Tuesday, August 29, 2006


The drawing instructor with whom I have been studying for some time is Max Ranft. Max is a great instructor and a true Chicago character. And he draws well. In fact, he draws astonishingly well. When you see a good drawing--a really good figure drawing, I mean--there is a quality to it that tends to break your heart. I don't know what it is, or why or how it gets there, but it is there, in bigger or smaller ways, in all good drawings. Max has that in his.

Though an accomplished draftsman, Max is chiefly a painter. You can see some of Max's paintings on his web site.

They put me in mind of some of those old New England painters, like Anthony Thieme or William Lester Stevens, partly because of the choice of subject, but also because, like the works of those painters, while they are filled with care for and joy in their subjects, they are robust and masculine. Max has painted outside and in his studio for many years, and he has literally stacks of paintings at home. But however much you may enjoy his paintings (and there is a lot to enjoy; be sure to see his web site), there is a side to Max that you won't properly apprehend until you take his drawing class.

Every Tuesday night from 6:30 to 9:30, Max conducts class in the smaller studio at the Palette and Chisel on Dearborn Street. There are usually around 12 to 15 students, though the record number is 21; each session lasts ten weeks. His students come from everywhere in Chicago--some young, some old, some good artists, many beginners, some intermediates. They quickly form a bond; sometimes the students bring bottles of wine or cookies to share with one another, and on special occasions Max brings in a foccacia from an Italian bakery he knows. But the class is no social hour. It is a serious--lightly undertaken but serious--business. Max and his students are devoted to drawing.

For example, September 11, 2001, was a Tuesday. At 6:30 that evening, we met in drawing class and drew from the model. What else were we to do? We couldn't, that evening, tend the wounded or avenge the dead. Drawing was more help at that point than television. Max's class is not cancelled for snow or rain or summer heat, although the Palette and Chisel is not air-conditioned and in the summer months it becomes sweltering in that second-floor studio. We sweat it out, fans whirring away around the room, and when the drawing begins, we forget the heat. On the break, we might grouse about the heat, but when it's time to draw there are no complaints. For the first time in some years, Max recently missed a string of classes; he had knee surgery and was unable to get up the stairs to the classroom. Max is back to teaching his class this September. His students have missed him.

Max starts the class by having the model do a half an hour of quick poses, beginning with very fast gestures--perhaps 15 seconds long--and working up to five minute poses. Every half an hour there is a break, and after the first break the long pose begins. The long pose is held for the rest of the evening, that is, until 9:30 p.m. During class, Max makes his way from one drawing horse to another, taking each student's place in turn to review his or her drawing. Max is not reticent about naming the faults his students have made. You will hear Max say, "the head is too big," or "you got her too wide," or "her legs look like fence-posts," or sometimes, almost with a hint of wounded resignation, "those fingers look like a package of hot dogs." Hands, of course, are deucedly difficult to draw, but to have your effort likened to a pack of hot dogs . . . .

For some, this is a medicine too strong; they prefer not to have their drawings discussed within earshot of the others--unless it is to praise them. These students tend to drop away from Max's class after two or three weeks. For the rest of us, however, as we beaver away at our drawing boards, there is much to learn in hearing Max review our fellows' work. As we work, each at his own board, each occupied with his own set of problems, half-listening to Max at another drawing board, we overhear things that apply equally well to our drawings. At times we are resistant to learning, aren't we?--no matter how earnestly we desire to improve. Learning can seem like beads of water on dusty ground--slow to absorb. It takes sheer repetition sometimes.

Then the moment comes when it is your turn to have Max look at your drawing. "Well, it got away from you, didn't it?" he'll say, little reckoning how proud you were of your effort, how you had been swelling up over that nice turn of the leg, say, you thought you had captured. Your spirits fall. With a series of quick, half-conscious measurements, Max has doped out the pose and analysed the problem, showing you what went wrong. "There's more of a lean to the pose. You didn't get the lean," or "you got her seat too low, that's what is throwing you off." And he will wipe down your drawing with the heel of his hand, take up a hunk of charcoal, and draw. Often Max draws to the side of your figure, demonstrating the correct approach in comparison. Many of my drawings bear his small demos, of a foot, a leg, a head--often the head--and I like those ones for the marks he left.

I don't mean to say that Max's comments are all negative. Far from it. He is very encouraging. "I can see you're getting it," he will say, or "you are taking a step up," or "I like the way you got the action." And what makes Max's encouragement so heartening is that you know it factors in the true premise of art, the true premise of learning, indeed of the world: that all good things, like art, are difficult; they will take a long time to learn to do well. One must throw oneself into it, grapple with it, work at it for a lifetime, and pray the gods will smile on you--all with no guarantee. Max often says, "You need to sweat blood on your drawing;" one can only say that he is right. This is true encouragement, since it is not cheap. Cheap encouragement, facile encouragement, praise without foundation--this is worse than none, since it is a lie. And no such lie ever advanced good work.

For about five years I have been in Max's class. I've been submitting my drawings to him for review each week and listening to him go around the room reviewing others' drawings, and some of his sayings have become rooted in my memory:

"Draw the whole of the figure first, leave the smaller parts for later."

"Don't worry about getting the eyelashes and toenails. Get the big thing right."

"Who cares if you don't finish it?"

"Start another one."

"Draw lightly, and then when you have it all worked out, then you can make the lines darker. I like to sneak up on it."

"The really good artists have it all figured out before they even draw--so why don't you, who are not as good as they are, go lightly at first?"

"Make a figure drawing as big as you can, use all of the paper--remember, this is a life class."

"Learn to work to the size of what you are drawing on; that way, later, you can control the drawing or painting, and it won't control you."

"Leave the head for last, don't worry about the head."

"Don't draw the head first and then draw the figure; you might as well draw the ear first and try to make everything follow from that."

"Drawing is difficult, but you will get better."

"I know it's not easy, but if it was easy, anybody could do it, and where would be the challenge in that?"

"It's good to work from memory."

"Get the action, whatever you do get the action."

"Measure, measure; at first you should be able to prove everything you draw, with measurement."

"Feel it, stare at the pose for a long time before you draw; I used to sometimes just sit and stare and the figure without drawing for a long time, because I wanted to understand the pose."

"Use a mirror sometimes; you can see your mistakes in a mirror; we used to carry compacts and look over our shoulders into the compact mirrors at our drawings."

"My old teacher used to say, your ten-thousandth head will be better."

"My old teacher used to say, you improve by the square mile."

"Never draw without the model."

"Look at the model--don't be afraid, just look. The trick is to see what you are looking at."

"Think in terms of charcoal."

"You've been cheating--you've been practicing."

"You should feel gravity pulling on that figure."

"May I draw on your paper or were you going to sell that one?"
After studying with Max for these years, struggling to put these ideas into practice and sweating much blood, I have begun to learn a lesson that goes far beyond drawing. I only pray that someday the fingers I draw won't look like sausages.


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