Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Driving Past Dayton, Late Last Year

I pulled off Interstate 70 and drove south some miles to the United States Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. I'd been there 25 years ago, and again more recently with our boys on a trip through Ohio. A gigantic number of airplanes, from the beginning of flight through the present. I only had an hour, so I walked very briskly to the World War Two section. I also did a quick trip back to the early jets, but some huge reception was being prepared in the Korea and Vietnam galleries, among the Sabres and copters and Phantoms. A strange place to eat a chicken dinner, I imagine. I beat a path back to the 1940s.

I walked around in the space and settled on this particular array of planes, parked and suspended, dense enough to make an intriguing picture.

I worked up the pencil in 40 minutes or so, and made a diagram with the plane information for future reference (which I used to double-check the proportions on the Cessna and the color on the P-47 Thunderbolt). Shown at the bottom of this post.

Recently I posted some painted drawings from a trip to Michigan, which prompted a question from the tireless Dan Zettwoch about what the pencils look like before I start to paint. I promised to post a comparable pencil when the opportunity presented itself. The drawing below was my second Dayton drawing, dominated by a huge seaplane. This drawing is a little more hurried and less resolved than the one now covered in paint, above. But the level of information is comparable. I use the drawing to break the space and provide baseline visual data about the objects and the environment.

In answer to Dan's question, I replied

Typically I don't scan the pencils if I think I'll go back to paint, but maybe I should…I have been thinking a lot about reference and how it works, at least for me. Have come to think of photography really differently in that regard, too.

I thought that deserved some elaboration. Hence, this post.

I have been making reference photographs for years. I have gobs of them. But recent experience with onsite drawing has begun to suggest that my perceptions in that place at that time have extremely little to do with my reference photographs.

Five conclusions:

One. My grasp of emphasis and pictorial structure depend upon an active sense of spatial relations; that is, images I make onsite are fundamentally, powerfully experiential. I simplify form in accordance with my experience of visual hierarchies. Standard photography flattens hierarchies, especially spatial ones.

Two. Onsite reference photographs begin to die and decay immediately after they are made. They serve as ever-dimming reminders of an experience. The spatial perception and opportunity for visual emphasis that cause them to be made in the first place do not settle into them. On the contrary, the photographs are simply tokens. And they only work if the experience they point toward is fresh. Within two weeks, they have become worthless as sources. A necropolis of expired photographic images dominates the landscape of my computer and its drives. (Note: I am making no negative claims about the aesthetic merits of photography. I am referring to the photograph as a tool in my practice.)

Three. Reference photography that focuses on simple objects and purely two-dimensional information works perfectly well to stock a visual lexicon. But these uses are quite limited. Like looking up the proper pronunciation of a word in the dictionary.

Four. If I don't truly apprehend or understand something when I draw it onsite, no useful image can be built from it. If I fake it, either because I'm lazy or cold or tired, or because I lose focus without recognizing that fact, I'll get back home and experience befuddlement in the face of my own sketch. No reliable hierarchy can be pulled from such passages. I can either quit or develop the passage to the edge of my knowledge, and no further.

Five. I am becoming fonder and fonder of facts. Not because I want to represent them slavishly. Nor because I wish to line them up in pretty rows, or dress them up like granular little floozies. Today I am fond of facts because they possess a certain integrity which must be respected. I expect them to keep me honest. In this age of digital patter and casual opinionated blabber, I am willing—eager—to sit with facts. I drive around with a field chair in my trunk waiting--looking--for such opportunities.

This, my newfound Zen.

Below, my diagram of the drawing shown at the top of this post, on the following page. with notations about what planes are shown. Historically speaking, the most significant of them is attached to the swastika-emblazoned tailfin at the lower right: the Messerschmidt 262E, the first combat jet aircraft. It came online too late in World War Two to affect the outcome.

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