In my recent installments of The Naked Beginner I told you about how I started drawing thanks to a fictional character and an imaginary friend who lives by night. Today I’ll tell you about a dead white male who gave me the last push.
Kimon Nicolaïdes taught drawing in New York City during the first half of the 20th century. He left behind a marvelous book that provides an extremely constructive method of drawing. The Natural Way to Draw is written with such passion and humor that it makes for wonderful reading, even if you’re not interested in drawing at all.
My wife, who’s a trained artist, had a copy of the book from before the time we met. I had leafed the book on several occasions, and was always struck by Nicolaïdes’s tone of voice, so direct and engaging. But something about the book actually prevented me from trying to draw. Nicolaïdes demanded, from the reader and putative art student, the same passion, the same commitment that Nicolaïdes himself brought to his craft—or so I imagined from his tone of voice. 15 hours of practice a week! One chapter per week! Don’t read chapter 2 before you finish the 15 hours of practice from chapter 1! It’s the least you can do! It’s normal! It’s the only way to learn! Grow up already!
It was all or nothing. Despite the many pleasures I had his book, over the years I opted for nothing again and again.
This was doubly dumb of me. First, “all” is better than “nothing.” Second, I could simply have refused Nicolaïdes’s radical entreaties (as I foolishly perceived them) and made my own choices about how to read his book. That’s what I finally did. I decided to follow Nicolaïdes exercises one by one, and fulfill his practice schedule to the letter… but in my own rhythm. I took two months to do the 15 hours of practice scheduled in the first chapter.
It was the most blissful summer of my life.
My education started with two sketching exercises: gesture and contour. They’re both simple but far-reaching. To do a gesture sketch, sit somewhere with pencil and paper… look at a figure, an object, a passerby, a child at play, any one thing… and draw, very quickly and without looking at the paper, a sort of perception of the object’s or person’s energy.
Draw a few continuous squiggles without letting the pencil tip leave the paper. It takes a few seconds. Don’t draw details or a literal physical rendering, but rather the essence, the intention, the gesture that the object or person conveys. It’s a way of having your eyes, your intuition, and your drawing hand converge in a Zen-like moment of completeness and freedom.
Nicolaïdes explains it rather better, and you really ought to read his book.
And you really ought to practice the exercise before you go on to the next installment of The Naked Beginner, in which I’ll tell you about contour drawing.