furry pencil drawings of feathers, cups, naked models and views across the barren wastes of the school parking lot—began to act like the most benign of drugs. Looking hard at the world around me turned out to be mind-opening in a way that none of the hallucinogens then making the rounds could ever hope to be.

As my teachers—who were friendly, for the most part—forced me to look at angles, proportions, shapes and contours, the world began to take on an infinitely more complex appearance. I was pressed to examine tonal relationships through charcoal drawing, and suddenly everything I looked at was full of the subtlest tonal shifts. Gazing at the fall of light on a blank wall was now mesmerizing. The world of color, which I’d heretofore thought of as only a small palette of primaries, expanded into a vast array of shifting hues that spoke to one another in unexpected ways. Any time I opened my eyes I was plunged into a universe positively dripping with riches. For me the experience of learning to draw and paint was one of widening and deepening perception, a new excitement at being alive and in the world.

Expanding Skills

Along with seeing better came physical skills, the training of all the motor muscles needed to negotiate the touch and swing of drawing and painting implements. After months of pain and struggle there were increasing moments of pleasure in negotiating passages of drawing, in achieving better touch and more interesting surface.

As young students we argued about what qualities in drawing were desirable, and gradually our teachers introduced us to reproductions of master drawings—Raphael, del Sarto, Rembrandt and Rubens, as well as various moderns. It was easy to see why a Michelangelo drawing was admired, but what about those loose and speedy drawings by Matisse? And what was so great about de Kooning’s frenzied charcoals? We hiked off to the museum to look at more. So drawing became a way into art history, not in the dry sense of categorizing and memorizing periods, eras, styles and dates, but as a way of understanding what drawing and painting might do, what sorts of things we young students might eventually be capable of.

My teachers, much influenced by the Bauhaus, liked to organize drawing projects into three stages. First came “objective” drawing, in which the student had to look as closely as possible at the subject and examine it dispassionately. This was followed by “analytic” drawing, in which we were supposed to convey information about specific properties of the object. Third was “synthetic” drawing, in which we were supposed to reassemble a notion of the object based on our analysis. Thus a project on “flow” might begin with a careful objective drawing of water flowing through a sink, in which the appearance was recorded as faithfully as possible. The analytic stage might be a more diagrammatic version with arrows and notes included to show the direction of various movements and eddies. The synthetic version might be a simplified rendition of an archetypal flowing movement abstracted from the previous drawings.

This process had applications for developing designs and abstract paintings, but it also made us aware that an object can be seen and understood in many different ways. There emerged the strange and exciting possibility that the object didn’t in fact exist in any absolute sense but only assumed its particular form in relation to us and the ways we chose to look at it. We’d never read Descartes or Husserl, but we found ourselves plunged into fundamental questions about our relationship with the world in a way that was active and often great fun. Heady stuff for teenage art students!

Drawing Media to Suit the Occasion

Drawing has remained one of the cornerstones of my practice ever since, a means of exploring ideas, connecting with the world and accessing the sheer pleasure of looking. I draw in most of the traditional media: charcoal, pencil, pen-and-ink and brush-and-watercolor. The choice changes with the years and the project. If figuring my way into a large painting, for instance, I might draw in charcoal, which allows for broad massing, suggestive textures and speedy application. It’s a dusty pleasure, with ample room for wrestling white paper back with the eraser or running tonal transitions with a stump.

In my sketchbooks I draw largely in pen-and-ink. If I’m in the studio I use a dip pen and a variety of drawing nibs, mostly from the Speedball sets. There’s always a basic excitement with pen-and-ink for the simple reason that there is no going back. Every line is going to stay, and this focuses the mind wonderfully. Flexible steel nibs give glorious thicks and thins and allow for stylish line if you can manage it. Occasionally I do a drawing with a goose quill and still find myself thrilled to get an “Old Master” look to the piece. I pick up goose feathers near the pond up the hill from my studio and store them from use. One year I cut a great many reeds, inspired by Van Gogh’s reed-pen drawings. I tried out the technique but could never quite get the “give” in the line that he seemed to manage. He must have used a different species.

I have occasionally drawn in Conté, but I’m not a fan of mechanical pens and still less of markers of any kind—they seem loud and insensitive on the whole. If I’m out and about with my sketchbook, I use a fountain pen. I rather like the Rotring Art Pen, but I also have various antique fountain pens I’ve picked up on eBay. I generally use a sepia ink, and this combines happily with a sepia watercolor wash if I want to block in tones and even does well with full watercolor.

The Sketchbook’s Many Uses

In recent years my sketchbooks have been devoted to three basic themes. The first comprises studies from master drawings and paintings, things that I’ve done to familiarize myself with works that I’ve admired. It’s one thing looking at a Poussin but quite another to draw the figures and enter into the enterprise of precise storytelling and classical construction.

For a recent series of pictures of New York’s crowds I did quite a lot of studies after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, as well as versions of London scenes by William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson. I wanted to understand how these great artists managed large numbers of figures and orchestrated action. I was also intrigued to discover how they added drama through gesture, exaggeration and caricature. As I considered painting a view of the Central Park boating pond, I thought it might be amusing to quote some Dutch and English marine painting and so did sketchbook studies of William van de Velde and J.M.W. Turner.

My second sketchbook theme has been the collection of figures for my paintings of the last few years. Some of these are done from life but many more are based on my photography and videos. After freeze-framing a figure at just the right moment for the drama I’m seeking, I can draw, exaggerate and distort until I get the image that I need. There is a continuum between photographing and sketching on the street and then exploring the images through further sketches in the studio.

Last, I create general sketches of almost anything that strikes me—a pair of boots lying on the floor, a scene at an airport shopping area, a golden afternoon in an English park. The quality of these things is necessarily varied, with the time available and the opportunity. I’ve always been poor at disguising my activity around people, and I often get rumbled halfway through drawing someone and so lose them.

Finished Drawings

Outside of my sketchbooks, I’ve recently been drawing with the brush in the studio in preparation for a new series of paintings. Using a monochrome gouache on watercolor paper I’m getting a soft and rather romantic look which is perfect for the garden subject matter I’m exploring. I’m trying to get a much quieter feel than my recent paintings of New York City, so I’m building these drawings with thousands of tiny brush marks and maintaining a certain kind of restraint. I suppose that since I’m using wash as well as line the drawings are halfway to being watercolors, but then many great artists have habitually drawn with the brush, most famously Goya.

These new drawings are rather involved and take two or three days to complete. I begin without a pencil line, starting with just a few very light touches of gouache to establish the main proportions. I’m working from photography that I gathered several years ago in England, and often I’m stitching together several frames at once, so I have only a fractured view of my subject. I’m intrigued to build the drawing as I work and allow anomalies of space and proportion to come into the process. I’m getting a gently flexible feel to the space that could never happen if I hewed exactly to a mechanical rendering. I’m often surprised to see various kinds of undertones, atmospheres and feelings emerge and begin to inhabit the image, summoned by parts of me over which I have no control. The world starts to come alive in a new and intriguing way, and this spurs me on to the next piece.

I’m just about to start work on oils in this vein and excited that my next show will look very different from my last. I’ve always been averse to making the same work this year as I did last year. Making art should be a thrill, an act of enquiry and discovery, a step into the unknown. Of course this is a view that will entail failures, missteps and embarrassments. But if you don’t risk failure you can never be truly alive, and surely making art is one of the best ways to be alive that there is.


John A. Parks is an artist who is represented by 532 Gallery Thomas Jaeckel, in New York City. He is also a teacher at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, and a frequent contributor to Drawing, as well as the author of the book Universal Principles of Art. View his work at johnaparks.com.

Watch the video: Day at Work: Architectural Designer (July 2022).


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