Notes from David Kassan Drawing demo

Up at Whidbey Island this week taking a workshop from David Kassan, put on by Carry Juriens and WIFAS - It's so amazing and wonderful to have this resource here, Carry is doing such a great job bringing these fantastic artists to the Northwest. 

Here's my notes which I wrote down this morning after I watched David in a 4.5 hour drawing demo last night..  (UPDATE:  I removed several progress shots of the drawing, out of respect for David.. he asked us not to post up pictures of his work in progress).

I went into the demo kind of not sure what to think - I figured David was a guy who just carefully rendered & rendered - and it might be a challenge to just sit and watch for a few hours.  I thought it might be a situation where I would come away thinking “well I just need to work harder”, and that wouldn’t be particularly helpful to me.   But after having been through it I feel like there are a number of very helpful and specific things I can change about my process that will be immensly beneficial.   

First, he set up the model at eye level to him - she was elevated while he was sitting, perhaps he was looking a bit up at her.   The paper he was drawing on was exaclty vertical, perpendicular to him, and exactly at eye level.   He positioned his paper exactly to the edge of the supporting board - to his left..  so that as his eye moved from model to paper, there was no interruption by any other shapes or object.

He was actually trying out a new magnetic drawing board pioneered by the husband of one of the artists in the group there - the board was magnetic and small magnets held the paper to.  The had the advantage of not having to deal with any tape - and you easily reposition the paper if needed.  Quite ingenious. The board was mounted directly to a sturdy tripod - so there was no easel (no “shelf” on which the drawing sat - which allowed for more freedom in moving his arm & had around while drawing).

The model was lit with a natural temperature artifical light almost directly from above, strong cast shadows.  The light was perhaps about 1 foot from her head. 

He was drawing on a neutral gun-metal gray colored paper - it was quite smooth but very strong card-stock quality.  He first used the pan-pastel and the pastel knife to very quickly do the block-in.   This was completed in about 20-30 seconds or so..  and then refined.  He just quickly roughed in the shape of the head, the eye line, the major shadows..  

His general process is to work all around the drawing - moving constantly, bouncing around.  He doesn’t finish progressivly from one area and work down as I’ve seen many realists do.  He is constantly moving around bringing the whole drawing up to a finished level together..

He doesn’t measure with sight sizing (holding up the pencil to measure and compare).  He uses the relative sizing method.  His eye is constantly moving around the object comparing distances, comparing position of one landmark to another.. and moving quickly to the paper.  He also doesn’t lock anything in yet.  He started off very fast, and actually I thought he generally worked very quickly and confidently..   

After the pan pastel - he took a pointed erasure tool and brought back out some light areas.  He didn’t spend very long on this.. just quickly bringing up some lights.

He the proceeded to charcoal pencils, medium weight.  He uses generals brand - and had about 15 already very sharpened dark and white charcoal pencils laid out.. I thought that was very smart - he doesn’t like to take time sharpening pencils during the model session.  He prefers to just have the tools ready to grab and switch out as he works.  He’s got a cheap but effective old-style hand-crank pencil sharpener - I must find one of these!  He bought his at a chinese dollar store near his home in Brooklyn.  His pencils had a very long tip sharpened.

He draws with a series of light hatches, sometimes getting pretty linear but then breaking up those linear elements.  

This is what takes so long - he will draw in the darks (everything with a very light & sensitive touch) - the rub down the whole drawing with a paper towel -to soften and blend things, then repeat that process again, and again, and again.. over and over.  It’s a process of constantly building up layers.  He adds the darks in, and then softens them away..  As the drawing progressed, and after he was well into the lights with the white charcoal, he was softening the drawing with a soft brush instead of the paper towel.. 

Again, small hatches mostly - following the form, crossing the form.. he initially was making mostly horizontal lines across the whole face as he went to working with the light values..  But it all gets softened and then re-applied.  This created many layers, and built up a luminosity.   He doesn’t just use the white to create the highlights, he was going for a full tonal range drawing, starting off with a neutral background at the mid-tone 5 level, then working the darks, and the lights..  He was going back and forth hatching & softening the lights and darks together.

He worked on the drawing about 3 hours, with short breaks, but was really getting into it - he was pretty happy with how it was going, so he asked the model (and everyone) if we could stay longer.  He went another hour & 1/5 or so.. and the drawing is really coming along now.  He was still hoping for more time to finish it - and we might arrange for another hour or two on the model to really complete it.   This whole process in the studio would take 15-20 hours to complete a drawing portrait like this.  

Towards the end he turned the drawing on it’s side to get a better angle on some hatching going in different directions.  It seemed like he started following the form more as he got closer to finish..  The build-up of the hatches began to almost feel like skin pores - he mentioned this as well.  He really didn’t over-soften - he talked about how that looks too plastic.  He wants to leave those linear marks there, it’s about a balance.  

Looking up very close to the drawing, I was actually amazed how loose it was.. but as you stand back about 2-3 feet, it looks very tight.  He really wasn’t super careful about his hatching - I mean he was hatching away quickly always with a light touch, but all over the place, sometimes going right across other areas that he had already drawn in..  

He went back to the eyes 3-4 times and took new passes at them, adding in a little more details each time.  At the very end (really, the very end) he dropped in small highlights to the pupils.  

He said he does often work from photos now, but he worked from life almost exclusively for seven years, so that influences heavily how he works with photos.  He’s able to bring a lot of knowledge and experience to the process.  Of course you can see so much more from life.  The photos tend to blow out the lights and darks too much. 

On a more personal note - he talked about patience.. and not being so hard on yourself.  He said he is very hard on himself - very demanding.  He said he enjoys facebook so much because he needs those likes, they are helpful affirmations to him, to counteract how hard he is on himself.   The patience part was helpful too - he described himself as lazy, and patience & diligence in working requires constant effort..

He made a personal committment to never try to please anyone else but himself with his art.  He doesn’t let anyone direct his work - he doesn’t let galleries tell him what to paint, he resists that always.  He said - just be true to yourself - do what you love to do.. the money will come (later).  But he was very supportive and encouraging to just do what is in you..   He’s been poor, he’s had struggles..  today he has a world-wide group of collectors that buy his work.  They don’t know his subjects, but they support that vision.  His last painting he sold for $80,000.   He’s very much about the model as a person - he wants to capture that model, learn about them as a person - bring that to the work...

Some favorite quotes from the evening:

“Painting (or drawing)  is a process of making lots of mistakes” - constantly correcting yourself.  Don’t get down on yourself, it’s part of the process.

“In truth, you have beauty”

“I don’t draw pretty models - I see beauty in regular people”  
That’s approximately what he said.  As he was drawing our model, he kept making comments like “Oh this is very beautiful right here”, as he would notice the way the light fell near the nose, or as light came over the brow.. very little things.

“I don’t do this for the money, I do it for the chicks!  ...It hasn’t worked yet.”  

He’s very funny.. very approachable, totally open and humble.  

Some new artists (for me) to check out (unsure about spelling on these):
Israel Hirschberg
Jose Garcia
Tony Lopez
Jarom Whitcan
Sarah McCubrie