DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


In the Flow

Art Seeds performance drawing #4,  30 seconds, 2012, by Fred Hatt

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.

Art Seeds performance drawing #6, 8 minutes, 2012, by Fred Hatt

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.

Tensegrity, 2012, by Fred Hatt

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.

Stances of Rest, 2012, by Fred Hatt

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, eight quick poses, grid of four watercolor sketches, 2012, by Fred Hatt

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.

Kuan, sixteen quick poses, grid of watercolor sketches, 2012, by Fred Hatt


Rest and Motion

Sultan and Odalisque, 2011, by Fred Hatt

I like to mix it up, combine drawing with physical movement, and try to capture the feeling of movement with my lines.  Valerie Green’s Green Space Studio in the Long Island City section of Queens hosts a monthly event called “Cross Pollination“, where the studio is opened up for artists, musicians and movers to do their own thing, do one of the other things, and generally draw inspiration and energy from each other.  All the drawings in this post were made at that event.

When I first started posting “Cross Pollination” drawings on the blog, I just titled them with numbers.  They were, after all, just fragments of an ongoing practice, little bits of my own restless variations on the theme, passing moments in the ebb and flow of energy at the actual event.  In later posts, it occurred to me that giving these spontaneous sketches titles might make them more interesting, might make people look at them a little differently, or at least notice how remarkably different one piece was from another.  When a piece of drawing is pretty abstract, the mind, which is oriented to clear imagery and narrative understanding, has a hard time getting to grips with it.  A title gives just a smidgen of narrative or description or association, but it makes a difference in our ability to see what’s in the drawing.  Generally, the titles I have bestowed on these drawings have nothing to do with what I was thinking at the time the drawings were made.  They are phrases that came to me when looking at the drawings later.

The picture at the top of this post, for instance, could be seen as a pure abstraction of squiggly and curvy lines.  But the drawing was inspired by watching dancers in motion, so the lines can be seen as human figures.  The figure on the left seems to be furiously dancing with a sword in swirly robes, while the figure to the right displays curvaceous feminine charms.  So why not evoke orientalist fantasies?

Attitudes, 2011, by Fred Hatt

I try to keep a very loose and responsive hand on the brush, feeling contact with the paper through the delicate tension of the bending bristles, and letting the movement of the hand and brush, and the flowing of the ink, capture the variety of stances and qualities of energy projected by the dancers in the room.

Striped Shirt, 2011, by Fred Hatt

All the figures in the drawing above were made while observing Valerie, Green Studio’s proprietor and director.  Her striped shirt and voluminous ponytail are unifying patterns.

The Oblivious Crowd, 2011, by Fred Hatt

The sketch above could easily be read as pure abstraction, but you can see that there are three figures along the bottom, sitting on the ground at the right, crawling at center, and walking hunched over at the left.  Around those figures you can see several taller figures, more energetic, more blurred.  I don’t recall the scenes I was observing while drawing this, but looking at it now I see the lower figures as the tortured movement of a defeated or injured person, while the other figures represent the people that rush past, paying no attention.  It’s a scene you can see nearly any day on the streets of New York.

Sleeping Mountains, 2011, by Fred Hatt

When the dancers are cooling down, they’re a lot easier to draw than when they’re leaping about.  Sometimes, as in the above sketch, I see them as the contours of a landscape.  The one below is much more of a literal figure drawing, a study of dancers’ stretches.

Hang Out and Warm Up, 2011, by Fred Hatt

At other times, as in the drawing below, I forget about representation and just get into the movement of the hand over the paper.  This is treating drawing as dance, an art in motion.  As this piece developed, certain parts of it suggested images to me, watery and sleek and sexual.  That influenced me to bring out those aspects, but I was also trying to keep everything ambiguous, to keep the images from taking over from the energy.

Billowing Shroud, 2011, by Fred Hatt

When the dancers get going, there’s no way to draw the body in the ways we learn in life drawing practice, carefully tracking contours and analyzing weight and observing the angular relationships between points.  But sometimes I try to see how efficiently the calligraphic manipulation of the brush can suggest the momentary bodies I capture in memory.  Some of the figures in the drawing below remind me of the shapes you see when watching a fire, shapes that often resemble dancers and leapers and writhers.

Fire Sprites, 2011, by Fred Hatt

In the drawing below, two standing figures at the center demonstrate attitudes of power and confidence, while figures around them show ways of bodily experiencing our connection to the Earth.

Grounding and Standing Tall, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Here’s a rough sketch of the studio, with an artist sketching in a notebook at left and a flutist playing at right.

The Scene at Green Space, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Here are more down-to-the-ground figures, squatting, crouching, scuttling, or lying on the back letting the limbs strive upwards.

Down on the Floor, 2011, by Fred Hatt

The next drawing was the last one of a session, and it seems to show the dancers solidified into various sculptural attitudes, stony remnants of life.

After the Storm, 2011, by Fred Hatt

All of these drawings are on 18″ x 24″ paper.  Most are drawn with ink and brush, but the sixth, seventh, and tenth drawings were made with marker.

Previous posts featuring drawings made at Cross Pollination events at Green Space Studio: 

Forces in Black and White

Dancing Brush

Cross Pollination at Green Space


Forces in Black and White

Biomass, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Drawing with ink and brush is more like ice skating than it is like walking.  The lack of friction frees the movement to express the bliss of bodily momentum, making great looping explorations of space.  Smaller strokes can zigzag or oscillate.  If you think of the large flowing lines as low frequencies and the small vibrating ones as high frequencies, there’s a kind of musical sense of harmony and timbre going on in these ink brush drawings.

Equus, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Because of my regular practice of life drawing, all the lines I make have the curves of organic forms and the energy of living movement.

Leaping, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Sometimes Asian calligraphy shows this kind of loose, dashing, impulsive stroke.  The drawing above is inspired by looking at people dancing.  The simple brush strokes suggest figures but communicate their energy while only suggesting their form.  The drawing below uses the same simplified strokes but is drawn more slowly and composed more consciously.  Here you can make out many figures and fragments of figures.  Some of the brush strokes may belong to more than one figure.

Community, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Combining the musical abstract approach and the calligraphic figurative approach produces more ambiguous images.  I often like to keep the figurative elements of the drawing from getting too specific.  Something that can be read in more than one way is more evocative.

Leda, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Every vertebrate is a snake at its core.  Sometimes in movement we can experience a hint of that slippery freedom.

Sinuosity, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Smooth and constant motion is inertia, the same as stillness.  We experience movement only through changes in direction or through acceleration or deceleration.  As in every aspect of experience, change is fundamental.

Breast Momentum, 2010, by Fred Hatt

All of these ink drawings were made at GreenSpace in Queens, New York, during their Cross Pollination events, open sessions where the studio is made available for free improvised music, dance and art.  The drawings are infused with the energy of the music I’m hearing or the moving bodies I’m watching, or from my own movement, as I tend to alternate dancing and drawing.  The movment is too quick to allow for the kind of figure drawing I practice regularly in timed sessions with models, so these drawings usually go more abstract.

Black Sun, 2010, by Fred Hatt

The energy flows in from the music and dance, and manifests in the movement of the hand and brush.  Another factor, one that becomes increasingly dominant as the page becomes filled with marks, is an intuitive sense of composition, a feel for dynamic asymmetrical balance in the plane of the drawing, balance of light and heavy, simple and complex.

Irrigation, 2010, by Fred Hatt

The elemental forces of the world are constantly moving and changing.  We move to be a part of the process, and we draw to trace its fleeting passage in a lasting form.  Cycles within cycles, changes upon changes, make a world, a life, a body of work.

Sky God, 2010, by Fred Hatt

All of these drawings are ink on paper, 18″ x 24″.  Other drawings from the Cross Pollination sessions can be seen in these posts:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5.


Dancing Brush

February Cross Pollination #1, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Drawing with ink and brush has a fluidity that captures the energy of motion.  The brush is sensitive to the slightest variations in pressure, rendering lines that have varying weight and dimension.  I have long favored this medium for movement drawing, where there is no time to develop the image through shading, color and details.  That spontaneous moving brush line is both expressive and efficient.

I’ve previously posted my sketches from Cross Pollination events at Green Space Studio in Queens here, as well as here and here.  At these casual sessions, musicians, dancers and artists come together to inspire each other.  Often, musicians and artists dance, dancers paint or play music.  For an artist, there’s a lot of energy and rhythm to draw upon.  For an artist with a figure drawing background, it’s challenging because there’s little stillness.  My experimentation has led me to an approach that’s basically abstraction built on figurative forms and fragments.

February Cross Pollination #2, 2010, by Fred Hatt

The above sketch shows various elements of the scene:  the long dreadlocks of the saxophonist Sabir, the seated flutist Lori, and Theresa with her sketchbook on her knees.  Most of the other forms here are fragments of the moving dancers, glimpsed in a passing instant.

February Cross Pollination #3, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Here I went completely abstract with an octopoid shape.  You can’t tell it, but the lines here are also based on the bodies and movements of the dancers and musicians.

February Cross Pollination #4, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Attitudes and bearing inform the one above.

February Cross Pollination #5, 2010, by Fred Hatt

And here the dancers get a little wilder and freer, driven by the saxophone and drum you can see at the center of the composition.

All of these drawings are 18″ x 24″ (46 x 61 cm), sumi ink on paper, using brushes.


Rhythmic Line

Modern Dance, 2008, by Fred Hatt

A sense of rhythm is as central to the art of drawing as it is to music.  It is the movement of the artist’s hand that gives a drawing its sense of movement and life.  Strokes that are fluid and responsive imbue a sketch with vitality.

I run a session at Spring Studio in Manhattan, where beginners struggling to get the hang of drawing from life work alongside accomplished artists who have logged many thousands of hours at the drawing board.  If you look at people at work, you’ll notice that most beginners draw tentatively.  They measure a lot and try to use intellectual knowledge to figure out what they’re seeing before they make their marks.  There is no rhythm or flow to their lines.  The parts of the body are drawn separately and never quite seem to integrate into a lifelike figure.  But watch a really good artist and you’ll see that the hand is in motion most of the time, moving with the sureness and lightness of a conductor’s baton.

Lounging Ryan, 2008, by Fred Hatt

The contours of the body are all curves of various kinds.  In drawing, these curves are translated into movements of the hand.  I allow my perception to flow along the contours like a skier gliding along the grooves and rises of a snow surface.  The drawing hand moves at a fairly constant pace, and those contours become rhythmic gestures traced onto the paper.

Natural, 2010, by Fred Hatt

In quick drawing, I almost never do any kind of measurement to determine proportions.  If the flow of movement is constant, proportions fall into place because of a sense of rhythm in the changes of direction.  The movement of the hand continues even when the pencil or brush is lifted from the paper, so that every rounded form is carried through from the front to the back, or from one side to the other.  Thus even an unshaded line drawing is given a sense of solidity and connection.

Arch, 2010, by Fred Hatt

In longer, more finished drawings, I do measure proportional and angular relationships and make corrections, but only after I’ve first captured the feeling of the pose through this rhythmic tracing of contours.  Proportions rigidly applied can crush the life out of a sketch, while giving priority to the flow and connection of forms can make a drawing communicate living energy even if the proportions are pretty far off.

Clasped Hands on Hip, 2008, by Fred Hatt

Attitude, 2009, by Fred Hatt

Complex shapes like hands, or complex poses that are hard to analyze in terms of straight lines, become simpler when treated as a continuous flow of curved shapes.

Hands, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Writhe, 2009, by Fred Hatt

The following sketches were done at Cross Pollination at Green Space Studio, a monthly event that offers the opportunity to draw while dancers warm up and move freely in the studio.  The dancers aren’t posing – even when they’re stretching or relaxing, they don’t stay in one position for more than a few seconds at a time.  The strokes I make are rough gestures, more often responding to memories of fleeting perceptions rather than the simultaneous perceiving and drawing I do in a life drawing session with timed poses.

Dancers Stretching, 2009, by Fred Hatt

Three Moving Figures, 2009, by Fred Hatt

Three Resting Figures, 2009, by Fred Hatt

Improvised Movement, 2008, by Fred Hatt

And here are two large-scale drawings – the first is 30″ x 48″ (76 x 122 cm) and the second is 48″ x 60″ (122 x 152 cm) – that take rhythmic flowing contours beyond the simplicity of the quick sketch:

Nyx, 2009, by Fred Hatt

Star, 2008, by Fred Hatt

If you like the movement drawings from Cross Pollination, check out this post for more.

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