Yesterday, I went to the Brooklyn Museum, but more on that later.
While planning for our trek out to Brooklyn, my friend suggested that we bring drawing pads for a summertime sketching session. The last time I had seen her, I mentioned wanting to get better at my portrait drawing skills. As a testament to what an awesome person she is, she remembered this and we decided to head over to Prospect Park to draw after making our way through the entire Brooklyn Museum.
When I think art class, I think indoors and two-dimensional. All of my experiences with live models come from figure drawing classes which, in a very obvious way, are different any type of outdoor sketching. So moving the sketch pad into the public where anyone can become immortalized on your blank piece of paper was a powerful feeling that I hadn’t experienced before.
Where the respectable avert their gaze, artists stare. In the Renaissance, we dissected bodies in order to grasp the workings of a shoulder joint. We drew naked models at a time when women corseted themselves neck to knees. We took rooms in brothels and captured courtrooms where no cameras could go. Our sketchpads are our excuse.
With the permission to stare, as Crabapple puts it, suddenly observation takes on a whole new meaning. Even if I only drew a handful of the people who were in the park yesterday, I can remember nearly every single person who was sitting within a 20-foot radius of me. I know that the guy reading his book on the bench was wearing a white t-shirt with a khaki hat. The boy behind me had on a gray hoodie and baseball cap. Deeper into the park, there was a group of about eight, which included two men vaguely sparring with their shirts off. Not to mention the black and brown Dachshund with the stiff, yet wagging tale.
Especially in a city like Manhattan, it’s difficult to truly observe — we spend great deal of effort avoiding each other’s gazes. Having the opportunity to be with a friend and to simply stare at the diversity of people around me was invigorating and heartening. In many ways, it felt like an open-eyed meditation. You become so focused and connected to what you’re observing, there is this heightened awareness and an appreciation for what is happening around you.
I, for one, have always been intrigued by artists who set up shop in public spaces. As a child, I was known for standing transfixed in front of cartoonists and painters, mesmerized by the movement of their hands and the form developing within their medium. Little did I know, that in practicing art in public places, it wasn’t about being watched, but watching. Documenting the now with my pencil, my paper, and the sunset as my only ticking clock.
Photo of Prospect Park’s southern entrance via Wikimedia Commons