Artist Bleg

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.

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5 Responses to Artist Bleg

  1. samsadow says:

    Have you looked at the drawings of Georges Seurat? When I hear “tonal draftsman,” his is the first name that comes to mind. There are lots of examples available online because MoMA held an exhibition of them last year.

    Also, you can never really go wrong with the “Ninja Turtles” nor the other Old Masters: Rembrandt, Titian, Tiepolo, Durer, Ingres, David, Gericault, etc. (Here, I would recommend picking up any book with a title such as “Master Drawings from the Louvre, Uffizi, [insert world class museum name]”)

    If you are looking for something a little more modern (and German), I think Otto Dix was an extraordinary draftsman, and although he was often quite linear in his approach, many of his drawings have passages that give over to tonal descriptions of form.

    Just off the top of my head, Balthus and Andrew Wyeth are two more so-called “artists’ artists” whose drawings have blown me away.

    I hope this helps.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Seurat is someone I’d thought about (also someone we looked at earlier this semester). Just feels intimidating, I guess. Even more so the Old Masters, maybe in part because to my eye they feel so precise, so mimetic.

    Wyeth is a nice idea, hadn’t occurred to me.

  3. Wil Eisner? I haven’t spent a lot of time on his work, so I could be wrong, but I got the impression that his work is more tonal than usual for cartoon work.

    On the larger question, I find myself increasingly hostile to the position you’re taking, that intuition and intention matter more than precision: effective vagueness is actually immensely precise. I suppose it’s my professional exposure to Taoist and Zen aesthetics, which require immense training before one can be intuitive, substantial control before one can be spontaneous, in which “going with the flow” rests on actually understanding the flow as the result of study and practice.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Effective vagueness is precise in a way, yes. I think it’s a position on process.

    An analogy that occurred to me is about my tennis game. It rests on having learned all the strokes, having taken lessons for quite a while when I was young, having played a lot. But if I *think* while I’m playing (shoot for the alley! drop it! lob!), if I’m conscious of thinking about a desired outcome, I will almost inevitably miss that outcome, usually by a farcically large margin. But when I’m playing well, I have a plan: things go where they ought, there is a design. It’s just that I can’t think about the thinking I’m doing; there has to be a veil between one kind of self-awareness and the next. This is kind of a potted form of Zen argument, right?

    So yes, I’m not arguing for something really silly like automatic writing, or a complete lack of control. I am thinking that there is a sort of authorial ambition that is all control, however, that’s about declaring an intent, executing it as declared, and assuming that the correct matching of intent and result will then in turn produce a predictable, controlled reaction in an audience or viewer.

  5. There’s actually something of a tension in the Zen discourse: the goal of Zen is constant mindfulness, which would seem to mitigate against the kind of unselfconscious success you’re describing. Oddly, though, the fact that the goal is constant mindfulness means that you should always be at roughly the same level of intent-awareness, which means that the kind of slippage you’re describing — where too much awareness of what you’re thinking produces a real-time failure — shouldn’t happen. The goal of Zen practice is to get the self out of the way by observing it so constantly that it becomes irrelevant to the process. Something like that.

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