Here is an essay — a manifesto? — written by Frederico “Rico” Lebrun for his book Drawings, published by the University of California Press, 1961. A few copies of the book can still be found for sale on amazon.com.
The feared, respected and beloved Professor Barry Schactmann introduced his sophomore drawing students to Rico Lebrun’s work and words in the dreaded Figure Structure classes at what was once called the School of Fine Art, Washington University, St. Louis.
“On Drawing” has been my creative bible ever since, though I confess, I have failed to live up to its admonishments.
Forgive me, Rico — and Barry — for I have sinned.
O N D R A W I N G
B E G I N N I N G S
WE LEAVE the live center of the human image on the day of our birth, and are after that strangers to its meaning. One of our strongest longings is, nevertheless, to return to that center. But of all human efforts to be included in and to include the mother figure, drawing is perhaps one of the grandest and most real. First and foremost comes the identification with the freight of flesh, the weight of bone, its width and its many depths, with the mechanics of organs, with the form which is us. This hunger precedes the aesthetic act; without it the drawn image cannot live. True, wit and whim can go a long way toward imitating its surface, and we all have had our share of such effects; but they produce negligible results. Revelations are another matter entirely, and there have been very few in the world of drawing of the corporeal; outlines and manners, yes, but seldom the authentic birth cry, the exclamation of surprise of drawing coming to life.
I use a line, I suppose, as a lifeline to hang on to against the risk of being washed overboard and below into the pool of general confusion. Drawing is to me a blessed yes to many things which call me, count on me, hold me, and believe in me; it is also a weapon against many other things which could vilify and shame me if I had no means of defense. Someday when I understand many more things than I do now, the fundamentals of my drawing will be so tightly woven into those of existence that I will easily and naturally find the design which is the answer to many questions. Meanwhile I draw continuously. It is difficult for me to renounce drawing for any length of time. I work on, waiting for the fusion of self and ink which is like the nod of him who has fully understood.
D R A F T S M A N A N D S U B J E C T
TO UNDERSTAND means to look. To look. No one can say precisely what the aspects of nature mean to a man who is trying to find forms for his own vision. Sight, relentlessly in search of truth, is a taskmaster. The comforts and delights of normal views of the landscape and the figure are constantly crossed by this hunger for unfolding their meaning, for making them come to poetic surrender, to assume poetic form. In the act of drawing, the more or less acute character of this struggle is not always on a par with the forms which come to light. As a consequence of the most grandiose overtures, meaningless and vapid forms will often appear; terrible, true, impressive ones breeze in at other times, easily and without effort. These are the ones which take pity on the bruised apprentice, the artist.
Things are not at all interested in the results of our fumbling, but we can question them so they will answer. In a true dialogue between the draftsman and the unyielding object, the line in response will totter and flash across the page from one point of attack to another, reach the edge of form like an out-of-breath swimmer who has more despair than strength in his stroke. The page looks ridiculously alive and you breathe deeply, as you do after having had a hell of a scare and now it is over. If you manage to look beautiful in this position, that is a fortunate coincidence — almost not your fault.
There is a point past which the human image refuses to play ball. Its structure has a terrible lack of acquiescence toward the pun and the decorative. Puns and quips are not for my drawing. When I use them I feel as if the image were saying back to me:
Some distances between organ and interval are sacred.
Some proportion between irascible wit and devout love is to be maintained.
A nose belongs fatally where it is. Likewise the heart.
The same with the eyes, including sight and excluding fancy views.
There is a point past which nipples reduced to penpoints do not nurse,
because calligraphy, alone, is a sterile spinster.
T H E F U N D A M E N T A L S
THE FUNDAMENTALS of drawing are the fundamentals of active passion. In teaching, we neglect to sponsor passion as a discipline. The only discipline we teach is that of the deadly diagram supposedly to be fertilized later by personal experience. Later is too late.
The canonical points of structure are in us, but we have become totally inert in sensing this presence. Discipline intervenes and deals with them as if they were strangers to be captured by skillful ruses. Thus a game of stalking results rather than a dialogue with the self, which is all form.
There is a kind of rendering which is a lie, which is coming to terms with the image by dusting it with respectful attention. The live image is a tiger. To rearrange his crossed paws and roll him on his back is more like true drawing than anything I know.
Even the slightest indication must at all costs avoid vagueness. The writing must be intense and specific. The blocking in of large masses, simulating boldness, is often a promissory note which we will not be able to honor later. It is, in fact, the story of the particular which leads properly to the general. A false reading of the particular will change the entire structure. If the range of a kneecap were made of octagonal bones in equidistant arrangement from a central point, our total looks would be vastly different. Grünewald’s arms grew from the web of arterial net to the surface, yet not as anatomy, but as a river commanding the nature of the terrain. In him, the minute and the particular are the true lead to the eccentric unfolding of form, the opening of the bivalve shapes, the uncoiling of a map full of relevance.
In reality, all forms are in foreshortening, never adhering to the fiction of plane; so are all events. True drawing is a suspended state of animation, a temporary conquest of the mobile shape. Line functions as sandbanks do in a flood, according to the pressure of emergency.
Because we are numb about the facts of the world, we are timid about giving them presence even on the small field of the page. Simultaneous and resolute survey (that is, encompassing the figure from all sides at once), the only natural gesture possible in drawing, baffles us. Thus we do strange things. For instance, we who walk the earth constantly start the drawing of a standing figure at the top of the page. Why not from the ground up — or for that matter, why not from the heart out?
Foot was root.
Loin was valley.
Breasts were solstices.
Eyes, wells tearful.
Jaw, bridge suspended.
Ear, leaf carnivorous.
Guts, lace meander.
Weight was will to lower,
contested by earth horizontal.
Hair was tornado turning.
Mouth, pomegranate burning.
he sat down and made a drawing.
Gutter was sunlit urine.
Wall was mimosa in flower.
Pater detested mother.
Infant was mocking stranger.
Words were to be forgotten.
Womb to humiliate lover.
Usual was in power.
Birds were impeded messengers.
Anguish had her hair in curlers.
Teacher was deflowering pupil.
he sat down and made a drawing.
People were leaving forever.
Songs could afford no rhymer.
Gender was confused by spelling.
Meaning was treble and fearful.
General had given the signal.
Town was a burning brazier.
Infant was screaming siren.
he sat down.
E X E C U T I O N O F A F I G U R E
SHE APPEARED on the canvas with a will of her own and damn near clouted me. She was an awful cage full of crows. Decorum had flown out, and the melon-titted mantis was tear-jerked and kaput. I tried to redesign her, but she kept breaking away from any sustained gesture I could impose with the rictus of a screaming hen. I could have settled everything with a bel canto outline, but she unraveled it and tossed it off like a cobweb. I proposed some kind of mutual forbearance; I solicited her to appear. She refused in spite of the thirty years of solfeggio I have at my command. My eloquence had nothing to do with her need. She was nothing to be executed. She was executing a foolish painter. Fortunate the nursing baby who can be so at one with her without the frenzied sadness of lust.
How much more expedient to dismiss her as a subject. But if I did so, to become free, I would be an orphan, which is the most awful of free things in the world.
D R A W I N G
“MY LITTLE line takes a walk,” said Klee.
“As if mine didn’t,” said Tintoretto.
True, lines do not exist in nature; we invent them. They are poetic fiction. The line is a thing unto itself. Then why not dismiss the object and make line the main actor? Because without the impediment of experience, line can only perform capers.
You see it everywhere now — the indication, the note, the perhaps, the maybe, the drawing non-drawing, the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t; the big adventure in which line, being a widow of the dead object, takes a little walk by herself and, after a sad meeting with the plane, comes back home in excellent bloom because nothing whatever happened to her, neither rape nor love. It was when she coincided with necessity that she was leaner and more of a real bedfellow. Nowadays, pure and free, she has no dates and no bleedings. I think she can be alive again, a murderess, a calamity, a delight, anything but this fearful pretense at self-sufficiency.
I shun drawing which is too easily formulated. It does not seem fertilized enough to produce consequences, and a drawing should be a provoker of consequences. It should be, above all, not a thing of art, but a tool for understanding. I wish my drawing to get richer by consulting the tangible world. I am just beginning to see how even the most static form is bounded by profiles so constantly changing that the form itself is in movement. This inherent animation, which has nothing to do with action, offers me a chance to select and transfer to the paper those contours which most fully describe that movement and that life. When I become arbitrary in my selection, the drawing weakens; it is at this point that elegance, spontaneity, and freshness often take over and essentially destroy meaning.
The fine edge between the pertinent and the brilliant can be maintained only with the greatest effort. On the other hand, the deceptively simple means of line can lead time and again to half-truths. Seemingly the most easy of all crafts, drawing is the one which reveals most tellingly our incapacity to sustain true vision and our acquiescence to the ready-made. This baffling fact has haunted the work of even some of the greatest master draftsmen. And the nature of the task has all along been so strenuous that it is easy to see why drawing in our own time has moved violently away from the contest with the ascertainable world. Not only did it not want to repeat the results of the masters of the past (a moral resolution to be fully endorsed), but it could not find symbols of its own potent enough to equal in validity what tradition had already achieved. And in trying to find a new world of its own, the line — living into itself, disengaging itself more and more — finally achieved an ironical independence which is fine to see but not nourishing to the soul.
S C A L E
IF ANYONE had told Ahab that the tidal pool at his feet contained a microcosm of the drama of many waters and that he need go no further, he would have brushed the speaker out of the way and gone about his business, which was the meeting with that full-sized, life-sized baroque excrescence, Moby-Dick. And because I am on the side of Ahab, I would feel physically ill at ease in depicting a miniature whale — a whale you can hold in the palm of your hand, a leviathan you can hang in the parlor, surrounded by inches of green signifying the raging salt. Insane reduction; to me truly a repellent abstraction. I know that this problem of general and specific scale has its humorous side. But nature itself is humorous when it proposes the sardine beside the cetacean or the leviathan. Jonah as a draftsman describing the whale would have chosen the scale which was as vast as his predicament. This may well mean that the preference many of us have for the monumental is not a whim.
C R U C I F I X I O N
AFTER CHRIST was taken down and the Golgotha scaffold scrubbed with whitewash, someone discovered that without the irrelevant trivia of blood and pain the Cross made a composition of “significant horizontals and verticals.”
This meant nothing at all to Mary the Mother. Her sight had been made unsophisticated by experience.
To me the repetition of the symbol of the Crucifixion comes as a necessary act; I can thus make its daily immanence real and present. We try to ignore this presence; we say that it is a fable of times past. Meanwhile thousands are being destroyed by malice and terror every day.
As for art in the churches of today, look at what vapid things are condoned by the ecclesiastic mind. With few gallant exceptions, one of the most potent systems of abstract thought which ever bridged the terrestrial to the heavenly, the Christian dogma, is at the lowest ebb of the innocuous in art. Being Christian by birth and choice, I still have a hundred versions of the Calvary to do, in the shape of prayer, in all forms and colors; from the imperceptible white of first agony to the ultimate hues which transfigured the gibbet. Repetitive in design, the crosses span the terrain of all experience, repetitive as our zest to nail others with the tongue if not the hammer.
T H E M O D E L
I FIND it best to work from objects and the figure literally, then to continue in the same stride, working away from the model or object but still fresh from the contact with them. But it is not until the drawing assumes the look of a protest against the fetters of dictation from the object, and breathes a definite air of controlled deliverance, that I feel perfectly at home and totally involved. I keep telling myself that the line should finally look as if traced with a full sense of life, not traced from life. As a matter of fact I cannot think of a single master of line who does not seem to exemplify this in his work. A master’s drawing seems periodically to reach this state of a free “second wind” which affirms the total image with something over and above what he usually knows. The best moments of technique are those in which it surpasses expectations because it is fed up with them.
In executing I endeavor to complete a drawing in one single, continuous gesture. However, far from trying to be selective and impeccable, I write down forms over and over again in a sort of animated framework, never tentatively but as fully as possible. The rehearsal is conducted, so to speak, with full phrases and not single sounds.
O N W O R K I N G F R O M G O Y A
OCCASIONALLY I like to select a mentor, a master, and let him guide me through a revision of one of his paintings. When I do this I forgo for a time the option of taking on nature or my own images and I adopt the image of some other man. Periodically I need to take sustenance in this way. By either understanding or misunderstanding lyrically — which is my right to do — his basic intentions, I try to see how much I can transform what he did. I try to move into his terrain, bringing my own ammunition.
I do not believe by even the most pious stretch of conscience that this belittles my own personality. It seems to me that, as in music, to take a theme already in existence and to write meaningful variations on this theme is one of the most challenging tasks an artist can face. Not mechanically, and not as a virtuoso manifestation of daring, but because there are certain themes in paint — or words, or notes — which lend themselves to fresh reading and consequent new discoveries.
T H E C H I L D A N D T H E M A N
NO ONE at the age of six ever made drawings like the mature Raphael or Picasso of the Guernica. Guernica is to be six at fifty, which is another story.
At the age of six I could make only those magnificent passes at the paper which later, contested by existence, shrink into their proper role of unfulfilled portents. The promises of that Eden are so ample they become diffuse, they vanish. The child draftsman in an unconscious fourflusher, and when life pushes him around, he gives up. The master does not, and that is the difference. All great drawing is made by the strategy of innocence, with the ammunition of adulthood. Let us then not talk about Eden but about Purgatory made manageable by experience, which is technique.
Words are fiction, and we could let it go at that if sometimes they did not counter exactly what facts say. I am thinking of the two words “early” and “late,” often used in discussing the work of an artist. As I look at my drawings it seems quite clear that the early ones are often very late in time, a corollary to many masters’ drawings, in spite of the fact that they are not indifferent or lacking in sentiment or weight. As I have proceeded, my wish has been to make them more surprisingly new, “early,” as early as tomorrow, for me to find and to recognize them. They are more of the lost and found and of the unrehearsed kind. New, they do not quite know how to turn and place themselves. I encourage them to appear, but often they are reticent to take the proscenium of the page or the footlight. Thus I now prefer the conduct and the execution of a drawing to be precarious, slow, weighted, almost unhinged by relevance, loaded with more responsibility. Responsibility toward what? Toward themselves as images. The page can be a map for a conducted tour or a flood of the heart, and in the charts of these are, of course, the difference between the contrived and the expressed.
That sustained quality, that writing of the continuous cipher of the body, or of the rock, or of the sky, as if with a letter (someday I will have the A’s and B’s and C’s of general anatomy), is to me nowadays best when not in the character of a breeze, but more like an unequal and stubborn blast, through and around the impediments of the terrain. The terrain should not concede easily; the line should persist in its survey, with measured passion. Give and take, that’s it; as with everything else, that’s the real business.
After you have covered literally miles with a moving line you get closer to the point of execution, which either starts from your viscera to extend and deploy you as a spectacle and a composition or is not worth starting at all. Too many drawings, mine and others’ alike, are outlines and not journeys. I have done my share in destroying reams of them. Not everything we put down deserves the honor, particularly when competence makes it almost good by leaning on what we knew yesterday.
I think that in trying to have them come into this world naked and revealed I have systematically stripped the flesh from my figures — a strange resolution if you will, in graphic terms, a doing away with the impedimenta. Thus they seemed to me more consumed. They are not depicting emaciation as much as the leaner, the more permanent geography of the body. In the death drawings I am not a necrophile — I simply have a kind of solicitude for what remains, survives. At this stage the drawing is no longer carnal but Christian.
T H E S K E T C H
WHEN WE cannot really talk, we gossip. When we cannot draw, we “sketch,” hoping to bypass the difficult through brevity.
Considering the nature of the true sketch, it is remarkable that so many use it without understanding the character of the engagement. Sketching is the shorthand of the language of drawing; the language is almost universally unknown.
The sketch should be the unerring chart of a condition. It should never be used temporarily to placate vanity, which seeks to affirm itself through the delusion of promises made and promptly forgotten. Anxiety can encourage vacillation to suggest promising but untenable hints. It can lead you to shoot a round of ammunition at an imaginary target while the enemy is sitting on your rudder. It can reassure for the wrong reasons.
The precision of a real sketch is directly arrived at according to the general climate of the day. We know that the secretary of state, reports on alcohol, dope, and polio vaccine, and the trends of general hope or collective malevolence can and must intervene in the making of a sketch. Even when only the size of a thumbnail, the sketch cannot avoid submitting to these factors. Line, of course, participates to the utmost degree. But the motions of the hand must come from much further up than the elbow. Line will alter its course as it proceeds, according to what the ticker tape of these combined portents says from minute to minute. Do not use calligraphic barrel rolls in combat. They are not organic. Do not gun the engine when you don’t know what else to do.
If true to its mission or fate the sketch will be from day to day catastrophic or hopeful, stampeded or united, explosive and equivocal ( as in baroque art), or formal and adamant against calamity (as in classical art). Only one rule can be safely followed in its execution: be prepared not to do at all today what you did yesterday.
Grunewald’s Secret System, or “How to Draw at Home through Correspondence”:
The rock the belly the toad the hand
A webbed and pronged world appear
The eye can summon and disband
Through a crystal tear.
Withal, I never seem to have time enough to do what I wish. The day is never long enough, and daylight slow to come. I love black, but the best blacks with the most meaning can be done only in full light of day — noontime blacks. Dark vision demands its own clarity. I am never agitated in executing forms, but travel rather as if the terrain of the paper was land-mined. When this journey is completed, a drawing is born.