A drawing or painting is an object, an arrangement of marks on a surface, inert and mute. So what do we mean when we speak of a picture having dynamism or tension, energy or lyricism? There could be multiple factors. Movement may be pictorially implied. Shapes and colors may be arranged in ways that suggest rhythmic repetition or create tensions of weight or light that, like certain chords in music, predict a resolving change.
For me, the most direct path to capturing energy in pictorial visual art is simply to approach drawing or painting as an art of movement. The brush strokes or pencil marks are tracings of the movement of the artist’s hand. The hand dances what the eyes see or what the spirit feels. Movement is the most direct way of expressing grace or violence, serenity or frolic. A drawing doesn’t move, but it is a product of movement. The kinetics of its making affect the quality of its marks in a way that viewers can feel.
Direct gestural expression is something drawing and painting have that still photography generally lacks. For me, that’s a compelling reason to focus on that aspect of art, in this age glutted with mechanically reproduced images.
A longstanding exercise for me is sketching dancers as they move. It’s one of those things that’s almost impossible to do, like getting a sweet sound out of a violin, and for that reason a great thing to practice, practice, practice. In this post I’ll share a few recent examples of the rough and spontaneous results of this pursuit.
The thirty-second ink-brush drawing that heads this post was made during a recent performance organized by my friend the dancer Kayoko Nakajima. She and Carly Czach performed improvised dance in timed intervals, interspersed with similarly timed intervals in which several artists made drawings in response to the movement they’d just witnessed. Kayoko’s blog for the project shows the resulting drawings of four artists (including me), and the following video by Charles Dennis shows excerpts from the performance, so you can get an idea what the dance was like and how the audiences watched the drawing as well as the dance.
The form of dance that Carly and Kayoko are doing here is called Contact Improvisation. Notice how the dancers pull or push each other. Each dancer is feeling her weight in dynamic relation to the other. The principles of Contact Improv are closely related to the martial art Aikido. One dancer may push into the other, and the other may respond by redirecting a straight move into a curved one. One may feel the other’s weight and roll under or push upward. There’s a constant give-and-take, a shifting flow in which every movement is a transformation of the movement that feeds into it. Although my drawing hand is dancing solo, not pushing against another hand, I try to capture this feeling of each movement of the brush arising out of the preceding movement.
In this performance, periods of drawing alternated with periods of dancing, so the drawings are not made during direct observation of the movement. Thus they capture a memory of motion, not a response in the moment. The figurative elements in the drawing above also reflect memories rather than direct perceptions. The brush flows following the aftertaste of a spinal curve, and that curve shifts into the helical analogue of a remembered rotation.
Kayoko’s post features several drawings each by Felipe Galindo, Ivana Basic, Michael Imlay, and myself. It’s interesting to compare the different ways each of us instinctively channeled the dance into our drawings. Felipe, an illustrator, focuses on relationships and indicates the directions of movement with arrows and arcs. In Ivana‘s drawings, the contours of bodies merge with the contours of looping movement, and the bodies don’t just contact, but merge and interpenetrate. Michael takes the sinuous quality of the dance and projects it imaginatively in biomorphic shapes and suggestions of musical structure.
The night before Kayoko’s performance, I got myself warmed up for it at Cross Pollination, an occasional event at Green Space Studio in Queens where artists draw, dancers move, and musicians play in a freeform interactive space. These drawings are made in direct observation of dancers, not by memory, though the movement is generally quick enough that once an impression travels from eye to hand to paper it’s a memory anyway. The next two watercolor sketches are from Cross Pollination.
Expressing energy with brush or pencil is not so much about putting the maximum amount of energy into the effort. In a recent life drawing class I noticed one of the artists scratching away madly, his face screwed up with tension. But when I looked at his drawing it was scribbly and diffuse. It expressed something of the physical effort of the artist, but nothing of the quality or presence of the model. The key to capturing that more subtle energy is the clear focus of the artist’s movement in the work. It’s like the difference between the flailing of a drunkard and the efficient punch of a martial artist. The first may expend more raw frenzy, but it’s the second that will knock you out.
I try to be immersed in the experience of perceiving the bodies, feeling the flow of movement and of form. The way a muscle curls around from the shoulder blade to the top of the arm bone is not so different, when you follow it smoothly, from the way one person reaches out and draws another into an embrace. Because my brush is moving in a state of grace, I experience everything as a unified current. It’s obvious that movement is something that flows, but when my mind and hand are dancing, I understand that form is also something that flows.
I try to bring that kind of perception to my practice of life drawing. The body is a dynamic structure, not a static one. Every part exists in a relationship of tension or balance with other parts of the body and of its environment. When the drawing brush freely explores how one part connects with another through movement, the drawings capture some of the sense of the life force that we perceive in a living being.
Chuck, above, and Kuan, below, are models that give their all in the quick (1-2 minute) poses. Chuck is an artist whose own paintings show a wonderful sense of movement, sometimes soaring, sometimes tangled. Kuan is a dancer and choreographer. She moves with great clarity and takes still poses that look like frozen instants of explosive action. Their quick poses are wondrous things to see. But they are so fleeting! Only by following the flow of the form with the movement of my brush can I capture some impression of the energy they share with us.