Drawing, as an art form, has had a rocky past. Most major works throughout history are either paintings or sculptures, all the way from prehistoric cave paintings and giant Buddha statues to the “Mona Lisa” and Michelangelo’s “David.” Drawing has traditionally served as—and been disregarded as—a mere preparatory tool for artists, allowing them to envision and revise their creations before executing them in their final form.
However, as one can see at the Drawing I: Visual Language exhibition now open in the Palmer Gallery, drawing is a rich art form in and of itself. The show is the first in the annual exhibition series showcasing Vassar studio art students’ work. Each of the major studio art courses—drawing, painting, sculpture, video, etc.—will host a week-long exhibit in the Gallery, running from March 28 until the end of the semester.
As the introductory class for all studio art courses at Vassar, Drawing I is the appropriate debut for this series of exhibitions. Visitors will have the chance not only to get a sense of a Vassar students’ journey up through the art departments, but also to experience artists’ explorations of different genre and media.
As Associate Professor of Art, Laura Newman, who directed the exhibit, explained, “All the more than 100 students taking Drawing I will have at least one drawing in the show.” Such breadth is crucial in gaining a broad understanding of art. Inevitably, the exhibit will reflect the diversity of students on this campus as they bring their myriad life experiences, personalities and aesthetic sensibilities to their artwork.
In addition to personal flair, the exhibitions reveal many parts of the artistic process. “Generally students choose their work, often in consultation with their professor,” Newman continued. “In my classes, I ask students to choose their favorite drawings.” Thus, visitors are seeing the cream of the crop, the pieces culled from nearly a year’s worth of work that were most satisfying to complete or that left the biggest impression on their creators.
These drawings are the culmination of the nearly yearlong Drawing I class, an exploration of various aspects of the medium as well as an introduction to the academic pursuit of art as a whole. As Drawing I student Isa Pengsagun ’19 wrote, “In the first semester we generally focused on landscapes and architecture. Now we are doing figure drawings. The media we have used include charcoal for the most part, but also graphite, ink wash and pen. Everything we’ve done has been in black and white.”
Lack of pigment certainly allows for a more focused investigation of light and composition, and these basic skills are meant to be carried on to upper-level courses. For example, Lucy Rosenthal ’19, a student in Color–a class on color theories and phenomena–described her experience: “Initially, we learned through a trial-and-error process of putting colors together to see if they changed each other or interacted with one another, but now we are gaining the skills to be able to more deliberately and confidently create these color illusions.” This type of experimentation mimics the same processes taught in Drawing I.
Pengsagun and Rosenthal touched on another point of comparison between the manipulation of drawing and color: that of mutability. It has transformed how they approach their art. According to Pengsagun, “I’ve learnt that drawing…is a much more forgiving process than I initially thought. You can ‘build up’ a drawing and revise it a lot—and sometimes the revision and erasing is exactly what gives it character.” This same process of experimentation and revision never really stops in art, especially in higher-level studio art. Rosenthal expressed, “What I’ve liked most about the course is learning to think of colors not as rigid definitions that stand on their own, but as relative concepts that vary and can be transformed.”
Drawings as shown in the exhibit essentially demonstrate how these young artists are learning to pare down the visual complexities of the world they see into more easily readable yet evocative interpretations. However, though drawing can be used as preparatory work for larger and more diverse compositions, it can definitely stand on its own. “I think that we see paintings way too often in art museums and forget about drawings,” stated Pengsagun.
The relative simplicity of drawing often allows for more powerful, expressive pieces—it truly is, as the course title suggests, a visual language.
At the exhibit, one can find gauzy, watercolor-tone faceless nudes, as well as striking studies of a variety of body types. There are also many captivating portraits, including sharp-edged faces emerging from skeletal bodies and
photorealistic likenesses that play with texture, line and light. The monochromatic compositions tend toward the depressive or somber, but some more whimsical pieces—a captivating stippled interior; a mock still life of strung-up Coke bottles; two oversized, aged grotesques atop slim, Degas ballet bodies—shake up the mood of the show.
“I like the challenge of having to think of drawing in a new way,” Pengsagun summed up, “to appreciate it as a finished product rather than using it solely as an outline for a painting or something bigger. I feel that the course has freed me and let me be more experimental with drawing.”
For students of art or of any discipline, the Drawing I showcase reveals how art so strikingly reflects both our common humanity and our individual panache.