This curiosity about the “what” of things manifested itself from a young age in sketches and drawings. Tom drew the typical subjects---Indians, trains, and legendary feats, such as Custer’s Last Stand, a favorite topic…
Tom’s very first drawings were of the locomotives he observed entering the Neosho depot. “Engines,” he recalls, “were the most impressive things that came into my childhood…[T]o…see them come in, belching black smoke, with their big headlights shining and their bells ringing and their pistons clanking, give me a feeling of stupendous drama…I scrawled crude representations of them over everything.” Even as a boy Benton thought big: he composed his first mural when he was six or seven. Oak Hill had a large stairway that led from the lower hall to the second floor, and soon after the wall of the stairway had been dressed in a cream-colored wallpaper, he defaced it with a long freight train drawn in charcoal. The mural began at the foot of the stairs with a caboose and ended a the top with an engine “puffing long strings of black smoke.” The reception of this drawing, Benton explains, “was the first intimation I received of the divergency of view on the subject of mural decoration.”
I started reading Thomas Hart Benton: A Life, a new biography of the painter and muralist by Justin Wolff, the other night. I’m not far enough into it to tell you how good it is. So far it’s good enough that I’m going to keep going. But the passage above reminded me.
I used to draw like this. When I was a kid. From third grade up and on into high school. I used to draw constantly, obsessively, conscientiously, and consciously---that is, I was aware of myself as someone who could draw. It was part of my sense of who I was. My usual subjects were knights, football players, and characters from whatever book I was reading. I didn’t draw trains. I drew planes. Mainly World War II era fighters. My battle scenes were the Crusades, dogfights over London and France, and fourth and goal. But I did my share of Little Big Horns. The point is that I drew. A lot. I don’t think I ever used any walls as canvasses. But I could cover the floors with sheet after sheet of paper I’d filled with my drawings. I don't remember aspiring to be an artist. I might have thought about going to work for Marvel or DC. But I didn't draw comic books or mimic their styles. Whatever my ambitions were, I didn’t have the interest in color and composition and form that I think born artists like Benton instinctively have. I just drew because I wanted to see scenes from the stories in my head. I do remember wanting to be good and working at it. I filled sketchpads. I checked books on how to draw out of the library. I studied and I copied drawings and paintings I liked. Those were usually illustrations in books and magazines. It bothered me that I wasn't good. Grown ups told me I had talent. Some of my drawings won prizes. But I knew what I could do and, more to the point, what I couldn't. I couldn't draw hands. I couldn't draw any animals except dogs. And I couldn't draw girls.
I was not the best artist in school or even in my class. Cheryl F. was the best in our grade. In seventh grade the nuns held a school-wide art contest. As my entry, I did a colored pencil drawing of a knight entering an autumn woods. His castle was in the background. He carried his shield and brandished his sword as if he was about to confront the black knight. But he was only at the beginning of his quest. He was on foot and had no retinue. I told anyone who asked it was because he was a poor knight seeking his fortune but it was really because I couldn't draw horses and because I thought it made him look more heroic if he was setting off all alone.
I won second prize for the seventh and eighth grade.
Cheryl F. won first prize.
I was incensed. My picture was so much better! As far as I could tell there was no story in hers. Her background was vague and nearly empty. She hadn't included anything as detailed as my castle or the leaves on my trees. It was just three girls sitting on a porch. I think the girls were supposed to be Cheryl's best friends but I couldn't make out any resemblances. They didn’t look like any girls in our class. They didn’t look like anybody. Not anybody in particular. My knight looked like a hero. (Actually, he looked like one of my GI Joes. I often used them as my models.). For a while, the more I looked at our two pictures, the more I was convinced I 'd been robbed, that it was another case of the nuns favoring the girls over the boys, which we boys were convinced they did all the time. It didn't matter to me that the nuns hadn't judged the contest. Other students had. My knight had been outvoted. But I wasn't in the mood to think fairly. For a while. Then I began to see. Cheryl's painting looked like...life.
Her girls looked like they were living their lives. I’m not sure I put it that way to myself, but that’s how it was. Whatever it was they were supposed to be doing on that porch, they were doing it.
They weren't moving. The were just sitting. But people are never perfectly still. Cheryl had captured this. There was the suggestion of movement in her girls’ seeming stillness. A naturalness in their poses, in the tilts of their heads, in the way they held their arms, placed their legs. You could feel that they had moved into those positions and would move out of them.
My knight was supposed to be walking but he looked as locked in place as if his armor had rusted. He looked like he was posing.
And then there was the lack of detail.
If I’d drawn that scene---as if I would have bothered to draw something that boring---I’d have filled in the background with all kinds of stuff. Toys left on the porch by little brothers and sisters. A cat in the window. If I could have drawn a cat. Maybe a bird on the railing that the cat was watching. Except I couldn’t draw birds either. Furniture in the room behind the cat in the window. Flowers in a pot. Every petal on the flowers. Cracks in the pot. But then I realized. She had left all that stuff out deliberately.
She'd focused on what was important, on what you would have focused on if you'd come across this scene in real life.
There was too much to look at in my drawing.
Her picture wasn't just better than mine. It was much better.
I swallowed my pride.
I went up to Cheryl and congratulated her and told her, sincerely, I thought her picture was good.
Then I told her why it was good.
She didn’t look as though she wanted to hear it. Not from me, at any rate. Probably she didn’t need to hear it. She knew what she’d done.
But here’s where I went too far.
I asked her how to draw girls.
She laughed. It was, I felt, a cruel and derisive laugh. As if I’d asked her how to make a sandwich or tie my shoes.
“I just draw,” she said.
I’d have run away and found a hole to crawl into and died of humiliation, but there happened to be other kids around and it turned out they wanted to know how she did it too. Not how she drew girls, particularly. How she drew so well.
So she got out some paper and showed us.
I can’t say I learned any great lesson on the spot about draftsmanship from watching her. She used the same technique of laying out the basic shapes of her figures with circles and squares and triangles that I’d picked up from my how to draw books. Her touch looked lighter. Her pencil seemed to move more rapidly. I’m not sure what I made of either observation. When she was done, she’d produced another girl who looked pretty much like any of the girls on the porch. But again, the difference between what she’d drawn and what I’d have drawn was the suggestion of movement. The faces in my drawings had distinguishing features. The faces in hers had expressions.
That’s it. That’s the story. As much as there is one. I continued to draw. I continued to work at getting better. I did get better. Somehow, without my knowing how, the girls I drew started to look like girls. And they moved. Or looked as though they could. Faces had expression as well as distinguishing features. Male and female, the figures in my drawings became characters. Like I said, I didn’t have any ambitions to be an artist like Thomas Hart Benton, but I did think I might be one like Jules Feiffer or Garry Trudeau. I was drawing cartoons.
Then I wasn’t.
As time went by I drew less and less. Sometime after I’d left grad school I realized that it had been some time since I’d drawn anything. That realization didn’t spur me to go out and buy a new sketchpad.
Whatever satisfaction I’d been getting out of drawing or whatever psychic itch I was scratching I’d transferred to writing. I worked at describing what I used to work at drawing and I took pride and got pleasure from that. Drawing had been a way of taking notes, I think. And to tell stories I was in too much of a hurry to write down.
There are stories that can be told in a drawing, of course. Thomas Hart Benton was a storyteller, which I’m beginning to sense from Wolff’s book a lot of people thought was a weakness.
Sometimes I think about taking up drawing again.
But how would you tell this story in a drawing?
Image: Holmes and Watson Investigate, by Lance Mannion, Age 12. Courtesy of the artist.