I’m looking for an example of a well-known visual artist who did a lot of black-and-white drawings with charcoal, pastels, or pencil-and-ink whose work was heavily tonal rather than involving a lot of line. This is for the life drawing class I’m auditing: we’re supposed to find someone whose work interests us visually, whose work we feel we can learn from looking at and eventually reproduce.
I’m kind of stuck on territory that the German artist Max Klinger thought about in the 19th Century. He argued that painting and color were for observation, drawing and prints for the imagination, for fantasy, for visual work that came from ideas. I don’t agree with that division, but I find myself almost helplessly inclined to reproduce it in a more general way.
On one hand: I’m really attracted to the work of a whole slew of cartoonists, graphic artists, designers. But: most of it has a lot of control, a lot of departure from observational work. A lot of line. I can’t do this kind of work. I’m sure of it. Once again, I’m learning about the way my mind works, and I’m learning that my mind simply doesn’t like precision when it’s doing work, even if I like that kind of precision in the work of others. I was really drawn to a lot of the character design work in a book by Michael Mattesi that I picked up the other day. I feel like I can conceive of the designs, but I couldn’t execute them through life drawing myself. When I try to work with line, it looks bad, it looks wrong, and I get flustered quickly.
I’m happiest with the results of my own work when I stop having ideas, or trying to impose too much control, when the work can be imprecise and sloppy in some ways, and when it’s very tonal, very much about light and shadow, about volume and dimensionality. (Sometime tomorrow I’ll try to scan and post the two drawings from this semester that I’ve thought were ok.)
Intellectually, I’m really against the view that we should strive for the perfection of control, for our intentions to match outcomes. I’m not so much a postmodernist in this sense as an anti-modernist. The idea of mastery over the world, the environment, society is a bad one; I’m always very interested in arguments about how what we mean to do is transformed in many unintended ways when our intentions meet up with the material world, with institutional and social systems, and so on. I think that’s a good thing, a way that we become usefully strange to ourselves. That’s what I like about the idea of observational drawing: it’s not just that I’m looking at something real that I’ll never see again as I saw it at that moment, but that there’s the physicality of paper, charcoal, a room, other people drawing, all sorts of things going on that will make the results a surprise to me as well as anybody else. Maybe a bad surprise in some cases, but that comes with the territory.
How much all of this is just a fake dichotomy, I don’t know. It may be that I’m like a baby taking a few steps and saying, “DAMN, is this what walking is all about? I’m no good at running and strolling and stuff like that, I’m going to stick with wobbling unsteadily and falling on my ass because that’s where I’ve got my natural skills”.
A lot of the German expressionists seem to me to represent an interesting middle zone for me to think through. Not thematically: the politics of a lot of Expressionist work seems to me to have that ambition to control or authority in multiple ways. I don’t really want to do polemical work visually, or to visualize stereotypically social themes. But they did seem to be doing work where on one hand they had a strong idea or concept in mind and yet were also responding to light, value, tonality, volume in what they saw. I don’t want to produce abstraction. The artists that most readily come to mind sometimes had distorted, stretched, exaggerated figures, which is what I like about some of the sketches in Mattesi’s work, or other work by contemporary graphic artists, cartoonists and so on. I really want to find someone with very strong black-and-white work if possible, though.
I really liked Kaethe Kollwitz’s work visually when we looked at it in class earlier this semester. I hate to be the kind of student who doesn’t go any further than what was brought into class, but she may be the closest to what I feel I can do. Oscar Kokoschka, Max Beckmann, Ernst Barlach and Emil Nolde are also somewhat appealing. The South African artist Gerard Sekoto is interesting to me for the same reasons.
Other, very different people whose work appeals in the same way, as something where I like the technique and the medium on display: Honore Daumier and Albert Pinkham Ryder. Living artists: I like Frank Auerbach’s black-and-whites. I like some of the sketches and illustrations that Mervyn Peake did, though I think most of his pictures have have a lot of line and detail.
Any ideas out there? My knowledge of art history is so episodic and largely about understanding the overall arc of cultural history that it’s not helping me much to think through this challenge.
Update Edwin Dickinson seems really appealing to me along these lines, including the unreality or dreaminess that was part of his work at times. I think that’s what I’ll go with.