Ten years crept by between the time I graduated from high school and entered college. When I finally decided to go, it was after the end of a long and shaky relationship that terminated when I began to grow up enough to realize that my life wasn’t going to get any better unless I did something. This included ending the marriage and starting school.

At 28 I still didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I didn’t realize then that I might never know, exactly. I enrolled in community college to see how things would go. It turned out to be my second good decision, after the divorce, and I began to feel some real optimism about my possibilities for the future. I thought I’d like to focus on art, and so I took every class they had in the department. It was wonderful. After that I was accepted into the art department at a four-year school on an academic honors scholarship, full ride, and that’s where I began to really learn about art.

Anyone can learn to draw, you see. It’s true- drawing is simply placing marks on a surface. If you can write- and not even necessarily legibly- you can draw. The mechanics of drawing take some practice, exactly like back in kindergarten when you first learned to make your letters. Using different drawing tools such as pencil or charcoal or chalk means learning how different materials act on different surfaces.  Adding things like light and shadow or perspective requires some ability to apply logic to what you see on the page in front of you. It’s somewhat effortful to get good at drawing, but not impossible. I know this because I have been teaching drawing for many years and seen a lot of surprised and happy students.

The thing about art that I am still learning, and hope never to stop, is the stuff that makes it more than just mechanics and practice. My first real lesson in the meaningful content of art came during the first drawing class I took as a junior at my new school. It took a while for me to get into the expectations these new art professors had. One of my first drawing assignments involved making a series of drawings based on the elements of fire, water, earth and air. As each drawing came due, we students would tack our work onto a long white wall for a peer review and critique. How exactly do you draw water without literally drawing water? Those (like me!) who did just that- producing lovely seashores and lakes- were roundly scoffed at. The idea, I soon discovered, was to make your viewer feel the“water” in your drawing. Aha! This class was all about the abstract expression of ideas. I got over being insulted and and threw myself into trying to see things anew.

Now that I saw how things were, I managed. I have a decent imagination and can talk my way out of a paper bag if I have to. I could play that critique game pretty well, and began to learn how to make drawings that fit the expectations of the professor and his course.

After the elements series, we went on to make a drawing for a blind person. (Simple, really; create a textured surface that doesn’t come off on your audience’s hands. I used layers of foam board, cardboard, and fabrics. It was an interesting exercise.)

The one that got me, though, was the assignment to “make a drawing about nothing".  How in hell do you do that? As soon as you place a mark on paper, the drawing at its most basic is “about a mark on paper”. I toyed with pretending to tack up an invisible drawing and do the talk thing. And then I conveniently forgot about the assignment completely until the day it was due.

Working in sculpture class that morning, one of my mates asked how I had solved the drawing problem, and I was immediately overcome with dread. You do not come to drawing class unprepared.

Inspired by petulance and bravado, I ripped a sheet of black paper out of my pastel pad and grabbed a piece of soft black charcoal. I swiped the charcoal on the paper in three savage downward strokes. The black on black made the marks practically invisible. The edge where I took the paper out of the pad had ripped unevenly, leaving a jaggedly torn edge and some of the little diddly things from the spiral binding at one end. Oh well.

A few moments later, I tacked it to the wall, fully expecting a major dressing down by my classmates and professor. They could be less than gentle with shirkers and dilettantes.

We discussed each drawing in turn. None had passed the room’s approval. Too much “stuff” happening on surfaces. We had to disregard the “about marks on paper” idea and focus on the “nothingness”. Then, it was my turn.

Apparently, my drawing had a Zen quality that depicted…nothing. Not even the anger at myself and the assignment. I was shocked. And abashed by my lack of effort. I said so; was told that insight and accomplishment need not take time and effort.

I did not believe it, then, but I was gracious and didn’t argue. I did not want to talk myself out of a good grade for the assignment.  It took me years to stop feeling like I had pulled something over on the class. Maybe I even had, and in that particular moment in time, my teacher had decided to make an aesthetic example out of something very simple. Eventually I was able to apply that standard to my own work in asking myself, Does this drawing say anything more than the marks on the paper? Or is it a drawing about nothing?

Views: 142

Comment by James Mark Emmerling on December 4, 2012 at 5:28pm

ah no you hit that zen vibe just right from what i know of it. it consists of Masters smacking their students around.

it is about spontaneity.

which is now of course a much valued 'thing', to be achieved. Laboriously no doubt.

fuck that.

hey you can write too yknow.

i love this piece.

"The thing about art that I am still learning, and hope never to stop, is the stuff that makes it more than just mechanics and practice."


right right.


editing????? something i am learning about.

i blather in full beatnik voice per dear allen ginsberg: first thought best thought.


but art is , i have found, separated from psychosis by the simple matter of communication. does it have it , or not?

is it some how a common thing or

a crazy thing.

i dunno.

Comment by Poor Woman on December 4, 2012 at 7:07pm

What a fascinating account. I'm glad to know you pursued your dream. It heartens me whenever I learn of others doing so. It strengthens my own resolve in creative study, even as I know I may never be enabled to study in a more forma setting again.

Peace to you.

Comment by Zanelle on December 5, 2012 at 2:23am

Sometimes too much time spent on something is deadening.  You did a good job.  I loved your writing.  I went to Art School too and loved it.  So much to think about.

Comment by greenheron on December 5, 2012 at 6:39am

Oy.  The Art School Critique. Boy oh boy do we get made fun of for that, and often, rightly so.  Part of the education of an emerging artist involves learning to speak about their art, hearing the sound of their own creative voice, and to develop consciousness of inspiration and motivation. The Critique is invaluable in that way. That's the positive side of the continuum; the negative side can be pontification, blather, pat suggestion, e.g. try drawing that bigger/smaller/left-handed/etc.

P.S.  I love the idea of drawing 'nothing'.  It's like a Zen koan. For more than five years, I made a drawing every morning at the same time (for about an hour) of the same stone, hundreds and hundreds of them, most given away or tossed afterwards. No one, not even me, could look at all of them individually, or even as a body of drawings, so many, all appearing the same, like photocopies.  I would say that I was drawing nothing, because the  drawings did not matter. They were a record of moments of seeing, which vanished, leaving nothing.

P.P. S.  Yeah.  I'm an art professor ;-)


Comment by greenheron on December 5, 2012 at 7:16am

But but but... there is the depiction of 'nothing' and the concept of 'nothing'.  Worth a mention here is a favorite artwork, Robert Rauschenberg's erased deKooning drawing.  Talk about the concept of 'nothing'.

Also, Reinhardt was not concerned with painting 'nothing'. His thoughts on painting read like a manifesto.  I sure don't miss that period.  You couldn't appreciate painting without reading lots of crappity crap first.

Comment by Rosigami on December 5, 2012 at 12:51pm

I would have been here sooner...unconventional work day (since 4 pm left coast time yesterday) with a short breather now!

James...Thank you.  Blather on in any style you like; I will surely read it. Ginsberg is an old favorite.  

Poor Woman...I was a stubbornly non-conforming kid and that cost me years of time not spent making art. It felt good to finally begin doing something about that.  I hope you get to do continue your own pursuit of creativity.

Jan Sand...you're right about the idea of nothing, of course. Pretty sure the professor wanted to make us think in new ways, in how to make our viewers "feel" the concept behind the drawing.  It becomes a matter of semantics and it's fun to think about.  At the time, though, it was pretty stressful. Letting go of expectations was a big step for me.                                                                                                                                                                           As to John Cage...well... I studied classical piano for a gazillion years (yeah, I teach that, too) and I'm familiar with some of his work.  One of my piano teachers, a grad student in music, actually prepared a piano and gave me a few lessons in the style. Once again, I was too immature to wrap my mind around it. but the experience has resonated since then.

Zanelle...thank you, I'm glad you did. I appreciate hearing from a fellow art student. 

greenheron...nice to hear from the "other side of the classroom"!  I am now teaching art at a community college and thoroughly enjoying the experience of working with people over 18.  Getting them to critique thoughtfully is a challenge, though. 

Comment by greenheron on December 6, 2012 at 6:10am

And that by its very nature, an artist makes 'something'.  We touch materials with our hands, work with them, and leave a 'thing' behind.

While the ideas put forth through conceptual art, minimal art,  those manifesto-writing artists like Malevich, are extraordinarily interesting in the context of their political, cultural, social times, their motivating tenets are less applicable to an artist's life in 2012. We observe them as outsiders, since we were not alive then, and we relate to their works in our time, with what we know and bring to our viewing.  One thing I find interesting about the history of painting in the past 150 years, is how many times it has been proclaimed 'dead'. Following the invention of the camera, the manifesto-writing artists, Greenberg, then the computer, digital painting software, etc etc. and yet it is plenty healthy and continues to kick.  It seems in some periods, artists and critics wanted it dead, and I wonder why that was.  For the drama maybe.

Fun discussion though!  As for the health of painting, oy, last week of classes, and drowning in painted projects, so off I go ;-)

Comment by greenheron on December 7, 2012 at 5:50am

Hmmmm.  I would not agree that painting has mutated. Plenty of artists are still painting purists.  It's more that art has enlarged to include more disciplines, and Mr. Duchamp was an early door-opener to that. Presently, you can major in Integrated Media at my college, that's what it says on your diploma.  Some of the most amazing work happens in that department, none of it painting, and none of it with the possibility of mercantile value. To me, the most exciting work happens in the disciplinary overlaps. Animation is one of the most popular double majors in art school these days.  They paint, they draw, they stuff the goat with the tire and make it dance, in eleven frames per second ;-)  If I was to start my career over, that is where I would be.

Comment by greenheron on December 7, 2012 at 5:57am

BTW, off on this side discussion, we aren't addressing Rosigami's original post about teaching drawing.  Grading drawings is weird, eh?  I am in the midst of it right now, and it is always something I dislike. I wish academic/department policy allowed us to give every student who turned in one hundred one hour drawings an A. 

Comment by greenheron on December 8, 2012 at 5:54am

Thing about teaching is that some students want their ass kicked, as you did.  Others want their hand held, as if by a midwife, while their new art is born.  It can be a challenge to intuit who needs what. It sounds like you had some good teachers.  I did too. My best was hardly the driving force you describe though.  He was a sixty-something alcoholic, who'd sit in the studio with coffee and the paper.  If you wanted his thoughts, you'd gather up your work or a painting in progress, and go sit with him. Sometimes he wouldn't talk about your paintings, but about his ex-wife in Paris who he had never fallen out of love with.  Sometimes, he'd talk about Oscar Kokoschka, who was his teacher.  That stuff was just as good for me as his response to my work. But when he did respond, yowsa.  He knew the exact thing that needed attention.  I still hear his grumbly voice in my ear when I paint, urging me to see the reflected light, analyzing what colors are making that color, in what proportions.

It is a sweet thing, how artists pass themselves on to their students, how you remember your teachers tenderly, as I do mine, and hopefully, as mine do me.  And you Rosigami, too...I hope you don't mind that Jan and I side-barred into this discussion; it was inspired by your post!


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