Monday, February 2, 2009


Last night I jammed some with a guitar player in his 20s, a very creative guy. He told me something nice, which was that spending creative time with me made him realize he wasn't working at his full potential. Today, as I was thinking about our conversation, I recalled what a devoted and serious worker I was at that age - it was mandatory for me to draw EVERY day. If I missed a day, I had to make up for it the next. I figured since I was training myself, I'd better knuckle down. Michelangelo declared that it takes ten years of practice to learn to draw, and I think he was being optimistic - or maybe, more likely in those days of apprenticeships, he meant if you did almost nothing else.

One rare occasions I would draw myself, looking in a mirror as I worked. In the early 80s I looked at Rembrandt's drawings and etchings a lot (in books) and acquired a steel quill pen with a very fine tip. I wish I could find it, or find another one, because I loved drawing with it. Rembrandt drew himself quite a bit, and I think I must have had his life story in mind when I did this drawing - something about it reminds me of him. I think it's the hand, very consciously placed at the collar. The ink is sepia - squid ink. (It's black when the squid has it, but turns brown it's made into drawing ink.) Being all young and so serious, I felt the best artist's gaze was a penetrating and unsentimental one - a hard look at what was there. Now that serious gaze gazing back is touching and I feel a certain tenderness for me, then, when I was so on fire. The idealism was unreasonable, and beautiful. I'm almost sure that this drawing was done in 1981, but it isn't dated.

Three years later I tried it again. This time it looks like I was determined to penetrate myself to the core! The technical qualities of this pencil drawing impress me ~ I'm not sure I could pull something like this off now. There's some vanity showing in the stray semi-curl of hair and its shadow on the right side of the forehead. I was in the throes of first romance then. The attention to that detail, something like pride, was likely an attempt to hold my own in the face of the overwhelming beauty of the other. I was drawing him a lot. He told me during one of those drawing sessions "Your eyes are burning me." And, infuriatingly, (and wrong) "You'll never be able to draw anyone but me."

There are later self-portraits. I got these out of the flat file so they were easy to locate. I'll take a look through the stacks of sketchbooks and see if I can find any others. I didn't own a still camera until last year, and in those early days I would have been utterly scornful of using a photograph as a drawing reference. I think William will recall that I was still a little skeptical of photography when we met in the early 90s. He has certainly made the best portraits of me, and his careful work converted me to photography. Working with a photograph doesn't feel like cheating to me now, or worse, trivial ~ but looking at these two self portraits again is a little castigating. This kind of work takes devoted practice. I really should be drawing every day - because ten years is not enough. I started drawing when I was three - that will be 47 years ago very soon, and 47 years has not been enough either.


Cathy said...

These are wonderful! I love the first one especially; you look so young and vulnerable, except for the wise eyes.

How does a steel quill pen differ from a fountain pen nib, other than fineness?

Dan Dutton said...

Thanks! The first one is a personal favorite. Quill pens are challenging tools to draw with. There's an optimum speed or the pen snags on the paper fiber (or drops a big blot of ink!) - and it isn't exactly slow - like ice skating maybe? And of course there's no erasing or coverup, so you've got one shot at accurate proportions.

The steel quill is a very simple type tip - it doesn't have the corrugated ink reservoir that fountain pens have - it's just a curved teardrop of steel with a hole and a slice to the tip. The tip - tips actually, since the split divides the point - comes to a pinpoint. It's easy to spoil it if you don't know what you're doing. Press too hard and you've bent the points, take a curve too hard and the points can twist across each other. You dip the quill into the inkwell - maybe getting one long line from a dip, or several short ones. The freshly loaded pen is tricky, because it's easy to cause it to drop the ink in a splat mid-line, on the other hand, if you try to draw too long without refreshing the ink, the line can turn to a scratch & you're stuck with that. So there's a rhythm, and a certain concentration that works for it. Not every draftsman is good with pen and ink!

I had two quill pens. (For the life of me, I can't figure out what happened to them. I keep going back and looking at the holder I used for them, as though they'd reappear...) The one I liked best, and used on the first portrait, was a very fine point that could make a hairline. The other, larger one, had a coarse line that was nice for sketchier, and bigger, drawings with a more robust, less delicate effect.

Dan Dutton said...

I love fountain pens too, to write with - but I would never draw with one!