Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Smoking Figure

Way back in the first week that I started this blog I mentioned that I had an idea for a head and figure woodcut. It was partly influenced by a co-worker on one of my jobs, and partly by a recent New Year's Twilight Zone marathon on the SciFi (as it used to be called then) Channel.

The Twilight Zone built its reputation on science fiction and fantasy, but it was also a product of its time- the early 60's. That includes a lot of space age and cold war themes, as well as fashions and room decor. Strip away the sci fi/fantasy elements and the result is a kind of time capsule of life 50 years ago. One thing that may stand out as anachronistic to the 21st century viewer is how prevalent smoking was throughout the series. Show creator/host Rod Serling almost always had a cigarette in his hand when on screen, and cigarettes, cigars, and pipes were everywhere in the episodes, even in the mouths of doctors in hospital rooms and corridors. As creative as the TZ writers could be, even they could not imagine that smoking would not be common in the distant future.

Fifty years later, attitudes about smoking (in this country anyway) are very different. There are severe restrictions on how and where tobacco products can be advertised, and smoking is banned in almost all indoor public places and more and more outdoor public spaces. (it seems hard to believe now, but my high school cafeteria had a smoking section, a seniors only privileges) As all the current anti-smoking laws gradually took effect in the 90's, a new phenomenon became more and more common- people seen outside of restaurants, bars, stores, and offices while smoking.

Which brings me back to my print idea. One day at work I was outside and noticed one of the women from the other side of the office also outside, smoking. Instantly I knew there was a print to be made here, something that could be a nice head and figure image, as well as being documentation of life at the beginning of the 21st century. (I'm assuming that the current practice will be resolved in some other way fifty years from now) So a few days later I asked that same smoker if she'd be willing to pose for it. After a few weeks of consideration, she turned me down. Several months later it occurred to me that another co-worker (this one a professor at one of my schools) also was a regular smoker and had a look that would work. She agreed to pose for it, but various things on both our ends delayed the session, and then she changed her mind. With plenty of other projects to work on, I set the idea aside until I found another model.

What got me thinking about the project again was the reorganization of the figure drawing group in Belmar. One of our regular models is a heavy smoker, a natural for the project (my quest for authenticity requires me to use an actual smoker in the role), but she comes down from North Jersey, and generally demands a hefty travel bonus in addition to her considerable rate. On the other hand, another one of our regulars is only an occasional smoker, but she lives just minutes away from the Studio, has worked there with me before, and has availability and a need to make money. I had brought up the possibility of the pose with her a while back, and set it up last week.

Since she would be dressed this time, I decided to take advantage of the bigger space and better natural light in the building's cafeteria. She had forgotten to bring actual cigarettes, but she couldn't smoke in there anyway, so with a substitute object in hand, I took photos of her in a few dozen poses. After reviewing all the photos, I combined aspects of different poses into one, and had her set up leaning against a wall, as seen below.

The first step was a pencil sketch. I propped up a 24"x48" sheet of lauan, and began drawing. I started with the portrait head. I don't need it to look exactly like the model (it's not about her specifically), just a believable face. Then I continued down the block, drawing the rest of her until I ran out of room, somewhere near her knees.

My next step with these life sized woodcut portraits is to go over the pencils with a brush and india ink. This loosens up the lines a little and gives it some of the character of my charcoal drawings. At the end of the session, the block had reached the state seen in the photo below.

Obviously there's a long way to go here. Using the photo as a guide, I'll be adjusting some of the shading on the figure. I have to come up with a background. I'll probably base it on actual architectural structures, so I'll start looking around for inspiration. Another decision is the final size. I used the whole board, but the paper I have used in recent years for other large prints isn't big enough, so I either need to cut off part of the composition (the bottom obviously) or look into some bigger paper. The whole skirt area needs some fixing, but that will wait until I figure out the paper size question. It's entirely possible that I'll start and finish another piece before I finish this one, but at least, after more than three and a half years, I finally got the posing part of the project finished.


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