Monday, April 21, 2014

Two Hands

If there is one thing I fear as an artist, it is facility. I fear becoming good at it. I fear that all of my work at improving my skills will result, not in an enhanced ability to observe and to express - that is, in greater wakefulness - but in the other outcome: the ability to pass-work-off, to suffer the senses and mind to deaden and slumber while the work chugs on, acceptably, with facility.

The problem of facility came to mind the other evening at Spring St., drawing Rachel’s hand. During a twenty-minute pose, she did a marvelous thing with her hand, and I decided to draw it, and I found myself thinking, “Lord, let me not be good at this.” And, happy outcome - I was not good at it. My drawing was aligned with one of the two major alternatives to facility, to the merely good at it, which have long occupied settled places in my intellectual pantheon. These alternatives sprang into clarity for me when I read (very little bits of) Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, in which he expresses something we all sense intuitively.

Introducing Da Vinci, Vasari writes:

In the normal course of events many men and women are born with various remarkable qualities and talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvelously endowed by heaven with beauty, grace, and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired, and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human art. 

And indeed, this is the very thing we sense about Da Vinci - there is a nearly uncanny perfection to his drawing. Most of the time, the uncanniness is muted because the perfection is married to an intense and lyrical compassion.

this is, incidentally, my favorite drawing in human history

And yet, the mask of compassion sometimes slips, and we remember that we are seeing a record of the gaze of an angel; and that angels have their own agendas, not entirely congruent with those of men.

Then the uncanniness returns. We see that he adopts a merciful gaze because he wishes by nature to be merciful, but that mercy is not always available under the strictures of his alien agenda. We see that should the mercy in which he cloaks and dims himself depart, we would be exposed to the awful, all-piercing light in which he sees everything: a glittering, inhuman brilliance, a light so hard that it not only illuminates but destroys. It is the light of the spirit. Matter cannot survive it.

This is what Vasari’s introduction clarified for me, and I carry in one hand this model of desirable drawing - not that one should draw well, but that one should draw perfectly. One’s hand should trace out curves that are like the song of the heavenly host. The drawing should be possessed of a shattering beauty, a categorical rightness which exists on the far side of a chasm. There is no from-here-to-there; there is only error, and Truth. This Da Vincian drawing I am always seeking exists in the realm of the Truth.

So that was the sort of drawing I managed to pull off in response to Rachel’s marvelous action with her hand.

Daniel Maidman, Rachel’s Left Hand, April 14, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan

Am I saying I drew that as well as Da Vinci would have? No. You will never, ever catch me saying I drew anything as well as Da Vinci. What I am saying is that I made the categorical leap which is the prerequisite of drawing as well as Da Vinci. I crossed the chasm, I drew better than I can draw. I cannot draw a hand this well. I shook off my limited self, and the shapes that existed in Rachel’s hand drew themselves through my own hand, and that was how that drawing came to be. Many artists report a sense of possession. I think many different demons may possess an artist. Da Vinci was possessed by the demon of right line. I have sought this demon myself, and sometimes it visits with me. For me, there is an unearthly perfection in this drawing of Rachel’s hand which makes me weep in gratitude for having had the opportunity to have it pass through me.

That is the first of the two hands I wanted to discuss with you today.

Now we turn to another passage in Vasari, without which the passage about Da Vinci can be only imperfectly understood. Vasari introduces Michelangelo thus:

Meanwhile, the benign ruler of heaven graciously … decided to send into the world an artist who would be skilled in each and every craft… Moreover, he determined to give this artist the knowledge of true moral philosophy and the gift of poetic expression, so that everyone might admire and follow him as their perfect exemplar in life, work, and behavior and in every endeavor, and he would be acclaimed as divine. … his mind and hands were destined to fashion sublime and magnificent works of art.

This description superficially resembles the encomium to Da Vinci. But a review unfolds a fundamentally different evaluation. While Vasari describes Michelangelo as heaven-sent, he describes Da Vinci as heaven itself. Da Vinci’s work “comes from God” while Michelangelo’s is fashioned by “his mind and hands.” Michelangelo represents the “perfect exemplar” of humanity, “acclaimed” as divine - while Da Vinci “transcends nature,” and is in fact divine. This distinction has consequences. Da Vinci “leaves other men far behind,” but Michelangelo inspires men to “admire and follow.” Why? Because Da Vinci is a minor divinity. His presence suppresses and scorches. Men look at his work and despair in their own. But Michelangelo is human: clearly, achingly, sweatingly human. His work is obviously human. It is the greatest work of a man, not the least work of a god. Thus it inspires those who see it: it tells them that they too could do so well.

This passage clarified something I understood intuitively about Michelangelo. Look at his work.

This drawing has always looked inspiringly and endearingly imperfect to me. The concept of light fails, as it does in most of Michelangelo’s work - he was interested in form itself, and indifferent to light. And yet the representation of the back muscles is overdone - he fails at form too. The outline shudders forward, searching for the next structure. There is altogether too much of everything. It is a human drawing, riven everywhere with ignorance, doubt, and the possibility of failure.

But it is great.

The next night, I went back to Spring St. and drew Boris, a very charming Russian model with a big head and a small muscular body. During a forty-minute pose, he too did something marvelous with his hand. I recognized it instantly as a hand pose I cannot draw. I know what I can draw and can’t draw. The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t draw the drawing I might want to draw, as with Rachel - the problem was that I couldn’t draw the observation I might want to draw. So I went ahead and tried.

Daniel Maidman, Boris’s Left Hand, April 15, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan

I fought for every inch of this drawing. Each bone of the fingers was a struggle, the structure and foreshortening of the body of the hand was a struggle. How to shape his arm was a bitch. The lighting on the fourth and fifth fingers is not different enough from that on the second and third to reflect the difference in their angles. The width of the thumb is subtly incorrect in a way I could never quite pin down. Some drawings convince because they are right; this one convinces because nothing in it is wrong enough to make it fall over.

And yet, when I finished it I recognized that I had one of my better drawings in front of me. This drawing is along the Michelangelo axis of quality. Again, you will never, ever, evereverever catch me saying I can step to Michelangelo. But you will catch me saying that what makes this drawing interesting or worthwhile is one of the things that grabs you about much of his work, that you can tell it didn’t come easy. The sweat is fossilized right into it, alongside everything that worked. The sweat undermines the things that work, or makes them tense. You can see how close the entire thing is to failure. It grunts and heaves and earns its successes. They aren’t handed out by seraphim.

When I bring up this kind of analysis in conversation with reasonably well-educated artists, they feel obliged to generate examples of each principle which are more appropriate. So let me stipulate, in constructing this system, that better examples than Da Vinci and Michelangelo for the two opposed poles could be found. For me, though, it will always be Da Vinci and Michelangelo, because I first sensed these principles in them, and first had these principles eloquently drawn out by Vasari using them as the instances.

Now, where did we start? We started with facility, with being merely good at drawing. It is something I despise and fear. I hope the two alternative means of making good drawings I’ve been discussing help to illustrate the sense in which one can seek to draw well, and yet revile facility. I want to draw with the calm and unfailing perfection of an angel, or with the straining fallibility of the best of mortals. Both kinds of creature are awake. It is the wakefulness that is important, and the mindless automatism that is the enemy.


  1. Michelangelo always inspires me more and draw a lot more passion out of me than Da Vinci. My original thoughts were that Da Vinci is too rational and accurate, based on his close observation of the nature. Michelangelo, on the other hand, was more driven by his innate motivation. This blog seems explains it well, although from a different perspective :).

  2. Michelangelo always inspires me more and draw a lot more passion out of me than Da Vinci. My original thoughts were that Da Vinci is too rational and accurate, based on his close observation of the nature. Michelangelo, on the other hand, was more driven by his innate motivation. This blog seems explains it well, although from a different perspective :).

    1. I can certainly see it that way, Jane - and thanks for reading the piece!