July 2007 Archives

Drawing at the Vallejos


Let's take a quick break from my overlong SVA diary entry and talk about something else for a bit.

I hate computers. Some days they really make me angry -- angry enough for me to consider just giving them up entirely and never touching them again. Today is three or four of those days. But then I find myself thinking of the good things that happen to me only because I have a computer and I wonder how I could possibly manage without one (or two or three). For example....

On the very last day of my time at SVA, when I was contemplating the withdrawal symptoms of leaving and not having a studio and particularly of ending the life drawing sessions, I got e-mail from Dorian Vallejo asking if I'd like to join his sketch group. He got my e-mail address from the New York Figure Drawing Meetup Group, only one meeting of which I attended. Since he's in New Jersey, and he saw I'm in New Jersey, he thought I'd be interested.

Of course I was thrilled to find another drawing group to join and as soon as I could, I went to one of Dorian's Saturday sessions here in New Jersey. And I ended up having one of the best Saturdays I'd had in a really long time. Dorian and his wife Liana were absolutely fantastic and made me feel so welcome -- I don't think I've ever met anyone and immediately felt we'd known each other for years, but that's how it felt with them. Dorian invited me to dinner after the session and all the artists and the model stayed for another four or five hours -- well into the night -- talking and laughing and having a good time. It was -- and I don't say this often -- special.

It was a small crowd there that day. There was Dorian and Liana -- both of whom are accomplished portraitists and illustrators (who both attended SVA themselves in the early 1990s) -- along with Reilly Brown, a comic book penciller working for Marvel, and Richard Scarpa, another portraitist. Meeting Reilly was pretty great, since he actually does something I used to dream of doing, which is drawing comics. I've given up on the dream but now I can learn what it's really like.

Our model for the day was Hilary Robin Schmidt. She's very thin and has a cascade of naturally red hair which I would capture if I could; but it's beyond me. Liana had bought a ton of props from a local crafts store which was going out of business so Hilary posed with leaves and flowers and flowing scarves. Also, apparently Dorian and Liana had gone shopping for Hilary and bought some clothes for her to pose in as well. So this session was different from the other ones I'd been to, since there much more to work with than just the nude. Although, really, right now I prefer no props, and I skipped over them where I could.

Chris Rywalt, sketch of Hilary, 2007, pencil on paper, 11x14 inches

Sketch of Hilary, 2007, pencil on paper, 11x14 inches

Hilary worked her way up to 40-minute poses, the final one of which was actually just her lying down going to sleep after her long modeling session. In the style I've been working -- the outline, sweeping Conté lines -- a 40-minute pose -- hell, a 20-minute pose -- is way too long. I rapidly run out of things to do. I mean, I've been naming my sketchbooks after the models because I can rattle off fifty drawings in one session. But how many drawings can I do of one pose? Not that many.

Chris Rywalt, sketch of Hilary, 2007, pencil on paper, 11x14 inches

Sketch of Hilary, 2007, pencil on paper, 11x14 inches

Alas, I'd only brought the one stick of Conté. Luckily, Dorian's studio is well-stocked. Liana loaned me a pencil and he tossed me a kneaded eraser and I went to work on more detailed, slower drawings, with shading and everything. I was glad to see I could still draw that way if I wanted. And, more, I was glad to finally have something I could put up here to show Jeff Freedner. I really can draw!

Chris Rywalt, sketch of Hilary, 2007, Conte on paper, 11x14 inches

Sketch of Hilary, 2007, Conté on paper, 11x14 inches

Chris Rywalt, sketch of Hilary, 2007, Conte on paper, 11x14 inches

Sketch of Hilary, 2007, Conté on paper, 11x14 inches

Of course, I have to show you some of the Conté sketches, too.

All in all, a fantastic experience. And one I wouldn't have had if not for computers -- and the Internet. (As someone once said, the power of a computer is directly proportional to the size of the network attached to the back.) That should make my Netgear router happy, since it's all that's keeping me from tossing it out the window right now.

I wrote in my previous post that I was going to list the things I liked about my time at SVA in no particular order, then I told you about Karina Contreras, then I kind of wandered into the model drawing sessions and didn't wander back out again. So now I'm going to pick up from there and continue with the people I met at SVA, again in no particular order, because the other artists really were the best thing about the program.

Right after I met Karina I met Ling Chang and Cathleen Cueto. They'd been friendly with Jim Wolanin the previous year and so recognized my name. And it took me a few hours to realize it, but I'd written about Cathleen in 2006, also. For the next month nearly every time I had a free moment I'd end up over at their studios, sitting there bullshitting -- which Ling split up into Art Chat (which was productive) and just plain Chat (which was not). In fact Ling had made a chart -- it would have made an amusing art installation in itself: "How an Artist Spends Their Time" -- marking down how much time she spent on Art, Art Chat, Chat, Eating, Reading, Checking E-Mail and whatever else. Art and Art Chat were marked in bright colors to set them off from the other activities, which were not fruitful uses of her time.

I remember Ling sighing: "There's just not enough yellow on this chart."

I fell immediately in love with Ling and Cathleen. It's something inexplicable: I was just in love with their themness, the way they were who they were.

I say this because I want you to realize, as I'm writing, that I can't possibly be remotely critical of them and their work. I want you to understand this so I can separate my usual critical writing from this account of my time at SVA. In fact I really can't be critical of anyone there -- I mean, I talked to many of the artists about their work, and I was honest and open and critical when I thought it was called for. So it's not that I just shut off and didn't form an opinion. But it's a different thing to discuss art with someone than it is to write an essay critiquing their art. The critic's relationship to an artist is almost like father to child; artist to artist, though, is more like sibling to sibling.

Chris Rywalt, Why are you hiding?, 2007, oil on panel, 16x24 inches

Why are you hiding?, 2007, oil on panel, 16x24 inches (This is a really bad photo but it's all I've got since I gave the painting to Ling.)

Ling spent most of her time dithering and complaining about how she wasn't getting anything done; then she put on a burst of energy (and at least one all-nighter) putting together a nearly-finished installation for the Open Studios. But while she was dithering she was always around for Chat or Art Chat and I enjoyed talking to her. She is extremely articulate and intelligent -- which is rare for an artist, let me tell you -- and laughed at most of my jokes (which is all I really ask for). And, like everyone in the program, physically beautiful. Even in her dark clothes behind her screen of black hair. I was so struck by her that one of the first paintings I did in my new studio was a portrait of Ling -- maybe not a true portrait, exactly (for one thing, I seemed to catch her on the one day she'd curled her hair), but what I like to think of as a spiritual portrait.

Why everyone in the program was so good-looking I can't say. I know I felt a bit trollish around them. Maybe there's some connection between talent and self-confidence and attractiveness.

Ling was also one of those rare people who was willing to pick on me when I needed it. Not that I think everyone loves me -- it's just so few people seem to talk back to me. Either they agree or they ignore me. Hardly anyone calls me on my bullshit -- they probably think it's not worth the trouble. But Ling was willing. She'd say something like, "Why do you say that?" or "What specifically makes you think that?" Which is hard to answer sometimes, especially if, like me, you have a slippery memory.

But I remember one particular time. Ling had pinned up some watercolors she was doing. To me they looked like dark blue clouds. They were just a deep blue, with scalloped edges, about the same size as the paper. Ling asked me if I thought they needed anything or if they were fine as they were.

Well, I'd just been looking at her Websites and seeing what she'd done professionally. Ling wasn't interested in her professional work while she was at SVA -- she was looking to do something different. (In fact when I told her I'd seen her sites she accused me of "snooping.") But I'd formulated this whole speech on how she should find some way to incorporate her professional interests with her desire to create art and so on and so forth and rambling on for quite a while. Her question kicked off the speech and she listened patiently.

Then one of the other artists came up and asked what we were talking about. "I asked Chris if these needed anything," she replied, "but he can't just answer the question."

Oh. Golly. I hadn't, you know, I hadn't been thinking like that.

Ling Chang, studio view, 2007

Ling Chang's installation. This is from the right spot to see Orion.

In the end she began dotting in tiny stars and connecting them into fanciful constellations. In some cases she added pins with sparkly heads instead of painted stars. And then she hung silver scultped stars from the ceiling such that if you stood in just the right spot they formed the constellation of Orion. So in the end she had an idea where she was going and didn't need my homilies.

Ling Chang, studio view, 2007

Ling Chang's installation. It's not finished yet. And please ignore the fan in the middle of the studio, it's not part of the show.

By contrast, Cathleen was almost always working. I often felt like I was interrupting her. Every day she was sewing something, cutting something up, painting something, or otherwise occupied. Even so, she worked without sleeping as much as Ling did to get ready for the Open Studios.

Cathleen and I had entertaining discussions -- or, I should say, Cathleen allowed me to lecture at length -- about conceptual versus more traditional art. I generally don't like conceptual art. I also don't tend to like installations. I'm reactionary that way: If you can't hang it on a wall or stand it up in a corner, it's not art (even if it needs to be a really big wall or corner). Cathleen, of course, feels differently. So I'd have to be careful as I was ranting against Conceptualism to make sure I added, "...but not your work" or "...but not you." As in, "Conceptual artists are people who want to be artists even though they can't paint. But not you!"

Hypocrisy is one of my many faults. Have I ever said it wasn't?

Cathleen started off a little distant from me. Which was okay. Not everyone has to love me. But I liked her so damned much, I really really wanted her to like me. I think she finally turned around the day I brought my son in.

William is ten and only mildly insane. I brought a laptop and some video game systems with us, figuring they'd keep him occupied for about two hours, after which I'd be running around peeling him off the walls and apologizing for his insanity to my studiomates. Much to my surprise he had a great time and wasn't crazed at all. He spent some time painting with me and then started wandering around the other studios. He ended up spending an hour or so in Cathleen's studio playing with the toys she'd brought in for her installation. (In fact she used his Lego creation in the final work.) After he got bored with that he decided to make a map of the studios, so he went from room to room introducing himself and filling in names on a piece of paper.

Cathleen was so enamored of him; I think some of that it rubbed off on me because, after William's visit, Cathleen was much nicer to me. I think she figured, if I'd somehow managed to father a decent child, I must've been less of a jerk than I seemed. I brought my daughter Corinne in another day and that probably helped cement my reputation as a Good Dad and therefore a halfway decent human. (I should note that I take absolutely no credit for how good (or bad) my kids are -- they arrived on Earth that way. I'm just here to make sure they reach adulthood.)

Cathleen Cueto II, studio view, 2007

This is Cathleen Cueto's studio, July 2007.

You can see from the photos that Cathleen's installation involved a child's room. What's less clear from the photos is that Cathleen tried to imagine the room of a child who would grow up with apotemnophilia -- a desire for amputation. This is reflected in all the toys and things scattered around the room: The toy soldiers are all missing one leg; the toybox is filled with the limbs of stuffed animals (some my family supplied); the legs have been crossed out in the coloring books.

Cathleen Cueto II, studio view, 2007

This is Cathleen in her studio during Open Studios. Apparently that dress is traditional -- she wore it last year, too.

I'd come by in the afternoon and find Cathleen sitting crosslegged in the middle of the rug diligently performing surgery on doll after doll. Or maybe she'd be crouched over her laptop typing away. And one time she was curled up fast asleep.

Cathleen Cueto II painting, 2007

Here's Cathleen painting her installation. Note adorable splash of paint on leg.

My newly-found position in Cathleen's eyes afforded me a chance for a great thing: I asked her to pose for me and she did. I think I actually asked her before she met William but I think she wasn't enthusiastic until after. And it was excellent. The day of our second lecture (more on that later), I noticed her knees, and I did a quick sketch of them. After that I saw her knees more and knew I wanted to draw them. She kept wearing these little dresses which came down to mid-thigh and that was what I wanted to draw: Cathleen from mid-thigh down. And during the last week I got my wish. While drawing her I realized -- and I told her -- that she didn't just have great knees; she had great legs. Feet, too, although she referred to them as "gnarly."

Chris Rywalt, Cathleen #1, 2007, Conte on paper, 14x17 inches

Cathleen #1, 2007, Conté on paper, 14x17 inches

Chris Rywalt, Cathleen #2, 2007, Conte on paper, 14x17 inches

Cathleen #2, 2007, Conté on paper, 14x17 inches

Chris Rywalt, Cathleen #3, 2007, Conte on paper, 14x17 inches

Cathleen #3, 2007, Conté on paper, 14x17 inches

Chris Rywalt, Cathleen #4, 2007, Conte on paper, 14x17 inches

Cathleen #4, 2007, Conté on paper, 14x17 inches

And on that wonderful note, let me pause in my tale. I'll start part three as soon as I can.

"I hope you blog the hell out of this, for better or for worse," Stephanie told me when she sent me off to the School of Visual Arts Summer Residency program. I'm afraid I disappointed her: I couldn't really blog while the residency was going on. Partly because I was in the studio so much, and partly because, when I wasn't in the studio, if I approached the computer my wife would say, "Didn't we agree you wouldn't approach the computer while you were doing the residency?" We as in she and me agreed to no such thing, but I think she was using the royal we. The important thing was she agreed I wasn't allowed to get near the computer, and so I wasn't.

Not that it mattered. So much of my energy was spent in the studio that I could barely get back home, and I actually spent a lot of time when I was home sleeping. I didn't have much creativity left over for putting words together.

I went in to SVA not knowing what to expect; I was really floating like a leaf on the breeze. I had no prior experience with any kind of art school or studio time. I had nothing on which to base expectations. I was empty and open to whatever the experience would be. One friend, who has a lot of experience with art schools, suggested that half the students would love me; half would hate me; and the instructors wouldn't know what to do with me. That sounded about right to me since it paralleled pretty much my entire educational history.

This turned out to be just about dead wrong. I don't know if all the other artists loved me, but I never felt anything but friendliness from everyone else. Maybe I'm just oblivious, but all I got from anyone ranged from a positive, open attitude all the way through to outright enthusiastic friendship. And for my part I fell at least a little bit in love with almost all the other artists -- and I fell deeply in love with a few of them.

As for the instructors, each one was encouraging and supportive. Maybe even a little too supportive. Each one of them had worthwhile things to say and criticized me in ways I felt were constructive. Never once did I feel I was being talked down to or belittled. They each seemed sincere and interested in helping me become a better artist.

Overall it's hard for me to pin down what I liked best about my month at SVA, so I'll just ramble on about some of the things I enjoyed in no particular order.

The other artists were all absolutely fantastic people. The one thing I regret is I couldn't possibly get to know all of them as well as I wanted; I did have at least one solid conversation with each one, I think, although some of the conversations were short. There was just no way I could become close personal friends with 30 other people in one month, so I ended up wandering into one clique -- the one that accepted me best, I guess -- and spending most of my time there. I suppose it's just standard human social behavior.

The first person I met when I arrived was Keren Moscovitch, the program coordinator. I'm sure she put in a lot of work behind the scenes to make the whole residency happen and I thank her much for that. I didn't see her often, though, since her office was way over in the main SVA building near Third Avenue. (And if you think Sixth Avenue and Third Avenue can't be that far apart, you apparently haven't tried getting across town in Manhattan.)

The next person I met was Karina Contreras. It took me a little bit to remember that I'd met her before and even reviewed her work after the last Summer Residency. Back then she was just growing her hair back after shaving her head; having hair a year later made her look much more mature. I'd really liked her last year and only didn't write more about her because I found so little information about her on the Web and also because I missed seeing her at the second Open Studios. But I was very impressed by both her and her paintings and was thrilled to see she was back again. She also worked hard behind the scenes as one of Keren's assistants.

I had a great time the whole month stopping by Karina's studio to see how her paintings were going. I loved watching her work. Hell, I loved watching her -- during the final group critique (more on that later), as we were all walking around, she was wearing this backless kind of dress exposing this expanse of brown skin, and I couldn't help but ask, "How does your boyfriend ever stop touching you?"

"We're not always in the same room," Karina replied, and then asked that I go over to the other side of the group away from her.

Karina Contreras studio view 2007

Karina's studio showing one of her unfinished self-portraits, 2007.

Her painting is really something. I would be hypnotized watching her work. Her method is so, well, methodical: She starts by mixing up her colors and putting them into tubes. Then she begins the painting itself by carefully transferring her source -- in this case, photos -- to the canvas using the grid method. She draws in the major outlines, then covers the canvas in a single, dull color approximating Terra Verte. Then she goes in with a rag and subtractively defines all the shapes and shading in the painting. The result is something almost anyone would be willing to end with and declare finished, but Karina can't stop there. After that layer dries, she puts down a grisaille using all her neutrals from black to white. (She has a glass palette with the Munsell scale under it for value matching.) Once that layer dries, she goes back in with thin transparent color glazes.

Karina Contreras studio view 2007

Karina's studio showing another one of her unfinished self-portraits and the watercolor study for the first one, 2007.

It's an old reliable method -- Caravaggio painted this way -- and it suits her well. It relies on having strong drawing skills, which Karina definitely has. She's got a steady hand and a very deft touch with the brush; watching her there were times I could barely see the paint she was putting down.

In fact watching her made me jealous; she made me think I should go back to painting that way, using her as a guide for improving my method. I'd given up painting realistically, but Karina made me think I should try it again. She really made it look easy, if painstaking. (The instructors, some of whom had failed to get Karina to change her direction during the regular school year, warned me away from following her example.)

One of the other great things about Karina was that, because she liked to draw and was good at it, she was in charge of getting in a live model once a week for us to work from. These three sessions (I missed one) were the absolute highlight of my studio time and led to many of the paintings I worked on for the month I was there. The very first life drawing session, in fact, is one of the high points of my artistic life so far.

Chris Rywalt, Satu sketch, 2007, Conte on paper

The sketch of Satu I pinned to my wall right after the session.

The very first model was Satu. Now, as artists, we're supposed to say that there's no eros involved in life drawing sessions. We're supposed to be dispassionate observers of form, contour, and shading. It doesn't matter, we say, whether it's a bowl of fruit or plaster Platonic solids or a nude person; we are artists, and we are above all that. Well, I for one have grown tired of that crap. For me, I now believe and am willing to state, eros is not only present, it is to some extent necessary so I can do my best work. I need to be turned on at least a little bit for it to be art. That's probably why I don't paint bowls of fruit or plaster Platonic solids or trees or waterfalls or horses: Because they don't turn me on. They don't even interest me.

Chris Rywalt, Satu 1, 2007, oil on panel, 30x40 inches

Satu 1, 2007, oil on panel, 30x40 inches.

I am able to say this -- to admit to this -- because of Satu. Because as I turned the corner into Karina's studio I saw Satu posing nude and I immediately fell in love with her. And I turned out some really excellent drawings. I connected with her in a way I didn't connect with the model at the last drawing session I attended; I can't explain what was different this time except for the model.

Chris Rywalt, Satu sketch, 2007, Conte on paper

Another sketch of Satu.

Because I can't look at the model as an object. I see the model as a person, a human being who is doing a difficult job; and more, doing a difficult job just to help me, the artist, and the cause of art. Because art modeling certainly doesn't pay that well. Models open up to their artists to some degree; they reveal things they wouldn't ordinarily reveal; they put themselves in the artist's hands.

Since the model is a person, and not just an object, I want to feel some kind of connection to them. I want to know their name, and what they do, and how they like doing what they're doing. I show them the drawings I've made because I figure they must be curious. I offer to give them one or two because I feel they deserve them -- they've worked hard for them.

Chris Rywalt, Satu 2, 2007, oil on panel, 30x40 inches

Satu 2, 2007, oil on panel, 30x40 inches.

And Satu, well, she was staggeringly beautiful. When I got back to my studio I immediately hung up the one drawing I liked best; shortly after that, Jerry Saltz and Steve DeFrank dropped by. Jerry said I'm a visionary -- a visionary -- and Steve pretty much agreed.

I was high for two days.

Later I decided to take down whatever drawings I thought were weak and put up the new ones; I ended up taking down all of my drawings and putting up the drawings from my time with Satu. And when I started a new painting, it was from one of those drawings. For a little while, my studio was a shrine to Satu. It was fantastic.

For the next model session I would be attending, I requested a male model. Ike showed up. When Ike took off his robe, I nearly shouted "HOLY CRAP!" If that's what males look like, then I'm some third gender no one's named yet. Let me take this moment to christen it: Hork. I'm not male or female, I'm hork.

Chris Rywalt, Ike sketch, 2007, Conte on paper

Here's one kind of focused sketch of Ike.

Again, there was eros. I'm fairly straight, but damn if there wasn't something about Ike. There was that connection. Male nudes are often described as "homoerotic" but I think that's unfair -- they're just plain erotic, no homo necessary. Any nude includes some amount of sexual energy, not because nudity is itself sexy, but because when you see people nude, you're seeing them as whole beings, including the parts they use for sex.

Chris Rywalt, Ike 1, 2007, oil on panel, 30x40 inches

Ike 1, 2007, oil on panel, 30x40 inches.

Ike ended up in one painting I like very much. I'll admit that partly I like it because it shows I'm not all about women and tits and ass and pussies: Cocks are welcome too! But I also like it as a painting in its own right.

Chris Rywalt, Monica sketch, 2007, Conte on paper

This is a drawing I did of Monica.

Chris Rywalt, Monica sketch, 2007, Conte on paper

And here's one with her hair which I liked so much.

The final model was Monica. I didn't connect with her quite as strongly as the others but still got some good drawings out of the session; she was wonderfully brown-skinned and beautiful, with a fall of long brown hair Karina and I enjoyed sketching immensely. I ended up filling one whole pad, all fifty sheets, with drawings of her. I think she'll end up in a painting or two eventually. Curiously, Monica was the most comfortable with being nude: Neither Ike nor Satu were very talkative during their sessions but Monica happily carried on conversations while she was dressing or undressing, dressed or undressed, and didn't really seem to notice a difference from one to the other.

I'll continue with the other artists I met next time I get a chance. For now, I'm off to Florida with the family.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from July 2007 listed from newest to oldest.

June 2007 is the previous archive.

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