What’s making it look wrong?

At my Friday morning instructional art class held in Walpole at Rosemarie Morelli Art Studio & School, I’m finding that drawing a portrait likeness with my Winsor & Newton “Vine” soft dark grey charcoal challenging.  The portrait selected for me, “Lady Agnew”, from 1892, is one by John Singer Sargent, an American artist born in Florence, Italy, considered the leading portrait painter of his generation (1856-1925). It’s trying but with Rosemarie’s occasional “good job”, along with the other fellow adult students providing support, I soldier on.  Actually, it’s where I want to be.

I have labored over twelve or thirteen hours (so far) drawing Lady Agnew in charcoal; I would have given up several times already, and tried my hand at another portrait, thinking that it would be easier, but knowing deep down that it is an illusion, or delusion to do so.  Drawing is experiential and I’m learning how to do it by making plenty of mistakes, correcting what’s wrong, and righting it.  Over and over and over again. When necessary, Rosemarie  takes over, and I peer over her shoulder (as I’m about a foot taller than she), watching her effortlessly work the charcoal stick and color while explaining her methods to me, for me to try it, the next time. It’s all about seeing the “core values”, by studying how the light is, and removing the errant color that is really not there.  When complete, I know not when, I half-joke, that I will have to sign it as coming from the studio of Richard Morelli (instead of Halpern).

Actually, I’m finding that charcoal drawing has similarities to copywriting. Drawing is a matter of adding in color (or grey-black in charcoal drawing), and then taking it away using an eraser. I’m not rubbing away the charcoal with a pencil eraser. It’s a different more malleable, squishy eraser.  Like copywriting, which is a matter of writing ideas using language inscribed on a material surface, message clarity and legibility is achieved by removing extraneous or unnecessary words.  Also, like copywriting, artwork requires looking at the drawing, sizing it up, by finding the core value, the dark from the light.  How is this done?  I’m encouraged to squint my eyes to literally see the core value.  I’m working in charcoal with a soft dark grey shade, on Strathmore Linen 300 Series paper. This particular paper has a texture and weight that accepts charcoal particularly well, along with the eraser marks that I make. I’m drawing and shading with the charcoal and then working with the eraser in such a way that I’m kind of painting with it.

Many years ago, I worked at a loose lead binder company as a product manager, responsible for their philatelic albums and a high-end “leather” portfolio line.  There was a print paper buyer who really knew his paper. He would tear off a little corner of paper, wet it with his tongue, and quickly identify the type of paper, it’s weight, texture and manufacturer. It was a quite remarkable trait.

Back to the artwork. I finally feel I’m making some progress, as I understand on at least an intellectual level why, and how to color with charcoal (and why and how to erase) and how when it is done properly, perspective and depth is achieved in all the right places. In the case of Lady Agnew, the dark value of her left side (my right side) is shaded, and then by removing or erasing parts of the shadow, the nose and its proper shape is captured, or revealed. The nose is not drawn as in a technical drawing, or through pen & ink techniques. By comparing the Sargent  portrait with my charcoal rendering, by working with what’s wrong in my likeness, I am able to make my likeness to begin to look like the original Sargent portrait.  It just needs a little more work in fixing what’s wrong, right.

I’m finding that everything I do with charcoal seems to be an art: learning how to erase, knowing how to sharpen the charcoal stick with the blue flat sharpener, and how to position the paper tacked onto the board so as to be comfortable for my hand. It’s all learned, and it’s not something I would learn on my own alone from a book.

I started art class thinking that pen & ink was my calling. I had even drawn a number of buildings, houses and structures in pen, using techniques self-taught  from instruction books I bought over the years.  But Rosemarie suggested charcoal might be more of my interest, because it too is black and white and is used on white or cream-colors paper, so I’ve been working with charcoal.  I saw a few of her charcoals in her studio, I was amazed and I was hooked.

There’s something about the appeal of black and white. It’s definite. It’s permanent. It’s strong and bold. You can make a statement in simply black and white. That’s all you need.  When I was a little kid, I wanted a room to play in that was simply black and white. I’m not sure why. It probably had something to do with my mother’s moods and state of mind.  It was something I didn’t share it with anybody.

But last year when I retired, one of the first things I wanted to do was take an instructional art class.  I had taken some art classes in college.  We did gesture drawings of a live model, and I still remember one of my instructors, Megs Harries, yet I can’t remember the names of most of my other instructors in my other liberal arts classes.  Art spoke to me.

The other day I heard that the novelist Phillip Roth was particularly pleased with his output when on a regular work day of up to eight hours, he was able to write two pages of fiction.  I can begin to appreciate that feeling; I spent over four hours continuing to find the core values in Lady Agnew, in her forehead, in her cheeks, and her nose. She and I are becoming close companions. I’m really getting to know her quite well. I dream of her sometimes, even though she’s not really my type.



Published by Richard Halpern

Retired (but busy) after a lengthy career in business marketing, communications and research. Worked at four start-ups and one turnaround. Now volunteer doing prospect research for a climate activity and social advocacy non profit, amongst other things.

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