Drawing you in...

By Burton Silverman

The title of this mini instructional essay is perhaps a bit ambiguous, but intentionally so.  At first glance the meaning of the title seems clear and yet it also has a double meaning.  Does it mean “include” you in something or entice you to enter into some conversation or event?  Or does it imply using drawing to gain access to someone or something not ordinarily allowed? The answer is – both.  Drawing is both self inclusion, a record of your feelings, and an invitation to engage in a “dialogue” with the person or object of your picture making, to make the image “speak.”

            What can we do to engage in that dual objective, which by the way is not necessarily a consensus judgment about the nature of drawing?  In fact there are some differing views that see drawing as self sufficient. One of these is that it has no other purpose except its own aesthetic and graphic excellence.  In that concept a drawing inhabits its own world of techniques and structures and needs no other raison d’etre. Fair enough, but I am proposing the idea that it is also an investigative tool that embraces more than just an isolated object of technical proficiency.

             So this abbreviated demonstration will relate specifically to drawing a person and specifically address the issue of painting a portrait.  It will show how I prepare for a portrait commission.  I will also hope to demonstrate how something larger – something we call “art” – might possibly emerge from an attempt to get at both the surface appearance of the person, the likeness, as well as that elusive sense of their “character.”  That is perhaps more difficult to assess and to demonstrate in this essay. In this use of “drawing studies” I can perhaps elicit how that discovery comes into play and how the process is itself can produce interesting drawings.  One only has to look at the drawings of JD Ingres (who David Hockney so achingly envied that it drove him to construct a dubious theory of the “300 year long arc of the lens”) to see the historical context in which the drawing process was an integral part of constructing a painting.  It is with this classic mode in mind which, by the way, viewed portrait painting as simply another aspect of the artist’s productivity, that I have constructed this little demonstration.


The series of drawing studies for a recent portrait will, I trust, enhance this understanding and perhaps produce some interesting art along the way.  The first two poses I chose for this portrait of the President of the Practicing Law Institute were perhaps influenced by his title and a stereotypic vision of the “distinguished lawyer.”  I was soon to discover otherwise. The studies depicted a man who seemed reserved and distant.  I had missed the man who, as I got to know him, was warm and direct.


The next drawing placed him leaning forward to engage the viewer in a more intimate fashion. This had his face partially in the shadows and was immediately appealing to both of us. I followed this with a paint study to reinforce the pose suggested by the drawing.  I was then troubled by this view of his face in shadow because, while what was “held back” seemed more interesting, I also felt that his features needed to be revealed more and that a desirable shift in characterization would ensue.

The next drawing was followed by a small pastel which convinced me that this was the right course.  It allowed for his expressive outward going qualities to emerge more clearly and it changed the way he seemed to engage the viewer.  This was followed by a small paint study (10 x 8) that I usually do for the subject’s approval and to satisfy my own concept of the final painting.  All of the studies were done from life with the exception of this small study. The painting was started without the model just using the last two images.  After the placement of the figure and initial layer of paint on the canvas I then had Mr. Polak return to pose several times more.


I took a few photos in order to paint his clothes and the chair without needing him to pose.  Repeated drawing of the subject made me totally familiar with both his facial and body structure. In the process I also got to know him as a person (and I think, as a friend).  I think this was significant in making the painting.  I was also struck by the fact that how much “resemblance” was altered in all the phases of the transition to the final image depending on the light, the pose and the mood of the sitter.

I had explored the posture of the figure, the resemblances, the color of his features and even the background color (which I changed as the painting progressed because it seemed to detract from the man’s face).  The changes from initial lay in to the finish involve correcting proportions and refining the features to complete the right expression of attentiveness, and very quiet hint of a smile, as if he were in the midst of lively conversation (which did take place during our posing sessions).


So how does this square with the opening thesis about drawing? Can I say that I was allowed access to the inner dynamics of the subject’s personality and took from that some thing we can call “art”?  Do the drawings survive in their own right as both “self expression” – that much abused word – and yet serve as a guide to making the final painting?  I leave that to your kind judgments.