Sunday, September 12, 2010

Drawn to Lee J. Ames

Back in the early 80s, Oxford Elementary (Berkeley, CA) had a second floor library. In one of the far corners of the library was the art section. It was there that I discovered my Lee J. Ames Draw 50 books, and I have been drawn to the 741s ever since. At a very early age, Lee J. Ames' books offered me the promise of drawing realistic boats, aircraft, even spaceships, as long as I had the patience and discipline to follow the steps.

But I never read the foreward, where he explained exactly how to use the books. It was the pictures that spoke to me. Had I followed his instructions to the letter, I undoubtedly would have gotten considerably more from the books, and developed much faster as a young artist. Out of curiosity, and an unexplainable need to revisit those joyous childhood forays into drawing, I visited the chidlren's section of the main branch of the Berkeley Public Library. I almost missed the book. It was now neighbors with a sizable "How to Draw Manga" collection. But I found a copy of Draw 50 Boats, Ships, Trucks, and Trains. And, I read the foreword. After 30 years, I finally read the foreword!

In the "To the Reader" section, I found the answers to why I rarely ended up with satisfying results after attempting one of his drawings. A successful copy of one of Ames' drawings requried that the first lines be drawn lightly and accurately, even though they are shown with relatively bold lines. He also suggests a series of light erasures with each step as you build up the details and forms, and finishing the drawing with either pen and ink, or a darker lead.

I still felt a twinge of fear and anxiety as a I attempted my first step-by-step copy of an Ames in over two decades. But to my surprise, once I started, and faithfully followed the placement and proportions of his marks, I was able to complete the drawing with relative ease, and a high level of satisfaction. Part of the fun in doing these exercises is that many of them start out as incredibly ambiguous forms. Some may initially reference a hull or a truck body, but others are a little less obvious. So there is an element of discovery, much like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, where the "big picture" slowly reveals itself, along with how the parts relate to the whole.

I worked through a few of the drawings this afternoon during the BART train ride to San Francisco and found myself smiling the whole time. All the while, a nagging voice suggested that I was might be wasting my time and undermining all that I have been trained to believe about how being creative demands that I avoid these regimented kinds of studies. What if one of my colleagues at CCA caught me doing this? Or even worse, what if a student saw? And what, if anything is the value in copying these drawings. Does it even qualify as drawing in the creative sense?

It was during the Chinese calligraphy workshop I took earlier this year that I saw the value of copying great works. Ames' lines are clean and confident, and expertly describe a broad range of forms and materials. In fact, it was his drawings that first explained to me how to construct a convincing cockpit canopy, or a foreshortened aircraft wing and body. I would later incorporate these little morsels of drawing wisdom into my own spacecraft and vehicle designs. And the books promote education beyond drawing. Artists should know the names of various ships, boats, and other vehicles, in addition to begin able to draw them convincingly. By recording such a variety of examples of vehicles and machines from his time in clear drawings, Ames brings me closer to a bygone era, while at the same time challenging me to apply his method today's inventions.