I felt so fortunate to live in the digital age. I can take instantaneous photos, upload, edit, and be drawing from them within the hour.
The old masters studied a subject by sketching from real life. The muscled, motion-filled horses Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti drew in preparation for some of their famous paintings are memorable examples. I wondered, how long did it take to learn the musculature, form and movement of a horse by watching live ones? How difficult is it to capture a moving horse in a still sketch? I concluded that they had more time on their hands than we do, more daily knowledge of animals, and only the ancient ways of acquiring artistic skill.
Then last fall, I attempted to sketch the bison I pasture on my farm. It was a preliminary exercise for a commissioned pen and ink. And I found that for me, it was almost an impossible task.
My tedious mind had difficulty seeing moving bison bodies as wholes; I wished I could directly hot-wire my pencil to what my eyes saw. So I compensated for my slow uptake by picking a bison ‘pose’ common to what the herd was doing; maybe they were grazing, watching me, or laying about chewing their cuds. I started drawing an individual in a certain pose, then as he moved into a different body position I looked for another bison that conformed to the pose I’d begun. Sometimes I had several bison in different poses started on a page, and I worked on whichever one the activity of the herd allowed.
Thirty minutes of this exhausted me. I felt like I was trying to draw what was before me while riding a carousel. But I was beginning to understand what I miss in my flat-space, digital world. And I became hooked on experiential observation as a way to grow my artistic mind.
I resumed sketching from real life last month with the advent of another pasture season. I’m happy that some of my drawings this year ‘look like bison’. But even more rewarding is an intangible dimension I’ve somehow picked up on. It’s as if observation, coupled with the act of drawing, has augmented my experience of what a bison is about.
I’ve hi-jacked a ride on a 2 year old bison bull.
I eavesdrop on the herd.
We’re hot-wired in time and space.