Snow PIles and Memory Drawings

March 26, 2012


Above: Cropped portion of my 8 x 8 inch journal page where I've pasted in a sketch on gridded paper made during a recent bike ride. (I'm looking towards Lake of the Isles not Harriet.)

Readers of Roz Wound Up will know that thanks to my friend, artist Ken Avidor, I have an growing fascination with snow piles. (In fact this resulted in the creation of a zine about snow piles last winter.)

Readers also know that I love riding my bike everyday if possible. But I can't ride outside when there is snow and ice. (I know that people do, I'm not one of those people, so let's just drop it.)

Recently we've had abnormally high temperatures in Minnesota. We've also had very little snow here, that is until about 3 weeks ago when all my friends went on their spring break vacations (so that was good planning on their part since they don't like snow). Great mounds of snow were shoveled away that week and parking lots and roads were cleared. Then the high temperatures returned.

And because the roads had been ice free and cleared immediately I was able to get back on dry roads before all the snow piles were melted! 

So on March 14, when it was 52 degrees Fahrenheit I was able to bike down the Greenway and see this huge, HUGE pedestal of snow down in an open field next to the dog park at Lake of the Isles. I went by it for a couple days before I decided that I should actually stop and sketch the huge sculpture of snow. That's what I did on this date.

Then off I pedaled to the turn around point and home again. 

Not too many days later the temperatures climbed even higher—into the 80s. As you also know, I've been taking a couple classes over at the Atelier to reboot my brain. One of those classes is Memory Drawing. Don't ask me to explain it because you sort of have to be there. It is vastly interesting, the instructor Stephan Orsak is intelligent, curious, engaging, and full of enthusiasm for his topic. He also delights in assigning a myriad of homework assignments that build skills and lead to insights. I recommend this class. Actually the real reason I can't describe this class is that I have to get my homework done and don't have time!

One of the exercises Orsak now has us doing is a "daily composition" exercise from Nicolaides. How we got to this exercise is a whole other story. Let's just agree that's where we are now. To accomplish this exercise you allow your attention to be captured by something for a few seconds during the day (or you notice that your attention is attracted to something, depending on how you are in the world). You don't stare. It needs to be something live, that's moving (I include clouds in my definition of live). You only look at it briefly. Most of my daily compositions have come from something I've seen for less than 3 seconds.

Then at the end of the day you draw that scene in a quick gesture sketch taking into account the value pattern (light and dark) and other compositional elements which first attracted your attention to this scene in the first place.

The idea is not to come up with a finished drawing, but to capture the essential thing that caught your attention, and of course to focus on the value pattern and compositional elements. You very quickly discover that your mind notices a lot in a flash of attention—you just have to pause and recall it. Ultimately it's a way to build a visual vocabulary so that you know how things are, without having to have a photographic reference for instance.

As you can imagine this exercise is a nightmare for me because I only really like to sketch from life—when something is in front of me.

Also, all day long there are moments when I might take my journal out and sketch if it was just Regular Roz behaving in Regular Roz Mode. But instead, because of the homework I find that I am actually sketching less in my journal because I'm thinking "Hey, I need to save this image for tonight's assignment." (Let's face it, because of my work I'm often alone and I can go days without seeing something live in interesting lighting conditions!)

What has tended to happen is that I'll go 4 hours holding that image in my mind (not thinking about it at all), see something else, think about them both for a little bit, and then do a memory drawing sketch for the "discarded" one, save the other in my mind, and continue on. The end result is that I've got lots of little gesture/thumbnail like sketches now so my volume is going back up, but they aren't on the spot sketches, and they also aren't after a whole day's distance. (Dick always said I never did an assignment in school as it was meant to be done. Since there was that essay on a modern poet about Loudon Wainwright III and the honors English paper that was one long footnote à la Flann O'Brien, to name just two instances, I sort of have to keep my mouth shut on that one.)

120318SnowpileMemoryLeft: Daily Composition drawn from memory of the same snow pile, after some more hot days diminished it and I passed it on another bike ride. On gray Canson Mi Tientes paper (5 x 7 inches) with Staedtler Pigment Liner and a white Sharpie poster pen.

I thought you would enjoy seeing the memory drawing from a later date, after more heat, for a couple reasons.

First you get to see what happens to the snow pile, and since we're human we all love a narrative thread.

Second, and most important to me, in the intervening time from the morning when I saw the pile until when I did the drawing my mind organized the space of the composition to include the fence that was right in front of me and some depth between me and the snow pile in the field below. Also my brain arranged the receeding tree line, lake, and opposite shore in ways I couldn't quite crasp when I was standing right there looking at the larger pile on the earlier date.

Third, in comparing the two sketches it's interesting to me that when I'm rushed (a little sweaty and chilled) that I spend time getting the main item and taking a lot of notes about what I see, instead of trying to work out how to capture that whole scene. But my process is still to understand what I am seeing.

Is the second drawing a great drawing? Nope. Is it correct? Nope. But it is a fascinating document to me, showing how my mind works after it gets to mull something over for a bit. And how my brain works when I don't just jump into the thing that attracts me (such as the eye of an animal, or in the case of the first snow pile, the size of the sculptural lump of snow).

At the time of the viewing of the snow pile on that final day it was only about 18 inches tall, if that (so it is shown too large in my memory drawing), but you can also get a sense of the rate at which heavily compacted snow melts when the temperatures rise.

Will there be more snow piles to sketch this year? It's Minnesota and we've had snow-filled Aprils and snow days in May, so it's possible. These two sketches help book-end an observational experience for me.

My fingers are crossed for a clear bike path until next winter. 

  1. Reply

    Fascinating Roz. I think that I have no memory. I like you, only sketch from life and am always looking for ways to draw faster so that I can catch the person or thing that I am looking at. But maybe I will give this a try, sounds fascinating and I would love to be able to do it–maybe then I wouldn’t feel so rushed as I try to get that person’s essence before they leave. Your blog is NEVER dull, well ok, maybe once or twice :).

  2. Reply

    As to the memory drawing, yes you should give it a go. It is actually fun the more you do it, though I still have the same push, pull with my desire to sit and sketch for a longer period of time.

    The ultimate goal of this type of practice is to be able to look at a subject for only a moment, turn away, and render it faithfully. While some folks acquire that skill I know I never will, and actually looking at something for me is a luxuriant act of love and interest so I don’t really want to look away. I just want to observe more closely.

    As to dull—ack, dull, eek. Say it isn’t so. Oh well. Happily I live in a universe of my own devising where my interests are so enthralling I can barely suck in the air. But thanks for reading.

    • Karen Engelbretson
    • March 26, 2012

    I really love the sketch of the melted snowpile. The composition is exciting, and the scene more so as it’s obviously fleeting. You should do a carving of this and send me a print.

    We have a painting by Jim Conaway, a landscape, oil on wood panel. Conaway paints from memory after he’s traveled somewhere. The ethereal forms come from somewhere not apparent. I never get tired of this painting.

  3. Reply

    Good post and pics, Roz. Next year, in addition to snow piles how about “wheel well ice bergs” – the dirty, icy stalactites that hang down from the hind quarters of cars and trucks?

  4. Reply

    Thank you Ken, I’ve yet to find the monster snow piles you encounter, but I do keep my eyes open.

    I love the idea of wheel well ice bergs! I’m in. Though I’m not actively hoping for snow and ice at the present moment!

  5. Reply

    Thanks Karen, I like that little pile too. My black pen was running out, however, so I don’t have any dark-darks in that composition. I’ll have to sit and try to remember some more!

    You’ll have to point out the Jim Conaway landscape the next time I’m out your way.

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