“Before we take to sea, we walk on land . . . Before we create we must understand.” —E. Hemingway
My father was my first art teacher.
He was a World War II veteran who, like many other young boys, put down a baseball glove, left a girlfriend and family behind, and signed up at age 17 to protect his country and save the world. When he returned home (the world now safe) he married and went to college earning his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree on the GI Bill.
As a young boy and having grown up in my father’s studio, I was in love with drawing. Born and raised in Illinois, my favorite subject was the face of Abraham Lincoln. I spent countless hours on very delicately rendered, meticulously smudged and shaded pencil portraits of our 16th president. My hero.
My father’s methods of instruction were blunt, without apology or ambiguity. He made his points clear with a grease-crayon or a piece of charcoal; drawing hard black, or red and blue lines over the top of my carefully crafted pencil drawings, correcting my proportions, adding appropriate commentary and criticism as he went.
As I looked on in horror, unable to breathe, he marked out the relationship of the eyebrows to the top of the ear, and that the bottom of the nose was in line with the ear as well. He also demonstrated that the face line didn’t change– even in a 3/4 portrait. He marked out the cheeks and the eye sockets and the distance between the eyes. I’m not sure how I responded verbally, (probably not at all) but I know that I was devastated.
“Do you see what I mean?” he asked while sketching uneraseable lines over the top of my hero’s face, a face I had spent many long concentrated hours working on.
“There’s no sense wasting all that time shading if your proportions are wrong,” he added dispassionately before walking away.
The lesson was harsh. My drawing of Lincoln was ruined. Beyond repair.
Of course he was right.
* * * *
Many years later I would begin to teach private lessons from my home studio: classes for children and adults. Even other professional artists seeking help with anatomy; the face and the figure. Later, Master Seminars for college students; beginners, amateurs, and professionals. My father’s method of teaching never left me, but my execution of those methods did. I employed what I called ‘side-sheets’ and tracing paper to correct, and on very rare occasions touched a student’s drawing– only with permission. My lines were always drawn lightly enough to erase.
My teachers after my father ranged from the Renaissance Masters to the Golden Age Illustrators and beyond. It took little time to see that all theses teachers were people too. They had interesting personalities that were shaped by their past. All with different methods and backgrounds, with different ways of showing us how. I read biographies of most of them, but never really looked into the history of perhaps the most important one of them all . . . my dad.
As I think back now, 50-plus years later, I can see that perhaps this was how his teacher in Art School might have corrected his proportions, and he was simply passing along what he thought to be good and sound instruction. I don’t doubt that Art School for him as a war veteran was a rare treat and a privilege. A few bold lines over the top of his drawing by an exuberant instructor was welcome– even laughable. I can imagine him tearing the giant sheet from the tablet on his easel, tossing it on the floor and standing upon it while beginning again with a confident smile on his handsome, charcoal-smudged face. The challenge of executing a drawing was a pleasurable challenge for this young man who was asked to grow up so quickly and to do and see things that would probably haunt him for a lifetime.
His generation was called “The Greatest Generation.” They were perhaps the last truly unashamed generation. They grew up during the country’s deepest depression, fought and survived a World War, and helped to ignite an industrial revolution. They defined a work ethic, a genuine humility, and a pride of country whose shadows we cannot, and perhaps should not, completely escape. This generation got things done. They struggled and sacrificed without complaint and set the stage for much change to come. It has taken me a long time to understand who he was and where he came from– and why.
I might have blamed my dad for killing my Lincoln at the time. At least the urge to draw him. Unfairly, I think now. I hadn’t drawn Abe Lincoln for decades until recently.
But . . . by golly, I believe my proportions are spot on!
It took me awhile. Not to get the proportions, but the truth that was in them. Even the love.
I think I got it now. At least an idea.