Katharina Gifford | Drawing Workshop with Steven Assael: The Scoop from February…
Contemporary Maine Realist Portrait Painter
Maine portrait painter, Portland, Maine, contemporary realist painter, oil on canvas, drawings, portraits, still life, figurative art
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Drawing Workshop with Steven Assael: The Scoop from February…

With only a few days left of winter, I’ve finally got around to writing and posting about my trip to NYC for a February drawing workshop with Steven Assael.

While taking the Concord Trailways bus home (straight shot from NYC to Portland, great service!), I had plenty of time to think about the whole trip.

Now I know I’ve written before about how much I love New York City, I think I must have lived there in a past life or something. You can just feel the moving energy of the city everywhere you go. This time it was no different, despite the fact that it was winter. On top of the Whitney, I got to see the MoMA for the first time ever (I know, slightly shameful that I was a MoMA virgin. But no more!) and see van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ and Andrew Wyeth’s ‘Christina’s World’ in person. So wonderful. Why they have ‘Christina’s World’ in a busy thru-way hallway though I have no idea. That painting deserves respect and a spot in an actual room, gosh darnit! 🙂 Ok enough ranting…

Close up of 'The Starry Night'. I loved seeing the raw canvas in the top corner. But all around holy wow. Love this painting

The workshop itself was structured very similarly to the painting workshop that I did with Steven in 2015. He demoed almost every day, and he lectured almost every day too. The rest of the time we spent working with the model. He covered drawing the head quite a bit, and made sure that we understood the structure of it. In general he emphasized the importance of looking at the image as a whole, and then breaking it down to the individual parts. He also stressed the importance of thinking about the head/figure from the inside out.

Another interesting thing that he talked about was how he kept his drawing and his painting separate. Where a lot of artists (many if not most?) will do some sort of preparatory drawings for their paintings, whether it be a quickly sketched or a detailed one, he does not. The drawing is done typically to be able to inform their painting. Steven treats a drawing as its own finished piece. My own method has been to do prep drawings and sketches before painting something, only because it helps me establish what looks good for a composition, and set down the basic shapes of the figure/portrait/object. But I rarely do a drawing purely as its own finished piece. In a sense I think that Steven shoots from the hip with his painting. Shooting from a highly educated and informed hip that is, and he doesn’t need to do prep drawings. He showed us a bunch of drawings from his high school and college days that he had taken from his parents house. The amount of practice and work he did at such a young age was evident, and it made sense how he has now become such a draughtsman powerhouse. A powerhouse that with such a deep pool of ability that he now can just paint ‘from the hip’. While lecturing he quoted a historical artist saying that too much preparatory drawing for a painting is like eating too much bread before the main course. Once he said that it totally made sense 🙂

Steven's drawing in silverpoint
Steven's drawings illustrating structure of the head
Steven's demo from day one (stabilo and graphite)

As with painting, he stressed the importance of the emotive side of drawing. Thinking about your drawing not as just a technical/mechanical exercise, but as an expression about your reaction to what you’re seeing. How does it make you feel, what is it about what you see that strikes you and what parts do you want to express the most. For someone with a more academic/technical training in drawing this again was eye opening and helpful.

For myself, though I was excited to learn and practice methods for drawing the head, I enjoyed working on the figure the most. Having learned and practised the ‘envelope’ method for drawing the figure for all of these years, it was both refreshing and enlightening to work from the inside out. I imagine for some of the folks there they had already been presented and practised with these concepts at some point in their educations, but I had only been introduced to them briefly at MECA and they never stuck. So thinking about what he calls ‘inner volumes’ and recreating the boxes of the pelvis and ribcage was more new to me than anything. Not only that but it was a challenging exercise.

Steven drawing the gesture of a figure he had done previously
Steven's sketches of examples of gesture when starting the figure
My drawing on the left with Steven's overlay drawing on the right.
My attempts at figure gestures with Steven's help on top
The pile of my work from the workshop laid out on my studio floor. We were busy 🙂

I took so many notes and I continue to go back to them as I have with my notes from the painting workshop. Here is the cliff notes version of the notes from this trip:

  • Schopenhauer said that art is like a tiger in a silver cage, it is wildness and emotion contained.
  • The mechanical representation of the world [photography] is not the truth. The human experience is not the lesser.
  • Photography is only a tool, it’s not how we experience the world.
  • A photograph is just capturing one moment [whereas working from life allows you to capture all of those moments of a living breathing thing].
  • Rodin in his book, said that all movement and motion comes from a life  force, and it is the artist who sees this. The soul does exist physically that we need to anifest it visually.
  • Overlapping forms always push from the inside out.
  • Nature forces itself against gravity, even from the inside; pushing outward.
  • Develop a sense of the line of gravity, which allows everything to be grounded vs. using a plumb line.
  • When you look at gesture, it’s something that starts from the inside.
  • To avoid stiffness, find expression, etc. that you want to hold on to, remember it. An incidental movement might say everything.
  • Look for symmetrical, then look for the asymmetrical
  • Don’t shoot for the bulls eye at the beginning, shoot for the target.
  • Thinking about working from the inside out vs. the ‘envelope’ and working outside in
  • Proportion: make it right to the eye
  • Be objective with yourself and your work. Allow yourself to evolve
  • The mind is our worst enemy and best friend. We must be in control of both hand and mind.
  • DRAW ALL THE TIME. Even when you don’t have a pencil
  • How do we marry the subjective and the objective.
  • Thinking about how we observe something and allow it to infiltrate our imagination
  • Don’t worry about the drawing being good, key is to be experimental and not afraid.
  • A sketchbook is a vehicle of the mind to develop a language that is your own and is visual, that is connected to your own personal experience
  • This requires a mindful attitude, and once it becomes more familiar, it becomes locked in
  • Just like speaking a language, words just come to you and you don’t have to think about it. This is what we want drawing to be like.
  • Learning a visual language, be mindful of how that language and vocabulary is developed
  • You can feel something, but you need to make it clear.
  • Constructing a drawing using emotion and personal experience needs structure
  • Humans are privy to acknowledge that nothing else has on earth. We understand that [everything] has a beginning and end. We understand both the temporal and the eternal, and that they occupy the same space
  • Every form is a container of something.
  • When we think about the specificity of form, we look closely at the details, and we see the differences.
  • Step back from drawing, think of the wholeness of the drawing, the symmetry, the eternal.
  • Look close at drawing to find the individual peculiarities, the asymmetry, the temporal
  • When looking outward, you’re also looking inward. When you draw something, you’re also drawing yourself.
  • The portrait is a picture plane, we look at it and it looks at us. It projects to us and we project to it.
  • Illumination of light: light and shadow isn’t just hitting the object, but also reflecting back at us.
  • The is a dominant line and flow in a painting, symphony, etc. and there are variations that break it up. It’s the same with a figure.
  • Form has a force to it, it isn’t still. There’s an energy behind it.
  • Underneath what we see is a relationship to gravity.
  • When you look at a figure, think of a straight line of gravity in mind vs. having a plumb line. If you imagine it, you can feel it.
A couple of pages from my notes. I sketched Steven drawing on the left there. Couldn't help myself!

Overall, another enlightening and intense workshop with Steven Assael. I would recommend anyone who paints and draws humans to take one of his workshops. You will for sure bring back many things to integrate into your own practice! Thanks to Steven and his assisters Bernard, Erin and Eddi. And to my fellow workshoppers, great work and lovely to meet you all!

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