A couple weeks ago I started a project where on my lunch break, I go the Art Institute of Chicago, stand in front of an artwork, and sketch it. I set out with this project to help improve my drawing skills, but instead I’m discovering another curious result.
Sketching art is making me think.
Sketching artworks in person is improving my observation skills. Not observations like, “part of this composition is proportional to this other part of the composition,” but observations outside of the style/method of drawing itself. That is, observations of thinking. Drawing is making me think.
Drawing as thinking: example 1
For example, take the guardian lion. At first I just thought I’d draw this sculpture right at the entrance. Then I realized while drawing him, that this lion stands right at the entrance to one of the busiest galleries in the Art Institute. Hey, this lion is like the world-famous lions in front of the Art Institute! Isn’t that clever? You know the Art Institute totally did on purpose—putting the Cambodian lion at the entrance to this gallery.
A couple years ago the Art Institute planned this corridor gallery very carefully. Funny how in their 2018 blog post about the corridor gallery, they talk all about various points, but they never bring up the lion. That lion is a great way that brings this old Asian art to a relatable level. Both with familiarity, but also with how it’s connected to one of the most iconic things at the museum. This positioning should make visitors consider comparing and contrasting this Cambodian sandstone lion with the American copper lions.
I realized these things while standing in front of the lion drawing him for 30 minutes.
Sketching like writing about your art. It forces you to slow down and think about what you’re doing.
Drawing as thinking: example 2
Drawing the lion also made me realize his chest fur looks like Mr. T’s gold necklaces. (I should make another sketch that specifically outlines this point.)
Drawing as thinking: example 3
Drawing paint strokes with a pencil is fun. By the drawing the painting, you REALLY notice the strokes. Strokes matter more than the composition.
Drawing as thinking: example 4
Last week, I walked around the museum wondering what to draw. At the very end of the European Painting and Sculpture Galleries hangs the amusing monkey painting, Still Life with Monkey, Fruits, and Flowers.
Sure, why not? I’ll draw this monkey. I’m familiar with this painting. Maybe drawing it will shed new light.
The monkey is relatively small within the composition, so I thought it would be fun to make the monkey appear very large in my sketchbook.
I’m not very happy with this sketch. It doesn’t have the life and vibrancy of the monkey in the painting. I came back another day to sketch this painting again. This time I wanted to make the monkey appear very small in the painting. Make the fruit really big. In this painting, the monkey just happens to appear by this still life of fruit and sneaks a branch of grapes.
The painting isn’t about a monkey with fruit around him. The painting is about fruit with the monkey invading. Just look at the title. “Still Life with Monkey, Fruits, and Flowers”. The monkey is just one of the items listed in the still life. It’s not “Monkey with Fruits and Flowers.” The painting is “Still Life with Monkey, Fruits, and Flowers”.
By altering the scale, the meaning of the painting changes.
Hello! That makes sense, right? By sketching this painting, I realize more about who the monkey is—he is the Invader Monkey.
Right now on my lunches, I’m investigating an Egyptian tablet created in the 19th century BC. Stay tuned.