Article in the Isthmus on Drawing at the Chazen Museum

This summer I have been running a very exciting class: Life Drawing at the Chazen Museum of Art. The classes are in conjunction with their “In the Studio” exhibit, currently on display. It is very inspiring to be drawing the figure surrounded by so many masterpieces. The class was very popular, and sold out soon after it was announced. The Madison weekly paper, the Isthmus, featured an article on the experience. The article can be viewed here. Otherwise, see below.

Play like an artist

BY LINDA FALKENSTEIN

JULY 11, 2019

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The Chazen is eerily quiet at 5:30 p.m. on a rainy Tuesday. In the Brittingham II gallery, a dozen empty easels are set up facing the Vasari. If you took Renaissance to Modern Art at UW-Madison, you probably know it  —  a wall-size Renaissance painting called The Adoration of the Shepherds. What I remember learning about the painting is that most of the languid figures in it are pointing, either at baby Jesus or heavenward, indicating the infant’s holiness. I took Renaissance to Modern Art in 1980. The painting is still there in a room that looks much the same as it did then — bringing to mind what Holden Caulfield, in The Catcher in the Rye, thinks about Manhattan’s Museum of Natural History: “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was.”

It is that inert quality that curator of education Candie Waterloo longed to work against in introducing free life drawing sessions this summer at The Chazen.  “I wanted to give people the opportunity to play like an artist, in a low-commitment and non-intimidating way,” says Waterloo. Holding figure drawing sessions in the galleries dovetailed with this summer’s exhibit In the Studio, which highlights the spaces in which artists create.

So, provided are easels, sketch pads, a handful of graphite and charcoal pencils, a kneaded rubber eraser, a live model, an instructor — Madison artist Philip Salamone — and eight two-and-a-half hour sessions over the course of the summer. Advance registration for the 15 slots for each class filled almost immediately, Waterloo says. I have nabbed an easel on this night thanks to a cancellation.

Best part: “No experience necessary.”

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I have no experience. Not at life drawing, i.e., drawing a living breathing human being (who is often nude, but, in this case, clothed) standing in front of you. I have almost no experience with drawing of any kind. I took a four-session class in portraits in 2017. Let’s just say I am always grateful that what I am working on manages to look like a head.

Most of the participants are likewise novices. Among them is a retired diplomat, a retired social worker, and a pharmacy school student. The most practiced was an economics major in college.

Everything is quite casual. Chill. We draw a series of five-minute sketches, then move on to 20-minute poses. Daniel, the model, sits, stands, curls his arm, pulls his knee up, checks his phone between poses. He knows, I think, that we are faltering. 

Salamone doesn’t prescribe much, every so often blocking in rough proportions on someone’s sketchpad, after which the paper looks like a stack of teetering rectangles, not a human form. A common mistake, he says, is that students try to make their drawings “too human, too soon.”

Mostly he stays in the background, shooting out bits of advice that seem like reasonable adages until I start pulling them apart; then they seem a little lopsided and quirky: “Be bold but cautious. Ruthless but delicate. These may seem like contradictions, but they are really not.” Very Zen. It gets to a feeling one of my classmates expresses to me during the break. She feels like what she is drawing is “too tight.” There is the will to be free, the pencil reaching out and creating a little bit of the universe that had not previously existed. Against it is the pressure to work slowly and methodically, slavishly bowing to reality.

“Choose a specific goal beyond ‘make this look like that,’” says Salamone. (This actually had been my goal.) Pick one particular element of drawing to focus on, he tells us. Big shapes. Shading. Proportion. Don’t get bogged down in details. “I don’t need every county on that map,” says Salamone.

This, as my final sketch is starting to go horribly, fatally awry. I let go, scribbling darker, more frenetic lines until the limbs resolve into something more figure-like.

“A good painting is almost like committing a crime,” Salamone says. How’s that?

“You need a plan, and you need a contingency plan, and you need to stay flexible because things don’t always go according to plan. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a vision.”