Saturday, February 21, 2009

My three-day throwdown with a 560 year-old wooden nun

Round One, in which our hero, on a day of museum sketching, lightheartedly engages a late medieval carving of St. Bridget of Sweden and very quickly gets his be-hind handed to him on a polished walnut plate.

A word to the unwary: you don't just jump into jagged Gothic drapery.

A second attempt is not any prettier. In fact, it is worse since our hero is, by this point, getting hungry. And the third, after lunch? Well...

Here's the thing about museum drawing: it's not the same as drawing at home. I was having to hold the drawing board, manage a couple of different pencils and an eraser or two with the same hand while still looking, drawing, correcting, thinking. I was standing up, looking up (since the sculptures in the main medieval hall at the Met are mounted pretty high) and the aching feet and tight back muscles definitely have an impact on the experience, therefore on the drawing.

None of which is news, exactly, but I think my awareness of it as a factor to be dealt with was clear to me in a way it hadn't been before.

For all of these reasons, my friend Jason, who has done some museum drawing in his day, regards it as an extreme sport: not for the weak, the undertrained or the faint of spirit.

In the past, I might have gone home from this experience discouraged.

But not this time.

I mean, I was discouraged, but not only discouraged. I've been on an artistic self-improvement project lately, and this seemed like a good opportunity. I wanted to go back and do it right.

Round Two, in which our hero begins by paying proper respect to St. Bridget with a full-figure survey.

Here was my thinking: if you want to solve a drawing problem, isolate it. Rather than starting over someplace else, I decided to eliminate variables and go back to St. Bridget. Same light, same subject, same materials. Same physical discomfort. But with the knowledge of the previous day's difficulties more clearly in my head, hoping that recognizing the challenges would make it easier to meet them.

By the end of the day, I felt like I was getting somewhere. The sleeve here is better defined (late medieval drapery is nothing is not clearly demarcated). The values are more coherent. There's a basic idea of what the light is supposed to be doing, which is trickier than it sounds, since the Met doesn't do single light sources: every piece in this hall has several spotlights on it, which makes for very dramatic viewing but very tricky drawing. You have to make a series of semi-artificial decisions about light hierarchy and then try not to get pulled off of them by well.. reality... as you go.

Round Three, in which our hero, after a late start and a scanty breakfast, attempts to consolidate his gains... with mixed results.

Not unhappy with the overall feeling of this drawing but the face is all wrong.

The problem with the late start and the scanty breakfast - as well as a third day of standing on my feet for hours and hours - is also how much your brain has to work: the process is part intuition, part visualization, part complicated intellection. And that burns some fuel, man. I was hitting the Met cafeteria like I'd just come in from a long bike ride.

The Met was open late Friday, but by six or so, I was done. Wandered around, saw some of the temporary exhibitions. Did some little moleskine sketches of goodies from the Babylon show, but after three days I was kind of drawn out.

Not quite ready to lay down my arms on these issues, though. Going back with Ann Marshall on Tuesday and possibly Wednesday as well. St. Bridget might be calling again.

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