Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Drawing and Sketching Others’ Work - Connections

Drawing and Sketching Others’ Work - Connections
Correspondent: Beverly Choltco-Devlin

Please forgive the length of the preface of this post regarding the work of several great artists.  A connection to urban sketching and our recent outing to the Tacoma Art Museum follows, I promise.  

One of the most compelling exhibits I have ever experienced was the monumental showing of the works of Domenikos Theotokopoulos, otherwise known as “El Greco ,” in October 2003 at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. This had been the first showing of a number of his his works in the US in over 20 years. I was in awe of the massive and dark nature of the work.   

But those paintings are not what resonated most with me. In one of the galleries that comprised part of the exhibit, I was struck by several amazing sketches by the abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock that had been inspired by El Greco.  

We all know Pollock for his paint-splattered paintings that have been denigrated by many as being “not really art” or accompanied by comments such as “my cat could do that.” With the guidance of my high school art teacher, I never felt these things about Pollock. His work has intrigued me and helped me understand the expressive nature of art. 

What I did not know or learn until this exhibit was how heavily influenced he was by the 16th century artist’s work. Because Pollock was poor, most of his education came from looking at black and white illustrations of El Greco’s work in books. Here is a link to information about that exhibit.  To the right is an image of El Greco's famous work "The Annunciation."

I also learned in my subsequent studies that Pollock was taught in his early years by Thomas Hart Benton whose works are also represented in the Tacoma Art Museum.  The piece to the left, "Still Life, 1952"  is currently on exhibit in the TAM's People's Choice Award gallery and it struck me that in this work Benton is also evoking the vertical sinuous structure so prevalent in El Greco. If you compare the two works, you can see the connections and influence in color, in flow, in key. I am sure the comparison has been noted elsewhere, but, I am excited to say, I made this discovery on my own. 

I don’t have permission to post images of Pollock’s sketches and paintings, but I encourage you to do the following Google Image Search (type everything in all at once):  “Jackson Pollock” “El Greco” “Thomas Hart Benton.”  You will be amazed…and inspired.  

What, you may ask, does this have to do with Urban Sketching and our visit to the Tacoma Art Museum?

I was eager to attend this session, but for an odd reason.  I have always had a sense of discomfort in sketching and drawing other people’s artwork (and even others’ crafts or creative decorative objects representing those in real life). I hadn’t, up until this point, ever thought about why except to think that somehow when I am sketching another’s vision or creative expression, I am once removed from being creative myself. So I set out to discover if I could learn more about my thinking. 

I sat on my stool and began sketching a bronze sculpture by Harry Jackson of Chief Washakie upon his horse.  In the manner of urban sketching, I worked quickly (in pencil as required by the museum) and got the basic outline of the sculpture down along with vague intimations of the 3 canvases hanging on the wall behind it. As often happens when I sketch other people’s work, I tend to create a cartoon-like sketch, somehow, in my head feeling that I am not able to capture the artist’s experience. 

I then turned on my stool and began to sketch the gallery where Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting “Pinions with Cedar” hung flanked three other paintings and in the foreground a magnificent bronze of a bear in a glass case. I had visited this painting by one of my favorite painters several times and O’Keeffe’s work and life has been a huge influence on my own. 

Sitting in awe in a room of work touched by the hands of some of the greatest painters ever to hold a brush or sculpt a form, I, surprisingly, became focused on the bear, and the perspective of the glass case, and the shadows under the frames. While I was sketching I remembered Pollock and El Greco and remembered that Thomas Hart Benton’s work was not far away from me in that gallery. Again, my sketch was little more than a contour.

Suddenly it occurred to me that I wasn’t even trying to learn how to draw or to become a better artist by copying the works in the traditional atelier style, but rather to evoke them in my shorthand way as a method to document the experience and my thoughts on the importance of other’s art in my life and even in theirs. I used the experience to learn something about myself.  

I thought a LOT about art and sketching this past Wednesday.  I thought about Georgia O’Keeffe and Jackson Pollock and Thomas Hart Benton and El Greco. Usually when I embark on an urban sketching outing,  I zone out in a meditative way and don’t think about much of anything except getting the perspective in some semblance of order and articulating the line. But on Wednesday, the connections started percolating in my mind.  El Greco to Benton, to Pollock with a little O'Keeffe thrown in on the side. And then, to be honest, to me.

On this outing, I learned that urban sketching helps us to make connections in our minds and hearts about art; what art means to us and how those who inspire us can change how we experience and create. We can never faithfully recreate another’s vision but we can express our experience in their presence. We can be inspired by them as Jackson Pollock and Thomas Hart Benton were. We can appreciate that we live in the City of Tacoma where we are fortunate to exist in a geographical space where we can spend time in the presence of great art and not have to rely on black and white illustrations in an old book as Pollock did. 

I also reflected that I wish that I had been an urban sketcher back in 2003 at that eye-opening exhibit to document the impact it had on my life. I know now that doing so would have enriched that experience even more than it did.  But we move forward and grow. I know our outing this past Wednesday will be remembered as one of those points of awe and discovery in my life. While my sketches are simple, I am oddly happy with them in their incomplete state. My discomfort has fallen away. THIS is what urban sketching can help us do. 


  1. What a powerful experience you shared, Bev. Thank you for this beautiful article!
    When we have our show, I hope you will make a copy to frame and post among our many sketches!

  2. Very insightful post, Beverly! I've experienced the same discomfort sketching art works, but you've given me a new perspective. I'll be thinking about your post the next time I visit a museum.