DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Dramatis Personæ

Bow, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Actor and writer Susan Merson invited me to make sketches at some of the sessions of New York Theatre Intensives, a six-week play development workshop and training program associated with New York’s Ensemble Studio Theatre.  Susan likes to get visual artists to respond in their own medium to the creative process of the actors, directors and writers.  The work is shared with the participants and may be used on the organization’s website and/or public presentations.

I attended two sessions there.  The first one was an acting workshop led by Janet Zarish.  I sat at the side of the room and sketched in white crayon on a 9″ x 12″ black pad.  The class began with warm-up exercises, including spine rolls, the game of tag, and slow-motion tag.  Since I’ve done a lot of movement drawing, this part of the class was a natural for me.

Tag, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Following the movement exercises, the acting students stood listening to the instructor.  Their postures show their energetic engagement.

Listen, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Next, various pairs of acting students performed their versions of little playlets.  The acting duos had been given a page or two of bare dialog, and they had to invent a context and back story and work it up into a scene.  They’d play the scene two or three times, with coaching and notes from the acting instructor.  I tried to make simplified personality sketches, essentially caricatures, of the actors playing their parts.  Fleeting expressions and attitudes are hard to catch in a drawing from life!

Copier, 2011, by Fred Hatt

In most of these, I tried to get more than one expression or position for at least one of the characters.  Without knowing the content of the scenes, you can see these as multiple-figure compositions.  Some kind of narrative content is implied in the drawings, but they’re highly ambiguous.  I don’t think anyone could guess much about the actors’ scenes from these sketches, but maybe the sketches could be imagination stimuli.  For instance, I could see the central figures in the one below as a couple’s public composure, while the faces on the edges represent hidden attitudes.

AA Meeting, 2011, by Fred Hatt

This exercise only increased my admiration for the great theatrical illustrator Al Hirschfeld, who spent eight decades at Broadway openings, sketching in a theater seat, and stylizing his impressions of the actors as elegant ink drawings that appeared alongside reviews in the New York Times.  Drawing actors in action is not easy, and I feel my attempts were pretty rough.

Afterlife, 2011, by Fred Hatt

The three sketches above are based on three acting duos’ interpretations of the same playlet, an encounter between two characters with diverging views of their relationship.  I’ve titled the sketches after context choices made by the actors.

The next three sketches are three different interpretations of a second playlet.  This one centers around one character trying to collect a long-overdue debt from the other character.  It was fascinating to observe how different choices and different actors’ personæ completely changed the feeling of the scene.

Hot Dog Park, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Naked Under Hoodie, 2011, by Fred Hatt

The actress below conveyed a particularly vivid sense of awkward nervousness toward her impassive debtor.

Wordvomit, 2011, by Fred Hatt

The acting class instructor, Janet Zarish, threw a lot of ideas at the actors, offering suggestions and modifications aimed at sharpening the characters and punching up the drama.  I was struck by her many crisp, incisive gestures.  I think they reflect her focus on performative clarity.

Instructor, 2011, by Fred Hatt

I sat in on another New York Theatre Intensives session, and will get to those sketches later in this post, but first, a sketch theater entr’acte.  American Independence Day, the fourth of July, fell between the two NYTI classes I attended.  Spring Studio, where I supervise one of the regular figure drawing sessions, hosted a July 4 special with models costumed as historical American characters, including a Revolutionary War era soldier, Buffalo Bill, Harriet Tubman, Pocahontas and Betsy Ross.  These sketches are in marker or pencil on white paper, 18″ x 24″, and all are based on poses held between two minutes and ten minutes.

American History Figures, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Noble Faces, 2011, by Fred Hatt

The models for this session were all what I would describe as character models.  Like character actors, they have distinctive faces, body types and ways of moving and looking that would stimulate the narrative imagination even without the costumes and props.  It’s impossible to draw these models in a generic way, because all of them are so distinctive.

Caretaker, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Small and Tall, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Barricade, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Later that week I went to a “rep class” session, led by Rod Menzies, at New York Theatre Intensives.  The actors did readings of new scenes by playwrights Crystal Skillman and Jason Holtham, with the playwrights present.  I believe part of the function of the session was for the writers to see how their work in progress was understood by the actors, and how it worked in front of an audience.  These drawings are 18″ x 24″ on white paper, in crayon and/or ink and brush.  Here’s the scene in the studio, with the instructor and playwright sitting at the left.

Studio Reading, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Crystal Skillman’s scene was for two actors, and a little longer than the playlets from the acting class, which gave me a better opportunity to study the actors.  The experience was a bit like what I imagine a courtroom artist does.

A Look, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Here’s my impression of the discussion, with the class instructor and the playwright at the left, and some of the students in discussion at the right.  They really did overlap like that, from my viewing position.  I chose to make them transparent.

Watching and Discussing, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Although the actors sitting to read stayed more still than they did in the acting class, where they had memorized their lines, it’s still hard to draw a reading, because the actors have their heads and eyes down at their scripts much of the time, and their facial expressions and energetic engagements with one another tend to be fleeting.  This remained so even after instructor Rod Menzies urged the actors to engage with each other even at the cost of missing lines in the scripts.

Cold Reading, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Model U. N., 2011, by Fred Hatt

Jason Holtham’s scene was about high school students at a Model United Nations simulation conference.  All the characters were named after the nations they were representing in the conference, which allowed the scene to be read on two levels.

Playwright, 2011, by Fred Hatt

I switched to ink and brush for a few sketches.  The brushed ink line is more expressive than the crayon line, but also much more difficult to control.

Characters, 2011, by Fred Hatt

The directions of eyes and eyebrows, and the set of the mouth, are the most immediately readable indicators of emotion and relational role, at least among those that can be captured in a quick sketch that lacks the sound of the voice, the movement of the body, and the narrative developments of the script.

Reactions, 2011, by Fred Hatt

For me, the experience of sketching at these theater classes drew on my long-term practice of drawing from movement.  I’m used to sketching from dance, with the attention given to large physical movement.  The actors didn’t move so much – most of the interesting changes going on were subtle facial cues.  In drawing faces, I’m accustomed to doing portraits, where I can take my time to study the structure and character of a face.  Trying to apply the quick-response, gestural interpretation of movement to facial expressions was a challenge I definitely haven’t yet mastered, but I love to keep finding fresh challenges!

I’d be interested to hear from actors or other participants in the classes about what you see in my sketches, and whether they reveal anything to you that you might not get by looking at a still photo or video of the classes.  Please feel free to comment here, and I’ll respond.  (Comments from first-time commenters are held for moderation, so may take a day or so to appear on the blog.)




Shadows from Fred Hatt on Vimeo.

In 2007, I created this performance at CRS with butoh performer Corinna Brown.  Corinna was previously seen here in the post Emergence.  The music is a live improvisation by Dan Fabricatore on upright bass.

This is a shadowplay and a painting performance.  The use of shadows on a translucent screen allows us to play with the relative scale of the performers.

In one of my artist’s statements, I said “The act of drawing, like dancing or making music, is a highly focused form of movement in time. The expressive power of drawing is all about rhythm and flow, feeling and modulation. So I have been drawn to try to capture the qualities of movement through drawing, and to explore drawing itself as a performance art.”  I’ve been doing drawing/painting performances for many years.  This is the first one to appear on this blog.

If the embedded file above doesn’t play smoothly on your computer, try this slightly lower-resolution version.

This week I’ll be leading workshops at the Sirius Rising festival at the Brushwood Folklore Center in Sherman, New York, so I won’t have the chance to do a new post until after July 19.  See you then.



KN scroll, 2000, by Fred Hatt

KN Scroll, 2000, 91 cm x 982 cm, by Fred Hatt

For several years I ran a “Movement Drawing” class at Minerva Durham’s Spring Studio.  It was like a life drawing class except we didn’t want the models to keep still.  Most of the models were dancers or performers.   Of course it’s very difficult to draw someone who’s dancing around at full speed, so we had several adaptations that helped us try to see and capture the movement we saw.  We had sets of extremely slow movement – different models had quite different interpretations of what constituted “extremely slow”!  We had sets of repeated movement:  the same gesture or movement phrase repeated over and over for five minutes at a time.  And we did “stop and go” sessions, in which the models moved freely and the artists could call for the action to freeze for a short time.

This was great practice because the only way to get anything was to draw as quickly as possible.  I experimented with crayons, graphite, and ink.  Using a brush with ink really seemed to have the right fluidity and responsiveness for the task, but ink brush drawing in a sketchbook doesn’t work so well as it takes too long to dry and the pages get stuck together.  So I had the idea of using scrolls.  I did many small scrolls about 6 feet (2 meters) long, usually vertical.  But I also made a few big scrolls, and that’s what I’m showing in this post.  All the scrolls shown here are 36″ or 91 cm across their short dimension, and 20 to 30 feet (6 to 10 meters) long.

Looking at the scroll above, it’s interesting how the style changes at different levels.  At the beginning (the top) the drawing is realistic, separate figures.  I’m drawing with a fan brush, which holds ink well and makes a single line when applied on its edge or a multiple line if used flat.  At the next level down the figures become denser and begin to overlap more.  Then they disintegrate a bit, becoming more abstract.  Perhaps the model’s movement was getting a bit faster here.  At this level there’s a fiery quality to the drawing.  Realism returns, with two large figures that have hair and even faces, but the more abstract and fragmented figures return and the scroll ends with a jumble of overlapping body parts and hands.  The last part of the scroll was done with a round brush, not the fan brush.

The remaining scrolls are horizontal, so you’ll have to scroll to the right to see them in full.

Patrick scroll, 2000, 91 cm x 1006 cm, by Fred Hatt

Patrick scroll, 2000, 91 cm x 1006 cm, by Fred Hatt

This one, and the others in this post, were drawn vertically from left to right.  This one’s also done with the fan brush, but the style and density is more uniform than in the vertical scroll.  If you look at it as a sequence it has the feeling of a dance.

The movement drawing classes attracted two very distinct types of artists.  There were the loose and flowy artists who didn’t really care about capturing the figure so much as picking up on the energy of the situation, and there were the animators, who tended to make series of small, crisply drawn figures like animation keyframes.  My own approach probably fell between those extremes.

Lauren scroll, 2000, 91 cm x 884 cm, by Fred Hatt

Lauren scroll, 2000, 91 cm x 884 cm, by Fred Hatt

This one was done with the round brush and a more precise, sculptural line.  It’s possible this one (immediately above) was done with still poses (stop and go session) and the previous one (the male figure scroll) with slow movement, but I don’t really remember.  The model for the one immediately above was Lauren, and the strength and variety of the poses you can see in this scroll is a great example of what a really superior model brings to their craft.

These last two examples were, I believe,  both drawn on the same day.  These are reproduced at a smaller scale so you can see more of the figures at once:

Flora scrolls, 2001, 91 cm x 762 cm and 91 cm x 610 cm, by Fred Hatt

Flora scrolls, 2001, 91 cm x 762 cm and 91 cm x 610 cm, by Fred Hatt

For a while I had a studio in the mezzanine of Gary Lai’s Physical Arts Center in Brooklyn.  This was a large studio, workshop space and performance venue for gymnastics, martial arts,  dance and aerial (trapeze) work.  It was the only place I ever had enough room to exhibit these large scrolls, along with many of the smaller ones.  You can see an image of the mezzanine space filled with such scrolls here.

In that huge space it was possible to get back and see these scrolls from a distance, something that couldn’t even be done when they were being made at Spring Studio or in my own small studio.  The dense clusters of figures can be seen as writhing torrents of multiple bodies, like Dante’s whirlwind of lovers from the Inferno, or sequentially, as phases of movement through time, which is how I tend to see them since that’s how they were made.  To me they are also reminiscent of the storms of bison and stags seen in Paleolithic cave murals.

The form of the scroll also suggests a momentum that will not be bounded by the tight frame of the regular page.  Perhaps the most famous modern-day work done in the form of a scroll is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, typed on a long roll of paper as though stopping to change paper was out of the question for such a barrelling headlong memoir.

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