LEARNING Encouraging artists
Claire Watson Garcia knows the look. She has seen it for about 30 years.
“They stop at the door, peer around, and say, ‘Is this the class for the utter, total, complete beginner ... ,’ and before they finish, I’ll say, ‘Yes, this is the place,’” Watson Garcia says.
And so it went that prospective students entered her class on a recent morning at Silvermine Arts Center in New Canaan, clutching drawing pads and small sacks of pencils and pens. Some students weren’t so “utterly” new, but they were all beginners to some degree.
It is with those students in mind that she intentionally and deliberately set the title for her drawing class and the book it gave rise to. “Drawing for the Absolute and Utter Beginner” has been a popular class at Silvermine Arts Center, where she has taught for decades. It became a book in 2003. And, 15 years later, a revised edition by Watson-Guptill Publications, is now on the shelves.
“It is both funny and reassuring,” she says of the title, which is meant to help people get past their fears. “Many people have had a yearning all of their lives to learn to draw. It is an activity that we did easily as children and unless you have a bridge, say in middle school, where you learn to draw in a representational way, you become self-conscious. Then, one person in the class becomes the artist and you stop because you are not that one.”
Some people are blessed with a background where creativity was fostered and missteps were handled with grace and understanding. Far too many, however, put away those pencils, pens or crayons because they were made to feel they could never understand a visual language that can be spoken by nearly everyone who wants to get down on paper the scene that is unfolding before them.
While some people have a better “ear” for art, and can more easily grasp the shapes and forms they are looking at, so as to replicate them accurately on the page, Watson Garcia believes everyone has the power to “speak” this visual lexicon. “Everyone who wants to develop this skill can do it. It is an innate capacity.”
For this Ridgefield artist, the ABCs of drawing begins with a thin wire that students are encouraged to bend and re-bend, drawing a new model each time. Freeing and functional, the act of ruining and then recreating a shape gets to the heart of her practice — mastery comes not in seeking perfection but a better perspective.
“The key is when you pay attention to the elements that make up a visual pattern and replicate that as best you can … and then you see that it works, that it looks like the source material, then you can understand this is the way artists look at things,” she says. “They are noticing shapes that make up what they are looking at.”
Beginning with “goof proof” exercises, her method works in a sequence with each exercise building on the one before. “They grow more challenging,” she says, “but they still remain within reach.”
The point is to keep building those skills, she says, which include constructive evaluations at the end of class, or, in the case of the book, end of the chapter.
“It teaches you a lot about how art is made when you can identify what works. Once you have learned it is not just technique, but also what to look for and concepts — because there are definite principles in drawing — then, you can continue to strengthen and build on that,” she says.
Just as she has learned from her students and honed her method accordingly, her books — the first edition and the recent revision, relies extensively on examples of students work. The chapters also include notes from the aspiring artists. As they move from pencil to pen and then charcoal, and onto more difficult exercises, such as drawing the face in three-quarter view, their narratives reveal the struggles and challenges, as well as the rewards and successes of various techniques.
“The general response from many people is I hate what I have done or that stinks or I will never become an artist,” she says. “You have to rein that in.”
One does that, Watson Garcia says, by making a how-to book that does not focus entirely on the artist who penned it. The whole point is to offer someone hope that, one day, they will draw like those who have already mastered it. “If all there is is this incredible artwork, the leap is just too great for a beginner to approximate.”
It all goes back to the title — and her approach to making art accessible to anyone who wants the access.
“The key with adults who have no experience is to give them a method that is customized for them and specifically designed for their needs,” she says. “You can have a title for a book that gets people to pick it up, but unless this delivers a positive experience, you can forget about it.”
Christina Hennessy is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.