“What Plagues May Come” by Lauren Levato Coyne
colored pencil on Strathmore paper
30″ x 22″
Tethered Flight Mill: Three Brief Thoughts on Drawing
by Lauren Levato Coyne
Its poisonous body makes the monarch butterfly a smooth and confident flyer. Unlike another species, the defenseless cabbage white for instance who avoids predation with its erratic, seizure-like flight, the monarch so pronounces its foul and dangerous taste that it can enjoy the freedom of a comparatively straight line.
I think of drawing this way, the varied lines we make as different species; we could certainly create a taxonomy. The qualifiers are as plentiful as the reasons for their making. The first that come to mind are frenzied, careful, heavy, delicate, absent-minded, intentional, and accidental. There’s drawing to study and prepare for another kind of artwork like a painting, sculpture, or tattoo. There’s drawing to prepare for really technical pursuits such as architecture. Drawing to illustrate or instruct, drawing to tell a joke or story, drawing in the margins to pass the time in a meeting or while on the phone. Drawing as poetry, as experience, as gesture or surrogate. Many of these are my favorite types of drawings, but none of them are the type of drawing I do which is likely why I am so enamored with them.
There’s drawing as a method of emotional record or perhaps the act of transforming memory. This is what I do. I think. I can’t be sure. Of what I am sure is that drawing is all stages for me – the preparation and the end result. This brings us to drawing to draw.
To carry forward the butterfly analogy there are stages, or instars, to drawing much like metamorphosis. And this isn’t remotely to imply something vague, magical, or trite. All I mean to suggest is that one day, after drawing for years in graphite only and making a point of using only a common No. 2 pencil to render exceedingly life-like beetles and such I suddenly found myself using a full palette of colored pencils – even markers! – to achieve an entirely new effect, presumably to depict an entirely new moment or event.
First to second instar: a period of four black and white years morphs into full color in a matter of one day. Scale remains the same for the next several years. As proof of emergence into what may be considered the third instar there is a lessening of hard edges in favor of a more painterly approach and a dramatic increase in scale.
Lines blur. The desire to be specific, exact, and correct is supplanted by an aching need to be lush, poetic, and real.
This third instar is initiated by “King Lear, Act I, Scene I” by Edwin Austin Abbey, 1898 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. At least I think it is, what may be more true is the initiation started the moment I took up with my husband, the painter Rory Coyne, and surrounded myself with some of the finest painters I know. Abbey merely finalized the thinking which, now that I’m really considering it, began in 2006 and sent me back to school to become a painter. Pencils, specifically colored pencils as the medium itself, did not occur to me until a few years after I had quit school. I left my schooling before they could ruin me with their very specific and unwavering notions about how to make a picture, but not before they taught me very imperative skills about drawing, form, and line.
Pencils fit my temperament, and I’ve only ever done what suits my temperament. As one does with persistence through many years of practice I’ve grown faster and more confident. Here’s to hoping this confidence isn’t itself a type of poison, a flight pattern too smooth.
I draw but I don’t think about drawing. I think about sculpture. And the work of a few painters. I think my drawings have more in common with the lines and colors of certain sculptures than they do with other drawings. I think about movement and how the eye is or isn’t lead around the paper which is just another form of space. I develop a drawing with space in mind so there is a solitary, confrontational moment between the subject/object and the viewer.
As of writing this essay I’ve just begun my largest drawing to date, 5’ x 3’. I can point directly to seeing the sculpture of Sean Erwin while facilitating a grant jury panel two months ago as an influential moment. I didn’t recognize it as such at the time but there’s an element of my new drawing that is undeniably two of Erwin’s pieces that my mind mashed together and reinterpreted. Even at this writing I thought it was one piece by Erwin but now upon review it’s the combination of two. It’s been about four years since I looked at the work of Petah Coyne (no relation) but when I began writing this essay I picked her catalog “Everything That Rises Must Converge” from our shelf and was struck very hard by the clear relation between her sculptures and my drawings. I looked at the work from that show every night for weeks after I saw the it at MASS MOCA and then haven’t looked at it since. The influence is strikingly evident but I would have never before listed her work as influence.
Before writing this essay I would have given a long list of influences starting with Durer for his line work, a host of the Netherlandish Primitives and modern masters such as Julie Heffernan, Steven Assael, and Vincent Desiderio.
While those artists are the very fundamentals for me I don’t think about them in the day-to-day like I once did. From working with Leslie Ferrin and her galleries through my present time as a director at the Virginia A. Groot Foundation I’ve spent the past eight years looking at, handling, installing, selling the work of, and talking with hundreds of sculptors. Of course their work has influenced my own and, perhaps expectedly, has sometimes confused me into thinking I should be sculpting. Only now I realize it’s just the way I think about my drawings – like sculptures.
In my black and white years I thought about color a lot, mostly in rejection. Such a strong rejection from me usually stems from fear and fear is often based in either too much or too little experience with a thing.
People assume I paint because I work in color, or maybe because of how I work in color. I take it as a compliment and an opportunity to point out that indeed it’s not paint but colored pencil. Though the commentators have an eye for something because I do use painterly techniques with my pencils. I learned much of what I know about color by watching Steven Assael paint for several weeks in his studio, listening to his thoughts on the entirety of making a picture, and by reading everything I could about botanical illustration. Then I translated it into my own method, if in fact I have anything resembling a methodology. Test sketches and color studies helped but mostly it’s a lot of “eh, let’s see what this color will do to this color” on the work itself. By extension I’ve also figured out how to fix things that go off the rails and when to abandon things that aren’t worth the trouble of fixing or finishing. I still approach every new drawing muttering “don’t fuck this up!” for the first week or two as I’m figuring out the shapes and the color structure. Though if you are going to fuck it up it’s better to do it sooner than later.
I was terrified of color, same as I was terrified of large scale, and of self portraits. My first attempt at a very large scale piece – it was to be wider than 6 feet, all graphite – resulted in the piece being hurled from the third story window directly into the alleyway trash heap. For several years before this, even before going back to school, every time I attempted a self portrait I became furious and full of rage.
Now, years later, I am eager to begin a life-sized self portrait. If I have anger and anxiety now it’s about all the the things that stand between me and starting this life sized piece, but not about the piece itself. This piece could turn out to be something entirely different, who knows. I won’t until I get there. My drawing “What Plagues May Come” features a leucistic ball python but it started out as a goat’s severed head. Sometimes there’s no way to tell where a thing might end up, so fear is ultimately useless. For this self-portrait and the entire series it will belong to I’m planning on employing a full palette, specifically it will be ripe with the spectrum that makes up the color we call orange.
Orange was my first color. In 2011 I had grown quiet weary of my own fear based anxieties on two of these three issues that were plaguing me at the time. I believe I thought something along the lines of “shut the fuck up and just do it already, crybaby” and so I did. Tired also of drawing straight insect portraits I decided to arrange the wings of a monarch more as a type of flower. I remember being delighted at the ways color changed color and kept layering and layering to find out what would happen next. I even used Prismacolor blending and some blue markers in layer with Staedtler 8B and other B grade pencils for the background. I expected this to be a study at best, a throwaway at worst. Instead I have a piece I’m still very happy with today.
Originally published at The WID Project on neotericArt, 2015.
Essay copyright Lauren Levato Coyne, 2015.