Drawing Blind

IMG_0814In February, a show of my latest work will go up at Gallery 114 in Portland. Much has been made of the fact that these drawings are drawn to a great extent “blind”, that is, without looking at the paper. This is the story of how the blind work emerged.

About twelve to fifteen years into my work, I had a massive artist’s block. I had been doing figurative work from observation and the work was getting more and more detailed and explicit. Also, I was beginning to do multiple figure work. After a six month trip to Europe and interruption of my work, I found I couldn’t face continuing in this direction that had been evolving for so many years. Essentially, the burden of solving so many drawing details became overwhelming. I had the skills to solve the drawing structure, but it involved hours and hours of exercising established abilities and involved little new discovery. I wanted to get back to the feeling of my early drawing where new worlds of seeing were happening every day. However, I had no idea how to do that.

The challenge, as I have written before, was to let go of how I habitually approached things. One day, after perhaps eight or nine months of block, I had a break through session. I stopped looking to resolve the structure and shifted instead toward working very physically, very quickly,  and in a very large format, focusing on constantly exploring the frontiers of my seeing, larger scale relationships, more spatial and surface movement, geometric relationships. The key was to not pay much attention to the drawing itself, allowing the drawing to go out of focus, out of registration. That way, each new exploratory mark could just land where it landed, rather than being qualified so that it would line up with and not contradict earlier decisions. I could get to that place by working large and fast, but I had to work very hard to let go of registration in smaller formats and at slower speeds.

It was at this time that I started working with two ball point pens at once, held in one hand. I kept the pens on the paper at all times, moving continuously. That way no discreet edges could be created. The drawing was always out of focus. Not lifting the pens off the paper meant I was constantly leaving nonsense drag marks across the drawing as my eyes moved from place to place. The pen marks were so fine that no single mark could ruin the drawing. It was only how the marks piled up by the hundreds that had any impact on a reading.

Various ways of experimenting helped me develop, over time, the quality that I call independence, that is, where each mark has the freedom to land where it is seen regardless of how much it may contradict earlier marks. Cezanne is a master of independence. That is why his works often has a quality of being somewhat out of focus. Independence required that I not pay attention to what was already on the page. The easiest way to do that was to not look at the page much and to avoid looking at the moment the mark lands. As I became more and more comfortable marking without looking, I did more and more experiments suspending looking at the page at all while working. I loved working this way because it freed me to concentrate exclusively on observing and the expressive impulse of the mark, my two favorite aspects of drawing.

Well, one day, one of my blind figure studies actually ended up reading in a way that was very interesting to me and unlike any of my previous drawing. A huge amount of structure, especially spatial structure and surface, was implied, without anything being discreet or explicit. Everything was out of focus, but still, the drawing held a huge amount of implied content. That drawing haunted me. I wanted to make more like it but, for the longest time, couldn’t.

The next step happened while working on a portrait of David Biespiel, the poet. I worked from David for two months, going back and forth between blind studies and more explicit drawings. Eventually, I developed enough of a familiarity with his face that I could do blind studies that actually had implied structure rather than just being a pile of out of focus fuzz. I had tripped over the same territory as that figure drawing that I couldn’t repeat. The key was becoming extremely familiar with my subject.

About five or six years ago, I started drawing my friend Gary each week. I’ve drawn Gary now at least 400 hours. My studies go back and forth between fully blind and explicit, also hitting all the territory in between. Essentially, I am moving back and forth across a line of ambiguous implication, hoping to occasionally get close to the knife edge of ambiguous structure that so interests me. I would say that it takes me maybe one hundred drawings, each going too far toward either control or empty chaos before I find a drawing with some of the qualities I value. The Gallery 114 show gives me a chance to share some of this work.

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