Interviewsand Articles


Art 12: A Day in Drawing Class with Jane Rosen

by Jane Rosen, Mar 14, 2001



Rosen, a New York artist and teacher, after living, exhibiting and working in SoHo for twenty years, moved to a rural horse ranch on the San Mateo Coast to allow her work with nature—especially her interest in relating animal nature to the possibilities of our own "better nature"—to be informed in a new way. Rosen now lives in California full-time, has retired from teaching and offers drawing workshops at her 40 acre ranch several times a year. Following is a transcript from a day in one of her drawing classes at UC Berkeley.

"I was driving up Highway One today, and you drive through Devil's Slide. You see the rocks have been cut to make an opening. As you look to your left and right, there are these fault lines—lines that travel the cliff and the rocks, and they're lighter than the big gashes in the rock. But they still draw over the form. In drawing, those lines are called cross contour lines. These lines are actually telling you the route of travel over the form.
     "That's what I was pointing out. It's not that you can't go on the outline, or the edge. It's that the difference between outline and contour is that an outline tells you nothing about the three dimensional quality of the form. It doesn't tell you the longitude or the latitude over and around the form. If you shot someone, the guy that comes along with chalk draws an outline.
     "So, how do you make that have three dimensions?
     "Contour is the way to do that. The resistance to it is: you think it looks messy, you think it's not in proportion and doesn't look like the figure. And you don't want to do that, because you want to make it 'look right.' It's not time for that yet.
     "What it's time for, is to learn how to create an illusion of three dimensions on a flat, two dimensional surface. Because you are not making a figure, you’re pulling a rabbit out of a hat. You’re creating an illusion. And these lines tell you that you went here, and up, and over, and around.
     "This tells you, almost like a topological map, the elevations and depressions of a form. We know that if something has two planes, it can't be flat. That's how we know something has dimension. Any time you have to change direction, it means there's a volume. If I go from here to here [demonstrates], there is a meeting of two planes. I use a line to indicate the meeting of those two planes. How do I know there are two planes? Because I touch this way, and now I have to change direction.
     "Whenever you change direction with your hand, you can use a line to indicate the meeting of those two planes. That’s a change of direction. So the first thing to do is to learn how you can use line to tell about volume. That means I need to teach you about contour. But to teach contour I have to teach you something about seeing form. And then the drawings will have volume, as well as be beautiful.
     "Today we're going to work with 'modified contour.' Here is a drawing by Auguste Rodin. Now, this is a man who sculpted so well they thought he cheated and cast from a body. And he didn't. He just understood the human form so well. But, if you look at his sculpture, you'll see that all of it is about touch and contour.
     "These are contour drawings—just like what you're trying to do. He was thinking around the form—completely 'blind contour.' He said that his work put him in touch with what he was seeing. And he didn't want to lose that contact. That was what informed his realism. This quote by Rodin says it beautifully:...'Not once in describing the shape of that mass did I shift my eyes from the model. Why? Because I wanted to be sure that nothing evaded my grasp of it. Not a thought about the technical problem of representing it on paper could be allowed to arrest the flow of my feelings about it, from my eye to my hand. The moment I drop my eyes that flow stops.'
     "So, we're going to work with modified contour— which means, very simply, that you can look at your paper, but not while you're drawing.
     "You're looking at the model and you see that a line travels down and over, and as it turns and goes've lost your place. So you stop drawing. Look at the model. Look at your paper. Put your hand where you want it to go, and start drawing again without looking at the paper. You've lost your place again. You look at your paper again. You see, you get worried about the product. But this drawing is a by-product of your investigation. It's not even the point. I don't care what it looks like.
     "What I care about is that I see that your hand has been activated. That it's really feeling like it's touching its lover. And that everything is being engaged. When I go to look at a bird I'm thinking [caressing motion with hand] as if I was touching the bird, or the dog. You see? That's what I want those lines to do. That's why you're learning this.
     "So: twenty minute pose. And you can look. You can use your good hand, but don't squeeze the tool. Just relax. And when you see that you're traveling downhill, let your arm go. When you've lost your place-- you feel like you've fallen off the page and you can't see where you're going--stop, look where you are on your page, place yourself, and begin again. Look at the model. Just don't look at the page when you're drawing the model. There's no information on your paper.
     "Now this is like an electrocardiogram of your attention span. The same way that an electrocardiogram is a record of the heartbeat. I am trying, little by little, to increase your ability to attend to seeing something, like sit ups develop stomach muscles. There's a love of seeing something. And it's a part of everything. You're seeing how you see. Through touch. So you need to develop that.
     "Where have you ever been educated to learn, when I look at Jesse, instead of seeing a student, purple shirt, long hair, I look at Jesse and I start to think, oh...[hand follows over contours of his face]? All of a sudden he becomes visible, he looks fabulous! Because I see this whole human being and his essence. Because this isn't about judgment.
     "Everything is incredibly amazing! These extraordinary beings that we are—each of us different. And we usually see with our heads, 'he comes from here, and I know more than he does, and he doesn't do this, or he doesn't have that, and I have this'—you see? We don't really just see without judgment, except sometimes in nature, when we feel that miracle. And then, don't things look amazing? Do you ever do that? You walk past a tree and you say, 'Oh, that is the most extraordinary tree I've ever seen in my life! It's incredible!' And then the next day you walk back and you say, 'Right, it's a tree.' It has to do with the state you're in. You're in a rush.
     "That state of awareness, while you're seeing, makes things--look at how great I look right now!— hmm? ‘Cause you're really looking; and you're not judging, just like I was some animal. You know when you've ever seen a seal come out of the water and you didn't recognize it yet? You're staring at the water and you see this thing in the water, and you think, "Is it debris? what? Then--oooh, look at it coming out! It's a seal! [happy singing voice] Seal!
     "I once saw this dolphin…I didn’t know what it was. It was like [hand makes motion of dolphin jumping out and back into the water]. And I thought [gasp] I just saw God! You know, I didn't know what it was. I'd never seen a dolphin— I'm from New York City.
"That's what I'd like to give you. If you could forget about making a 'good drawing,' and not worry about that, I'd like you to make a good seeing. Just to see! —through that incredible sensation of touch. That's why we love to have lovers. Because it feels so good to 'see someone' through touch, and not through thought alone. That's why we—it's love, you know, in a very clean way. OK, so, are you ready? Alright. Twenty minutes.
     "Let me ask you this. I go from here, and I go over to here [demonstrating on pad]. Are you looking? What's your name? Ryan. I go here, and then I go here. Right here, at the meeting of these two planes, I change direction. Now, what am I trying to do? I'm trying to tell you where I traveled. I went up the hill, and then I went across. Where I change direction, I can use a line. It shows that I came here, I came up, I came down here, and I went over here.
"So you can use a line wherever there is a meeting of two planes. There are great lines—when you bend over, there's one at the waist. There you've got a necklace. You've got a line there. Right? You need to tell somebody that you're going this way [curving motion with hand]. So it's kind of like making a light dirt road over a beautiful green hill. You know those skinny little roads that mean the tractor just went over it? Right? You've gotta create some of those.
     "Forget shadows. This is through touch.
     "When you're very little, very small, you draw an apple like this. You see the apple and you go [emphatic series of circling lines]. Apple!
     "Now your teacher comes along, little darling that she is, he is, and says, 'No! Apples look like this!' [draws standard apple symbol] And you learn to draw a symbol of an apple.
     "You draw your house, or your mother. 'Mom has aahlaaawtt of hair. Her legs are veerry looong.' You draw what you see. And then the teacher says, 'No! Johnny. Skirts look like this! [trapezoid], and your house looks like this [triangle on top of a rectangle].' Right? And you learn to draw symbols. So now we know how to go to the ladies' room. Do you know how often I confuse that because I wear pants?
     "What this does, you see, is it interferes with the left side of your brain. It's the left side of the brain that says, 'Houses look like this [symbol], apples look like this.' Your wrong hand doesn't have that, because it's governed by the right side of your brain.
     "We have two hemispheres. The right side nobody messes with, usually, because it doesn't earn money. It's not good for paying the bills, or getting to your appointment on time. It's fabulous for listening to music, falling in love, going to museums, looking at things. And it hasn't been educated.
     "So we have names for everything, symbols. She's white. He's black. She's green. He's purple. This is money. …Names, you see, without really seeing the thing. Now, you go to your wrong hand, and you will not know how to control that, because it's being governed by a part of you that looks at trees.
     "You look at the figure like you were seeing something for the first time. You see this [student drawing] is actually going like this. In fact, this is the brachioradialus muscle. Right here. And this is the insertion of the triceps. Because you're seeing with your hand as if you didn't know it. And, really, you know an amazing amount of stuff! Nobody ever taught you that. And nobody is giving you credit for having a sixth sense.
     "I read that art is a fugitive sensation…that it got away from us. Isn't that incredible? Think about art like that. It's something that hasn’t been educated, but we feel it.
     "When I look at this drawing [student's], it makes me wonder. I don't know about you, but this looks like a backrub. It feels like, it makes me relate to the feeling of getting a backrub, to the feeling of the closed dunes at the San Gregorio State Beach, with the water etching into the softer parts. It makes me see clay. And look at this line, how it’s beautifully—see how this twists, lifts, turns, and wraps, and tells you what this body was doing. I love that! I love that every single one of you knows how to draw—to the extent that we can get rid of what we're 'supposed to do.' It's all there. We know everything! We just forgot it. This system got overlaid on us, over something instinctive that we know.
     "And, if you could trust me with this a little bit longer, this will help you to be a better physician. Because I don't want somebody who can't see, telling me what the breakdown of my blood is! And if you're going to be one, I want you to be my doctor. I want somebody who’s this visually sensitive and literate telling me what my blood cells are.. Someone who can really see. ∆

Visit the artist's website to learn more...


About the Author

Jane Rosen is an artist living in the Bay Area and a consulting editor for works & conversations.


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