Saturday, April 9, 2016

You Can’t Do That

“Who is putting up all of these teensy little drawings?” 

the Professor wanted to know.

He’d interrupted his erratic pacing mid-stride, in front of twenty or so versions of a person sitting in a chair, all from different angles, of all different sizes, taped to the wall in a haphazard row.

He grabbed the smallest picture from the line, a plain sheet of typing paper with a two-inch-high figure floating dead center. “I see one of these at every critique. Who is responsible for them?”

I raised my hand.

“You? What’s the matter - are you afraid to make a full sized rendering like everyone else?” Murmured chuckles sprinkled about the room.

“No, sir,” I answered. “It’s just hard for me to finish a large drawing in the time allowed, so I make several quick sketches, and put the best one up for discussion.”

“No one else seems to have trouble making big drawings.” he said, pausing to let the obvious conclusion sink in. “What’s your problem?”

“It’s not a problem, really, just a limitation of the medium,” I replied.

“Really? What medium are you using?”

“A ballpoint pen,” I said, holding up my trusty Bic for him to see.

Not a legitimate artist's medium.

“Seriously?” he scolded. “You’re using a ballpoint pen in an art class?”

Of course I was using a ballpoint pen in an art class. Why wouldn't I? I used ballpoints for every other class: Biology, Chemistry, Physics, History of the English Language. I usually carried at least three of them, color-coding each academic subject with a different combination of black, blue and red ink. The visual difference was quite helpful when it came time to study for exams. Why would this class be any different? 

Here in the Basic Drawing studio, it was the logical choice. I was not an art major. I was just a pre-med who wanted to learn how to draw in one semester – and make an ‘A’ doing it. If I wanted to learn the techniques of rendering forms and textures in an efficient manner, I needed to streamline the process, and focus on what I already knew how to do.
Until that day, my sketches 
had consistently elicited 
encouraging comments.

Charcoal, India ink, Conte´crayon… these were media that required an extra learning curve, additional time to master, not to mention an additional cash outlay at the college bookstore. True, they offered the advantage of covering large swaths of real estate at a single stroke, but that ‘advantage’ also meant I would have to buy large tablets of drawing paper – another infringement on my nonexistent art supply budget. I already had reams of typing paper collecting dust on my bookshelf.

“I didn’t know that there were size requirements on the assignments, Sir,” I explained. “And you did say that we could use any medium.”

Besides, even though my drawings were small, I felt I had managed to accomplish all of the goals set out for us in every studio exercise, representing form, texture, shading, etc., using my familiar, preferred technique.

Until that day, my sketches had consistently elicited encouraging comments.

He reached down and plucked the instrument from my hand, holding it up for everyone to see. “This is not a legitimate artist’s medium. You can’t make anything of substance with such a skinny black line. I don't want to see it in my studio again.” To underscore his point, he confiscated the offending contraband, freeing me from the temptation ever to use it again.

To his credit, the Professor was not being unduly critical. This was his class; he had every right to expect things to be done his way. And I could understand and appreciate his preferences: the man was a painter, who preferred to work on large-scale projects. It was not unusual to see him working on a wall-sized canvas, using a three- or four-inch wide paintbrush. Making artwork on such a miniaturized scale, regardless of detail, must have seemed utterly foreign to him.

Like any reputable instructor, I’m sure he wanted his course to be taken seriously, and probably felt that by refusing to embrace a variety of drawing styles and materials, I would be missing the opportunity to wring the full potential from this class.

Lesson learned, I reached into my pocket, and started constructing the day’s new drawing assignment using the skinny black lines of a No. 2 pencil. It felt good to be a legitimate student again.

Much to the Professor’s delight, I spent the rest of the semester exploring the monotonal worlds of graphite, charcoal, and ink wash, with illustrative side routes into magic marker, and creative photocopying. Once I had distanced myself from the wretched, divisive ballpoint issue, it became clear that my grade point average would be back on track as well.

It was perhaps understandable then that I did not tell my new mentor about the several drawing projects I still had underway in my dorm room, where I struggled on my own to work out the graphic potential of skinny ballpoint lines.

One of these pieces, a whimsical study of a cartoon ant on crumpled beer can, seemed especially pleasing, and worthy, I thought, of submission to the campus literary magazine. The student editorial staff liked it too, and awarded my drawing First Place in the visual arts category – an honor that included publication in the journal, and a cash prize as well.

Twenty-five dollars may not sound like a lot of money today, and it probably wasn’t very much then, either, but to a college student in the early 1980’s it meant a full tank of gas, a six-pack of beer, and at least one dinner date at a decent restaurant.

It also meant that a ballpoint pen was capable of producing artwork that had audience appeal, and real earning potential. I had no idea how important that realization would become in the years following my brief tour through medical training.

Years later, I was fortunate enough to re-make my acquaintance with my former art professor, this time on even friendlier terms, both personally and professionally. My career as a ballpoint artist was rounding out its second decade, and the studio was producing a picture book to mark the anniversary. He was gracious enough to write the introduction for the project.

Of course he took full credit for my artistic career:

Edward Hill, in his ‘Language of Drawing’, stated that the student mirrors his teaching – often through opposition.  When Don Stewart was a student in one of my drawing courses at Birmingham-Southern College many years ago, he was chided for the ‘improper use’ of a ballpoint pen.  Illustrating Mr. Hill’s theory perfectly, Stewart has investigated, tested, and polished the applications of the once-lowly instrument – seeking a new potential rather than settling for the ordinary.  Feathery lines and nubby textures supplement his definitive lights and darks, enticing the viewer further to seek their objects’ whimsical presence.  The visual puns of his devious mind are delivered with a wit and intelligence seldom seen.  As I have half-jokingly related to co-appreciators of his work, I feel personally responsible for his success.

Robert Shelton,
Professor of Art
Birmingham-Southern College
Birmingham, Alabama

I couldn’t agree more.

The Visual Humor of Don Stewart

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful art story, not just for artists to enjoy, but for any person working toward a goal. I love this story, and applaud the steady forward-moving work to achieve a goal in spite of inevitable bumps in the road. Oh, and the drawing is terrific!