Free Art Lessons from the Masters

Portrait of a tree © 2010 Jim McMullan

Jim McMullan is one of the world’s great drawing teachers and he’s giving away free art lessons. For the past two months McMullan has been blogging a series called Line by Line for The New York Times. Line by Line begins, naturally, with his thoughts on line. There are lessons how to draw trees, still lives, tips on perspective, proportion, and even caricature. The lessons began Sept. 16th with this sentence,”Drawing, for many people, is that phantom skill they remember having in elementary school, when they drew with great relish and abandon.”  Here is a link to the first installment of McMullan’s drawing class. Grab some unlined paper and a sharp pencil and study with a master.

perspective exercise from NYT © Jim McMullan 2010

I studied with McMullan in 1985 working on my MFA in Illustration at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Besides McMullan, our other “art” teachers were Marshall Arisman and the late Robert Weaver. (Steve Heller taught the design history class, clearly an over-qualified bunch.) Marshall and the “Weave” ran rather loose studio classes. They were the two good cops, McMullan was the bad cop. If McMullan thought you were wasting his time, he let you know it.

McMullan gave us a structured assignment every week. And if our homework was lackluster, he let us know in no uncertain terms. Here was one assignment: Go hail a taxi. Get in. Go anywhere, and draw the cab driver and come back with some written information about the ride. A week later, half of the class had nothing, just blank paper and excuses. I’d gotten lucky with talkative cabby who listened to books on tape about photography. One of the empty-handed students claimed this taxi assignment was “impossible.” McMullan was steamed. He took the class out to the street and he hired a cab to stay put on the corner. Each of the unprepared students got in the cab for five minutes and sketched and asked a question or two and documented their encounter.

Another time a classmate had drawings of a ballerina on the wall for critique. There was a wavy blue line and a wavy red line in one the corner of the drawing. McMullan asked about the wavy lines.”That’s my personal style,” said the student proudly. McMullan asked, “You mean no matter what you see, what you draw, you are going to add those lines?”  “Yes,” said the student,” it’s my style.”

“That’s not style. That’s masturbation.” said McMullan. Now, we had all heard that word in health class, but in the context of an illustration critique, it was a shock. From that moment on, the student gave up his squiggly red and blue lines. He has since gone on to become a noted illustrator and teacher. It was twenty-five years ago, and I still remember that exchange. © Marshall Arisman 2010

On the other hand, Marshall Arisman’s teaching style was so laid back you’d get a crick in your neck just talking to him. One dark and stormy night only two students showed up for class. Marshall said, “The hell with this, let’s get out of here. I’ll buy you guys a drink.” Across 2nd Avenue in an urban cowboy bar, I remember thinking I’ll order whatever the Maestro orders. Then Marshall says, “Campari on the rocks.”  I asked him what is Campari?  He tells me ‘an apéritif.’ I didn’t ask the follow-up question, ‘what’s an apéritif?’ I ordered a draft beer. Marshall held forth for an hour, telling loopy stories like the one he heard from the cop who found artist Mark Rothko’s body in the bathtub. Marshall sipped his red drink as he told us “old guys, like Rothko, take the time to tape their fingers with Band-Aids before cutting their wrists with a double-edged razor blade.”

One night, many years later, I had a sense of déjà vu when I saw Marshall telling tales at the bar at the Doubletree Hotel on Broad St. in Philadelphia. I was wearing an extremely loud yellow and black rayon Hawaian shirt. Marshall said, “I want that shirt!’ I took off my shirt and gave it to him. Of course, I had to leave the bar, since I couldn’t hold my stomach in all night. Marshall Arisman took a chance letting me into the MFA illustration program at SVA. I hadn’t even finished my bachelor’s degree at the time. He also told me to go into teaching illustration, and I’ve made a life of it. I surely owed him the shirt off my back.

Many of Marshall’s hippest stories can be heard at Listening to the disembodied Arisman is no substitute for meeting the man, but his is one of the most colorful, deep blue, voices in the ether. Likewise, taking drawing lessons with McMullan via the Times’ blog is not nearly as intense as the real experience, but any interaction with these legends is worthwhile.

I’ll write about Robert Weaver another day.     -K.McCloskey

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