When I walked into the Norton Simon Museum the other day I quickly moved to an interior bench next to these fine bronze ladies (three nymphs). I thought it might be too hot outside, so I wanted to stay inside with the air conditioning. I planned to do a sketch from this vantage point. It was my intent to look past the naked ladies and out into the back garden. I thought the view between the mixture of thighs, arms and heads would make a nice frame to the greenery outside. First, I did a quick thumbnail sketch, with the idea of rendering the exterior trees and hard scape only, but without giving the statues any real detail. This is actually a common exercise when you are first learning to draw. (I think I remember doing this “negative space” exercise in an art class in high school. However, there were no nudes to draw there. The nudes came later—when I had figure drawing classes at UCSD and UCB.) You are to focus on what’s behind an object. And if you draw what’s in the background, the outside edge of the positive space (in this case the bronze statues) should almost magically appear without really trying.
These very thoughts were running through my mind as I finished the preliminary sketch. So once I had “set” the composition, I grabbed my tablet of toned grey paper and began to draw what you see here. But of course as I got into the piece, I noticed that I had inadvertently slimmed down the thigh of one of the figures. I was so intent upon what was in between them that the “negative space” magic didn’t happen as I had hoped. Now it seemed appropriate to focus on the bronzes specifically, adding a breast or two and both back cheeks. They reminded me of the 3 graces in Botticelli’s Primavera painting that hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. (There were actually three nymphs in the sculpture I was looking at, but I sketched only the two nearest me.) The faces of my three female forms were classic and serene, just like the 3 graces in Botticelli’s painting. But my relaxed and engaged face on the facing figure seemed to invite play with the other woman. So now, my figures took on a life of there own, completely different from the sculptors original idea. In fact, as I worked more and more on their intertwined hands and fingers, I decided they were actually engaged in a kind of thumb wresting activity—funny thing for a couple naked women to do I think. That also amused me no end.
Just about the time I finished the wiggling thumbs the 30 minute “I’m done” timer went off in my head. I put everything in my backpack and moved outside to sketch something else. I walked down a favorite path, past the pond and found a beautiful spot under a tree on the lawn. Off to my right I saw a woman from one of my sketching groups. She was madly drawing and painting the pond. I pretended not to see her as I laid out my sheet of bubble wrap on the grass to sit on. We engaged in parallel painting (kind of like parallel play) for a short while. Then a man with his four small children ran up the path and the children immediately started running around the lawn next to the pond. It wasn’t very distracting at first, but then I noticed the guy sat right next to my friend and began talking to her. Pretty soon one of the museum staff came up to him to tell him that the kids were not to be running around. My friend moved quickly to stash her watercolors and paint brush, as you are not allowed to used wet art materials at the museum, only pencils and pens. The back and forth running around and museum staff warnings continued for about 15 minutes longer. It was about that time I had definitely become distracted with all the commotion and had also finished another drawing. I began packing up again. My friend seemed to get the same idea and she looked my way. I pretended to see her for the first time. We both thought it a good idea to sit at the café next to the garden and visit as the sun went down behind the trees. She had a beer and started yet another painting. We sat there, chatting about this and that, until the outside lights came on and the museum staff told us the museum was closing. What a perfect day!
It’s been a year since my mom passed away. I used to call her on the phone every Saturday. “Hey mom I just bought a new car. What do you think about that? I miss you.”