Onsite Drawing and the Uses of Photography 1

This post captures a sliver of time when I was working through my then-new turn to reportage work. It was posted six years ago, in January of 2009, and titled Driving Past Dayton, Late Last Year. 

I pulled off Interstate 70 and drove south some miles to the United States Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. I'd been there 25 years ago, and again more recently with our boys on a trip through Ohio. A gigantic number of airplanes, from the beginning of flight through the present. I only had an hour, so I walked very briskly to the World War Two section. I also did a quick trip back to the early jets, but some huge reception was being prepared in the Korea and Vietnam galleries, among the Sabres and copters and Phantoms. A strange place to eat a chicken dinner, I imagine. I beat a path back to the 1940s.

I walked around in the space and settled on this particular array of planes, parked and suspended, dense enough to make an intriguing picture.

I worked up the pencil in 40 minutes or so, and made a diagram with the plane information for future reference, which I used to double-check the proportions on the Cessna and the color on the P-47 Thunderbolt. [NOTE: I did not make any reference photographs, a fact which surprised me when I went back to check in 2015.]

At right, the diagram in question, scrawled on the following page. Historically speaking, the most significant of them is attached to the swastika-emblazoned tailfin at the lower right: the Messerschmidt 262E, the first combat jet aircraft. It came online too late in World War Two to affect the outcome.

Recently I posted some painted drawings from a trip to Michigan, which prompted a question from the tireless Dan Zettwoch about what the pencils look like before I start to paint. I promised to post a comparable pencil when the opportunity presented itself. I made the horizontal pencil drawing after the first image Dayton image; the view was dominated by a huge seaplane. This drawing is a little more hurried and less resolved than the one now covered in paint, above. But the level of information is comparable. I use the drawing to break the space and provide baseline visual data about the objects and the environment.

In answer to Dan's question, I replied

Typically I don't scan the pencils if I think I'll go back to paint, but maybe I should…I have been thinking a lot about reference and how it works, at least for me. Have come to think of photography really differently in that regard, too.

I thought that deserved some elaboration. Hence, this post.

I have been making reference photographs for years. I have gobs of them. But recent experience with onsite drawing has begun to suggest that my perceptions in that place at that time have extremely little to do with my reference photographs.

Five working conclusions:

One. My grasp of emphasis and pictorial structure depend upon an active sense of spatial relations; that is, images I make onsite are fundamentally, powerfully experiential. I simplify form in accordance with my experience of visual hierarchies. Standard photography flattens hierarchies, especially spatial ones.

Two. Onsite reference photographs begin to die and decay immediately after they are made. That is, they have a half-life. Such images serve as ever-dimming reminders of an experience. The spatial perception and opportunity for visual emphasis that cause them to be made in the first place do not settle into them. On the contrary, the photographs are simply tokens. And they only work if the experience they point toward is fresh. Within two weeks, they have become worthless as sources. A necropolis of expired photographic images dominates the landscape of my computer and its drives. (Note: I am making no negative claims about the aesthetic merits of photography. I am referring to the photograph as a tool in my practice.)

Three. Reference photography that focuses on simple objects and purely two-dimensional information works perfectly well to stock a visual lexicon. But these uses are quite limited. Like looking up the proper pronunciation of a word in the dictionary.

Four. If I don't truly apprehend or understand something when I draw it onsite, no useful image can be built from it. If I fake it, either because I'm lazy or cold or tired, or because I lose focus without recognizing that fact, I'll get back home and experience befuddlement in the face of my own sketch. No reliable hierarchy can be pulled from such passages. I can either quit or develop the passage to the edge of my knowledge, and no further.

Five. I am becoming fonder and fonder of facts. Not because I want to represent them slavishly. Nor because I wish to line them up in pretty rows, or dress them up like granular little floozies. Today I am fond of facts because they possess a certain integrity which must be respected. I expect them to keep me honest. In this age of digital patter and casual opinionated blabber, I am willing—eager—to sit with facts. I drive around with a field chair in my trunk waiting--looking--for such opportunities.

This, my newfound Zen.

FINALLY: writing in January 2015, I've drawn in that site since. I drove past the place again in 2010 and stopped to make drawings of the Korean War galleries, in which some banquet was being readied. Air Force trophies celebrating something or other were to be handed out–it looked and felt quite corporate, except for the band rehearsing patriotic songs. It has occurred to me that I find the place interesting because it preserves in mechanical amber the Good War and Triumphant Good Guys myth that dominated the postwar period. I think I am working my way toward a Spartan Holidayissue (No. 4? 5?) that explores such territory, embedded in memoir. Might take two issues. 

As I have continued to work in this way, I've adapted my approach. Now I use such drawings as raw material for images that operate beyond the painted sketchbook. They still start as pencils, but now I tend to approach the painting process more in the spirit of inking. The drawing of the Thunderjet was executed in black gouache (my "ink" of choice) and corrected in white. The color was added digitally–although I tried a version where I made a secondary painting and scanned it to go behind the key drawing, but it turned out muddy. This was in fact a transitional piece, because it was during this period in 2010 that I worked out the "rules" for what became the
Spartan Holiday working method. 

D.B. Dowd, Military Aircraft, World War II Gallery, United States Air Force Museum, Dayton, Ohio. Sketchbook painting, gouache over pencil. 2009. 

D.B. Dowd, Sketchbook Notation, pencil. 2009

D.B. Dowd, Cargo Planes, World War II Gallery, USAF Museum. Sketchbook drawing, pencil. 2009. 

D.B. Dowd, Boats in Winter Drydock, Holland, Michigan. Sketchbook drawing, gouache over pencil. 2008. This was the drawing Dan Zettwoch asked about. What did the pencil look like before I painted it? I didn't scan it beforehand.

D.B. Dowd, final spread in "Shanghai Pictorial," Spartan Holiday No. 1, 2012. The left half of the image was drawn onsite (January 2011) in the Humble Administrator's Garden, in Suzhou, China. (It was about 38 degrees outside.) The key drawing was inked later; secondary color drawn in ink, with digital supplements. The right half of the image was drawn from photo reference. It doesn't depend on a complicated spatial perception, so it was straightforward enough to execute that way. By contrast, I could not have made the left hand drawing from photo reference: it would have collapsed into a flattened mass of undifferentiated foliage. 

D.B. Dowd, 2023 Lincolnway East, Massillon, Ohio, brush drawing for autobiographical introduction in "Shanghai Pictorial," Spartan Holiday No. 1, 2012. Drawn within a week of onsite photo shoot, 2011. 

D.B. Dowd, reference photograph, 2023 Lincolnway East, Massillon, Ohio. 2011. 

D.B. Dowd, Republic F84-E Thunderjet, Korean War Gallery, United States Air Force Museum, Dayton, Ohio. Brush drawing over pencil with digital color. 2010.