What is talent?

“Bras,” oil on canvas, Kamillah Ramos, 2012. This was painted after five months of study.

Every year I seem to get one kid who draws wonderfully. Sometimes, this kid has managed to decode the rules of drawing on his own. More typically, he has studied outside of school. But however he does it, to the casual observer, he appears to have “spontaneously” learned to draw.

In turn, his teachers identify him as talented, and he is a star of his public school art program. Meanwhile, the majority of kids are vaguely encouraged toward self-expression but never challenged to learn the craft of making art. Nobody considers them particularly talented.

A drawing by this year’s star pupil, Sam Horowitz. Of course he can draw this vacuum cleaner—he’s studied not only with me but with the wonderful Sari Gaby.

As an educational model, that’s bizarre. If we taught math like that, we’d have only one kid a year who mastered calculus. If we taught English like that, we’d be a nation of illiterates.

There is no more a “genius” for art than there is one for math, and it’s a terrible disservice to both students and society to not teach the craft of drawing to all young people.

When I was in school, art instruction was undergoing a sea change. There were some teachers who still taught the technical skill of drawing, but they were being replaced by a generation who emphasized emotional intensity and ideas rather than the nuts and bolts of observation and description. I was fortunate in having superlative draftsmen as teachers, but I’m among the last generation for whom that was a given.

Almost no kids come to my private studio with any experience in observational drawing. They don’t even know there’s a difference between observational drawing and copying photographs. They have never learned the systems of perspective, measurement, and proportion that were drilled into us in an earlier time.

The painting at the top of this page was done by a high school senior. She started studying with me in August, 2011, having had no prior instruction. She is not someone who could teach herself to draw, and hence she wasn’t identified as “talented.” However, she is extremely bright and hardworking. Moreover, she has a story she’s anxious to tell. In five months time, she has gone from not being able to draw at all to being able to paint at this level: not by concentrating on self-expression but by practicing the core disciplines of drawing and painting.

I’m not worried about her future, but she isn’t going to art school because she didn’t have time to develop the chops needed to put together a mature portfolio. But what if she had been taught to draw in elementary school, as I was? How might her life be different?

And what about all the people who never have the chance to learn the skill of drawing? How many potential Manets or Velázquezes have we squandered?

“Annabel,” graphite on paper, Gwendolyn Linn

This drawing was done by an adult student. She has been hampered by her lack of drawing chops, so I taught her to measure and check angles. This is her first drawing with that skill set, and shows just how quickly one can progress with a little practical instruction.


In church

This is the second year I’ve bought into the Sketchbook Project and then felt my muse desert me as soon as the package arrived in the mail. It’s ironic, because I carry a sketchbook everywhere I go, a habit that started in elementary school.

My school notekeeping was a total fail from an academic standpoint—full of drawings, with notes occupying a very minor role. My current sketchbooks look exactly the same.

I now realize that drawing in school allowed me to cope with undiagnosed ADHD at a time when school was extremely regimented and bad behaviour still punishable with a ruler to the knuckles. And I received my share of thwacks for drawing in class, believe me. But as a parent and painting teacher, I encourage both my children and students to do the same thing. Unfortunately, most teachers are still opposed to it.

I know it works (as long as the information being presented is verbal and not visual). For some reason, it’s perfectly possible for the mind to listen, learn and retain a lecture while drawing something entirely unrelated.

For me, drawing takes the place of the anxious fidgeting that is part of ADHD. Educators have begun to recognize that allowing such kids to move paradoxically makes concentration easier. But they don’t generally recognize that drawing can achieve the same goal.

I bring my sketchbook to church, to appointments, on errands—in short, anywhere there’s a possibility I will cool my heels. I make no pretence to style, and don’t think about content or composition. (To do otherwise would interfere with my listening.) My goal is simply to record what I see. It’s totally process-based; I never think of the sketches as anything other than practice strokes or visual notes. Which may be why the Sketchbook Project never works for me: it can’t help but turn process into product.

(L-R) In a pinch, you can always draw your own jacket thrown over a chair; couple in church; gesture drawing of horse at Walnut Hill.

(L-R) Or, you can draw your non-dominant hand; people almost always have a few ears hanging around; patient at the neurologist’s office.

(L-R) Quick value study of a path (I could paint it from this); man in church; my son’s big foot, at the pediatrician’s office.

(L-R) I’ve pretty much mined my dentist’s office for subject matter, but there’s always the woodwork; poofy gown from a shopping excursion; man in church.

Urban painting/Queensboro Bridge

Usually, when we say “field sketch,” people think of pastorals, but the term can apply equally to urban landscapes. I went on a tear painting the Queensboro (or 59th Street) Bridge with my friend Kristin. Here are a few examples.

Construction on the Queensboro Bridge, oil on board, 12X9

Just as urban plein air painters complain about the “endless green” of the woods, pastoral painters are overwhelmed by the grey of the city. But just as there are many different greens, there are many different greys. The trick is to find them, and to find the accidental notes in either landscape.

Queensboro Bridge approach, oil on canvasboard, 16X20

How do you avoid dreary, dull greys? First, avoid using black as a base. I was taught that this was because of the large grains in carbon-based blacks, which may or may not be true. But for whatever reason, black has a way of making cool colors look muddy and warm colors look more opaque, and that’s a bad basis for greys.

Under the Queensboro Bridge, oil on canvasboard, 12X16

I normally paint foliage using a matrix of nine mixed greens plus one from a tube (chromium oxide). There are at least that many greys present in the urban landscape. I prefer to mix them not in matrices, but in threads, so that every permutation is easily available.

Some of my favorite grey threads, from left to right:

Cadmium orange and Prussian blue;

Raw sienna and Prussian blue;

Yellow ochre and quinacridone violet;

Burnt sienna and ultramarine blue.

Remember, every manufacturer’s paint handles somewhat differently, and unless you’re using RGH paint, you’re unlikely to duplicate my results exactly. But the principle is simple: just choose two colors from opposite sides of the color wheel and add white.

In addition, I think it’s very helpful to use a warm-toned canvas or canvas board.

Black Eye

Michelle’s shiner (detail)

It’s not often you get a model showing up with a black eye, and that’s irresistible to paint. (Before you get worried that she’s the victim of domestic abuse, she’s a dancer and occasionally her face gets in someone else’s way.)

A flesh tone matrix, a little more complex than what I usually use, but you get the drift

During the interregnum between open painting and figure, I usually set up my palette in a flesh-tone matrix. This is how I’m able to do a credible figure painting in three hours. Today, a number of interruptions stopped me from doing that, and I ended up doing the first hour of painting using pigments scarfed from a student’s palette. On top of that, I’m working huge for a sketch—this canvas is 48X36. So most of this is a rough underpainting, and I’ll be finishing it next week.

Michelle’s shiner, in draft form

A note about this model: she’s a wonderful, adventurous nut, who allows me to wrap her up in Saran Wrap.

Michelle as a shrink wrapped vegetable, 18X24, oil on canvas