DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


A Self Portrait for the New Year

Self Portrait, 2012, by Fred Hatt

Self Portrait, 2012, by Fred Hatt

Why wish my readers Happy New Year with a scowling picture of your humble blogger? This portrait was my good start to the year just ending. Randall Harris of Figureworks Gallery had invited me to submit a work for an exhibition of self portraits, the gallery’s first show of 2013. It was an opportunity to show alongside a wide variety of really good artists, some of them well-known.

In December 2012 I drew this portrait, with a camera set up to capture stages in the development of the picture. I pointed a video camera at myself and drew from the image on a monitor, to avoid the reversed face you get in a mirror and the frozen effect you can get from working from a photograph. The bluish colors you see under my eyebrows represent the cool glow of the computer monitor I could see on my face.

In the Figureworks exhibition, I showed the portrait as a multimedia piece, with the original 18″ x 24″ drawing hung alongside a digital screen playing an animation of the drawing as it built up, layer by layer. Here’s the video (email subscribers will need to click the link to see the video on Vimeo.

Self Portrait from Fred Hatt on Vimeo.

I really didn’t expect this work to sell. Who – besides maybe my mother – would want a giant picture of me? But a collector bought the piece (drawing and digital animation together), kicking off my 2013 with a red dot.

To all my readers, friends, and fans, best wishes for curiosity, creativity and joy in the coming year!



Portraits of La MaMa

Ellen Stewart, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Ellen Stewart, 2011, by Fred Hatt

La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, one of the world’s great laboratories for cultivating new talent and exploring new directions in the performing arts, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2011.  Eric Marciano, an independent filmmaker for whom I have often worked as a videographer, produced some video pieces about the history and future of this great creative hothouse, and he asked me to draw portraits of a few of the key people interviewed or profiled in the clips, and to animate the process of creating the drawings.  Eric’s company, American Montage, recently posted the resulting clips to  its Vimeo page, so I can share them here with my blog readers.  The video is embedded at the bottom of this post (but those who receive the blog by email subscription will have to follow the link to see it on the web).

These drawings could not be done from life, as I always prefer in portrait drawing, but had to be done from photographs, or, in most cases, freeze-frames from video interviews.  They also had to be made to fit the wide 16 by 9 aspect ratio used for high-definition video, not the frame I would usually select for a portrait.  This means much of the frame would be background, so I’d need to develop background designs for each face.  I set up an easel with a camera on a tripod behind it, and as I worked on the drawings I stopped frequently to snap photographs of the work in progress.  The photographs were used to make animations of the drawings as they come into being, layer by layer.

In “Faces of Figureworks“, the exhibition featuring self-portraits by fifty artists currently on view (through March 3, 2013) at Brooklyn’s Figureworks Gallery, I’m showing a new self-portrait drawing alongside a similar, but slower, animation of that drawing’s evolvement, displayed on a digital photo frame.

I remember being fascinated as a kid by Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1956 film Le mystère Picasso, in which the famous artist painted on back-lit glass panels so the development and alteration of the works is recorded as it happens in time.  It made me aware of drawing as a time-based artform.  While we usually see drawings or paintings only in their finished form, their creation is a process of movement and change.  Many of the directions I have explored in my own work, including painting as a performance, and many posts here on Drawing Life, have been my attempts to explore my own process, and to share that process with others.

In this post I’ll share the drawings I made for the La MaMa video, with stills of each drawing in its finished form, and brief introductions of the subjects, and at the bottom of the post I’ll share the animated clip.

So many famous writers, performers, directors, designers, and composers have been associated with La MaMa that a small selection of portraits like this is necessarily a somewhat arbitrary sampling, but one name is essential.  La MaMa was the creation and lifelong project of Ellen Stewart, also known as Mama, whose portrait leads this post above.  Stewart, a fashion designer, started La MaMa as a performance café in 1961, a supportive place for the burgeoning creative experimentation of 1960’s New York and soon a magnet for artists from all over the world who were drawn to its cross-cultural playground of theatrical magic.

Andrei Serban, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Andrei Serban, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Stage director Andrei Serban is known for innovative approaches to classic texts with enveloping theatrical pageantry.

John Kelly, 2011, by Fred Hatt

John Kelly, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Artist, singer and dancer John Kelly transforms his persona to explore the worlds and psyches of Egon Schiele, Joni Mitchell, and Caravaggio, among others.

Peter Brook, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Peter Brook, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Since the 1950’s, director Peter Brook has been making spectacular, visceral theater and film with an international cast of collaborators.

Elizabeth Swados, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Elizabeth Swados, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Composer, writer, and director Elizabeth Swados makes exciting music and theater, crossing every boundary of style and genre.

Chris Tanner, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Christopher Tanner, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Visual artist and performer Christopher Tanner approaches everything he does with extravagant maximalism.

Mia Yoo, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Mia Yoo, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Mia Yoo, a former actress in La MaMa’s Great Jones Repertory Company, is Ellen Stewart’s successor, the Artistic Director of La MaMa ETC since Stewart’s death in early 2011.

And here’s the film, courtesy of Eric Marciano and American Montage, Inc.  There is a glitch in the first clip, where Peter Brook’s background disappears and reappears at the end, but this should give you a good look at how my drawing process works.  I believe the music is an excerpt from an Iggy Pop song.  If you don’t see the video here, follow this link.



Edwin (profile), 2012, by Fred Hatt

To draw a face by observation, I start out by touching.  Of course I can’t literally touch, so I watch how the light strikes the prominences, falls into the hollows, and flows across the flats, furrows, and swells.  My brush strokes the paper just as though it is stroking the model’s face, following in the path of the light.

This post is a series of my recent portrait drawings.  The first three are relatively quick sketches, twenty minutes of rough freehand rendering using this tactile approach with mostly white gouache and black watercolor.

Tanya (blue), 2012, by Fred Hatt

If you are old enough, you may remember the old Polaroid instant photos, the kind that would eject from the camera in a state of blankness, and then, as you watched, an indistinct image would appear and gradually sharpen, like the world coming back into the vision of someone awakening from a swoon.  This kind of drawing emerges that way, clarifying in stages.  If I keep on going over and over it with the darks and the lights, eventually it starts looking rather continuous-toned and realistic.  But twenty minutes is just a short enough time that the tactile quality still shows nicely in the strokes.

Tin (profile), 2012, by Fred Hatt

The next three drawings are nude portraits from the long pose sessions I run at Spring Studio.  These are done with a combination   of aquarelle crayons, watercolor and gouache, and the total drawing time for each is about two hours, or six times as long as the sketches above.

Crolie, 2012, by Fred Hatt

Even with the longer drawing time, I don’t want the images to become too smooth.  In the past, I used to make them smoother, but I think they’re more interesting when you can see the gesture in them, so when they get to a certain level of pictorial development, I switch from blending the gradients to sharpening the geometry and indicating subtle perceptions using bold gestures.

Crolie (detail), 2012, by Fred Hatt

In my nude portraits, I’m trying to integrate the face and the body.  Culturally, the portrait and the figure are separate artistic genres, but I like to merge them, to show the face as part of the body.  An actor will tell you that a character resides as much in the body, in energy and movement and posture, as it does in the face.  An artist’s model projects his essence with all of it together.

Julio, 2012, by Fred Hatt

Julio (detail), 2012, by Fred Hatt

Touching the model is not allowed, and usually in these open sessions there is not much opportunity to talk with the model either.  But I want my drawing to convey to the viewer that they could touch this person in the drawing, that they have an idea of her personality and her way of being in the world, that she could speak to them and they could come to know her.  I have to try to communicate all that just by looking and drawing.  It needs a wide open kind of looking, and the maximum possible energy channeled into the drawing.

Robyn, 2012, by Fred Hatt

Robyn (detail), 2012, by Fred Hatt

I will conclude with drawings I made of the one-year-old fraternal twin daughters of some close friends of mine.  I prefer to draw portraits directly from life, and nearly all the drawings I have published in this blog are done that way, but it’s hard to get babies to sit still enough for anything other than a very rough sketch, so I did refer to photographs in making these.  I wanted to try to capture the distinctive personalities and looks of these twin sisters.  Babies haven’t had time to develop some of the hard features and cultivated attitudes that individualize adults, but they are all born different, and their particularity is absolutely authentic.

Anya, 2012, by Fred Hatt

Katya, 2012, by Fred Hatt

All the drawings in this post are done on gray Canson paper, mostly with a combination of aquarelle crayons, watercolor, and white gouache.  They are 18″ x 24″ (41 x 61 cm) except for the baby portraits, which are 12″ x 18″ (30.5 x 41 cm).


Rough Likeness

Chuck, 2009, by Fred Hatt

There’s an old saying that all artists paint themselves.  Take a look at these examples compiled by art historian Simon Abrahams, different artists’ portraits of Napoleon, paired with the same artists’ self-portraits, to get a sense of how literally this statement may be taken.  In a broader sense, of course, the artist depicts her or his own perception, energy, and way of relating to the world and other people.  The portrait is perhaps the most relational, the most other-directed of all the traditional forms of pictorial art.  The most wonderful portraitists, from Diego Velasquez to Alice Neel, seem to feel their sitters so deeply that the subject’s personality shines through the work even despite the artist’s very distinctive style.

The whole point of the portrait, after all, is to capture a likeness.  Of course, a snapshot can get a pretty good likeness.  The interesting thing about a portrait drawn or painted by hand, directly from life, is in how it records the way an artist looks at another person, the interplay between how the sitter presents himself or herself, and how the artist experiences that through the focus of artistic representation.

In this post I share some of my portrait drawings for what they reveal about how I see and draw.  Here I have selected only relatively rough sketches, mostly 20-minute pieces.  The rough sketch shows the feeling out of the form, the attempt to understand the distinctive features that will give the drawing a likeness to the subject.  In a more finished work the initial analysis is obscured under layers of refining, so here we’ll look only at quick sketches for what they show best.  All of these are drawn directly from life, with no photographs, preliminary sketches, or optical aids.  All of these are from open life drawing sessions, not from commissioned sittings.  I find I draw more freely in these sessions, where there is no requirement to succeed.

Here’s a famous illustration from Alfred L. Yarbus’ study, Eye Movements and Vision:

Saccadic eye movements looking at a face, from Yarbus, "Eye Movements and Vision" (1967)

Human visual perception is quite different from photography.  A camera records a whole field of light levels simultaneously.  The human eye has only a very indistinct perception of the wide field.  We see by constantly scanning the scene, and the full picture is assembled in the brain, not in the eye.  A fuller explanation can be found in this post.

Yarbus used eye-tracking equipment to analyze how people scanned objects, their perception dancing from one salient detail to another.  The tracing of the eye movements in the above illustration is, in itself, a very rough portrait.  This is essentially what the process of observational drawing is:  every glance of the eyes is a moment of perception, recorded by the artist’s hand rather than Yarbus’ eye-tracking system.  Most artists combine this direct perceptual recording with various analytical techniques.

Michael R, 2010, by Fred Hatt

The fundamental particles of perception in drawing are contours and light/dark variation.  For me, the trick of faithfully converting visual perceptions to marks on the paper is to experience the sensations of the eye as tactile sensations.  All the human senses are extensions of the sense of touch, complex organs evolved to focus particular aspects of the environment to be felt by specialized nerves and interpreted by specialized areas of the brain.  I think my extensive experience in body painting helped me to train my brain to this task.  I am used to feeling the body through the soft touch of a brush stroking over its surface.  When I look at the light falling upon the body or face, I imagine that the light is stroking the skin, being gently applied by an invisible brush.  My hands are familiar with the feeling of this brush, and naturally reproduce the movements of this imaginary brush of light.

Alexa, 2010, by Fred Hatt

I usually prefer to draw on a gray or mid-toned paper.  I use a light crayon, white or any color lighter than the ground, as I follow the undulations of light over the three-dimensional surface of the face.  In the same way that I think of the light crayon as a brush, I sometimes imagine the black or dark crayon (or pencil, or marker) as a chisel working on a sculpture, carving the deeper shadows, the hard edges and crisp contours.  On gray paper, I focus alternately on the highlights and the dark places, and let the paper provide the more passive in-between values.

Michael H, 2011, by Fred Hatt

I try to stay always engaged in a tactile way, moving with force and feeling as though I am engaged in massage or sculpture.  I almost never allow myself to lapse into imagining the drawing as a flat surface.

Bob, 2007, by Fred Hatt

The particular contours of an individual’s features convey the singular essence that the viewer experiences as likeness to the person.  In the sketch above, note the free-flowing quality of the light lines, and the very different quality of the dark lines as they clearly delineate the shapes of such salient features as eyebrows, lips and jawline.

Adam, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Adam, the face above, is utterly different from Bob, the previous one. Adam had a wiry intensity, and that energy affected the quality of all my lines.  If the light lines in the Bob drawing meandered like a delta stream, those in this Adam drawing are quick and jagged, like strokes of lightning.  The eyes are surely larger than proper proportionality would dictate, but it works with the energy and does not destroy the likeness.

Robyn, 2010, by Fred Hatt

On this one, Robyn, the mouth is too big.  Caricaturists have long understood that if you get the shapes of the features right, proportions can be way off and the likeness still holds.  [Check out the fantastic celebrity caricatures of my friend, Dan Springer, to see this principle masterfully applied.]  If I’m doing a longer portrait, I’ll try to correct the proportions as I go along, but I don’t worry about it at first.  The likeness will be better if the drawing captures the sitter’s energy, and for that, the drawing must be spontaneous.

Shizu, 2010, by Fred Hatt

After I’ve brushed in the lights and chiseled in the darks, sometimes I use mid-value colors to analyze the structure, to figure out angular relationships or to unify forms that remain vague even after the light and dark have been separated.

Izaskun, 2009, by Fred Hatt

When the drawing conveys both the quality of energy that the sitter expresses, and the particular shapes of individual features, it will seem to have likeness to its subject.

Taylor, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Each of these drawings was done in approximately twenty minutes.  All of them are drawn with aquarelle crayons on paper.  All are 18″ x 24″ (45.7 x 61 cm) or a little bigger.


Faces of the People

“The Active Mirror”, 2002, by Fred Hatt, detail of acetate drawing

New York City is a magnificent environment for people watching.  On the streets, manual laborers mingle with capitalist big shots, celebrities blend in with the masses, and economic refugees share the sidewalks with tourists on spending sprees.  I know of no other city that compares with New York for ethnic and cultural diversity.  If you love humanity for its endless variations, New York is a sumptuous banquet.

“The Active Mirror”, 2002, by Fred Hatt, performance photo by April Panzer

Of course, once you leave the street or Subway and step into a culturally specific environment, most of that diversity disappears.  Unfortunately, that is true in the galleries and performance venues of the art world.  The art world in New York is not all white or all American, but it is almost entirely populated by people with a certain kind of education and upbringing, with certain well-defined ways of speaking and acting and dressing.

“The Active Mirror”, 2002, by Fred Hatt, performance photo by April Panzer

Those who work in arts administration are united in proclaiming the value of diversity and have been trying for years to reach out to “underserved audiences” and “underrepresented populations”.  Their efforts have been somewhat successful – I think art audiences in New York, especially for large, well-publicized events, are clearly more diverse now than when I moved here two decades ago.  Still, it doesn’t begin to compare with the diversity on the streets.  Art galleries in New York are all free to enter, but the vast majority of people never do.  Unfortunately a lot of art is pretentious and unfriendly to the uninitiated.  This attracts an audience of initiates, whose aura of exclusivity tends to deter those who do not see themselves as art world insiders.

“The Active Mirror”,2003, by Fred Hatt, detail of acetate drawing

A few years ago I took advantage of an opportunity to use my art to connect with people on the street.  Chashama is an arts organization that has special access to the asset that is most problematic in the dense and expensive city – space.  Chashama’s founder and artistic director, Anita Durst, is a member of a legendary real estate dynasty family.  The Durst Organization develops skyscrapers in Manhattan.  Properties that are condemned or transitional are made available for the arts through Chashama.  I’ve been involved with Chashama events since the mid-1990’s.  They have a great track record of supporting all kinds of artists, including some that most of the institutions would consider too underground or outsider or offbeat to present.

“The Active Mirror”,  2002, by Fred Hatt, performance photo by April Panzer

During the early 2000’s, Chashama had a whole block of storefronts on 42nd Street between Sixth Avenue and Broadway, while the Durst Organization was constructing the Conde Nast Building at the corner of Broadway and 42nd, the southern end of Times Square and the Theater District.  They hosted a huge festival of theater and dance, performance art, visual art and installations called “Windows on 42nd Street“.  In April, 2002, and again in July, 2003, I presented a drawing performance called “The Active Mirror.”

“The Active Mirror”, 2002, by Fred Hatt, performance photo by April Panzer

A sign on the window read: “A reflection is the view of a virtual eye behind the glass.  Look at your reflection in a storefront window, and you see yourself and your surroundings, superimposed over the merchandise on display.  But in this window, on this day, the view you see in the window is that of another subjective eye, an artist who sketches what he sees through the window, on the window.  Stop to watch, and your portrait may appear there on the window.”

“The Active Mirror”, 2003, by Fred Hatt, detail of acetate drawing

I lined the inside of the window space with white fabric and the inside of the plate glass with clear acetate.  I hung some of my portraits in the window space, to prove, I suppose, that I was a qualified portrait artist.  I stood at the window with my black Sharpie and sketched the urban landscape until I could attract passersby to stop for me.  If anyone paused to watch, I quickly began sketching a likeness, starting with a recognizable detail of attire or hairstyle so the subject would know that I was drawing him or her.  I had to work quickly, as I couldn’t expect anyone to have the patience to give me a prolonged pose.  Other passersby would stop to watch the action, and I would quickly move on to the next subject, since if my audience would disperse I would face the difficult challenge of gathering a new cluster.

“The Active Mirror”, 2003, by Fred Hatt, detail of acetate drawing

Visual art is usually considered an indirect form of communication.  You make a painting or whatever, and later, people look at it and try to imagine what you were thinking or feeling in the act of creating it.  For a long time I’ve had an interest in the potential of visual art as a more direct way of relating to another person.  This interest has been explored through a highly collaborative way of working with models, through the idea of art as a ritual or experience (such as body painting), and through treating the act of drawing or painting as a dance or performance, for an audience.

“The Active Mirror”, 2002, by Fred Hatt, performance photo by April Panzer

In “The Active Mirror”, my offer to strangers was to share with them my way of seeing them.   I could not speak to my subjects, nor they to me, through the thick plate glass.  My sharpie sketches were my only way of relating to people.  Around the corner in Times Square, there are portrait and caricature artists who make a living sketching the tourists.  My sketches were not for sale, just for public display, and I think many of the people who stopped for me were not tourists, but New Yorkers who would never think of sitting for a street caricaturist.

“The Active Mirror”, 2002, by Fred Hatt, detail of acetate drawing

Everyone is comfortable looking at something in a store window, even people who would never enter an art gallery or performance space, so by the end of five hours of sketching, the windows were covered with images reflecting the wondrous diversity of the New York street.

“The Active Mirror”, 2002, view from inside the window, drawings and photo by Fred Hatt

Here are some more details:

“The Active Mirror”, 2003, by Fred Hatt, detail of acetate drawing

“The Active Mirror”, 2002, by Fred Hatt, detail of acetate drawing

“The Active Mirror”, 2003, by Fred Hatt, detail of acetate drawing

“The Active Mirror”, 2003, by Fred Hatt, detail of acetate drawing

“The Active Mirror”, 2002, by Fred Hatt, detail of acetate drawing

“The Active Mirror”, 2003, by Fred Hatt, detail of acetate drawing

“The Active Mirror”, 2002, by Fred Hatt, detail of acetate drawing

“The Active Mirror”, 2002, by Fred Hatt, detail of acetate drawing

“The Active Mirror”, 2003, by Fred Hatt, detail of acetate drawing

“The Active Mirror”, 2002, by Fred Hatt, view from inside window, drawings and photo by Fred Hatt

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